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Glossary & acronynms


Clicking on the letters to go straight to the section you are looking for. Terms used by the STEPS Centre are shown in bold. Italicised terms are cross-referenced to their own individual definitions.



ADB Asian Development Bank

APN Asia Pacific Network

Absolute poverty – Traditional definition of poverty associated with an absence of basic human needs, such as food, shelter, warmth and clothing. It is often associated with the concept of a poverty line. Those below this line are in absolute poverty

Actor – Sociological term for people engaging in roles or social interaction with others in the pursuit of meanings

Aid Untying – The ending of the practice of most donors to insist that aid is spent on goods and services from the donor country in favour of giving unrestricted access to those who can compete best on price, quality and service.

AIDS – Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome

Ambiguity – due to divergent understandings in bounding, characterising or prioritising different possible outcomes.

Anthropology – Academic study of all the cultures and societies within the world. Traditionally, anthropologists focused on non-Western cultures; today they can equally study cultural life in industrial and urban locations.



Basic needs poverty – Adaptation of absolute poverty associated with particularly Amartya Sen. It defines poverty in terms of the absence of common social social needs


CARICOM Caribbean Community and Common Market
CGIAR Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research
CLIMAG Climate Prediction and Agriculture (of START)
CLIVAR International Research Programme on Climate Variability and Predictability
CPWF CGIAR Challenge Programme on Water and Food

Citizenship – Belonging to, being a member of a nationality

Community – A form of social organisation that gives people a sense of belonging in some form to a larger group either geographically or as an identity.

Cultural imperialism – Term associated with Jeremy Tunstall to describe how Western (typically US) media organizations create a new kind of post-colonial empire over Third World centred on ideas.


DAC Development Assistance Committee (of the OECD)
DEFRA UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
DFID UK Department for International Development
DIVERSITAS Integrated Programme of Biodiversity Science

Debt Relief – Debt Relief may take the form of cancellation, rescheduling, refinancing or re-organisation

Determinism – The belief that one thing directly causes another. The theoretical idea that people have limited (if any) free will and that their lives are shaped by structures external to them and beyond their control

Designs – the deliberate configurings of social appraisal and institutions through which we come to understand interactions between society, technology and environment.

Discourse – Concept of Michel Foucault to illustrate how language shapes our thinking. Foucault believed there is no such thing as absolute truth, but at any one moment in time a dominant ‘way of seeing’ exists shaping our understanding. Over time this discourse may well be replaced by another

Diversity – Variety of cultural forms

Durability – the ability to sustain structure or functional value despite long term enduring change due to the evolution of the system itself.

Dynamics – the patterns of complexity, interaction (and associated pathways) observed in the behaviour over time of social, technological and environmental systems.


EEA European Environment Agency
EEZ Exclusive Economic Zone
EMBRAPA The Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation
ESF European Science Foundation
ESRC UK Economic and Social Research Council
ESSP Earth System Science Partnership (of IGBP, IHDP, WCRP & Diversitas)

Electronic colonialism – Term associated with Thomas McPhail to describe the imposition of Western cultural ideas more insidious and as dominant as the military and mercantile colonialism of the past

Empirical – When social phenomena can be measured and tested in an objective manner with the production of supporting data

Empiricism – The belief in science as the only way to understand society

Equality of opportunity – The equal ability to access the benefits of social institutions such as government and education

Ethics – The study of right and wrong. In sociology, it is essential that studies do not harm the people who participate in them. There is a code of ethics organised by the British Sociological Association which should be followed in any social research

Ethnography – This is the study of ordinary people. The term was coined by Garfinkel and an ethnographic study usually suggests that an observation has been carried out

Ethnomethodology – Interpretative theoretical perspective developed by Harold Garfinkel that argues the case that people make sense of the social world by applying commonsense reasoning


FAO Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN
FORMAS Swedish Research Council for Environment, Agricultural Sciences and Spatial Planning

Free market – The economic ideological stance of the political right that there should be minimal government intervention in any market. The inspiration for this view is often cited as Adam Smith who argued markets will efficiently allocate resources as if by an ‘invisible hand’

Functionalism – Conservative sociology perspective that dominated sociological thinking until the 1960s. It stresses the importance of the ‘functional fit’ of the institutions that make up society and the importance of socialisation of society’s norms and values in order to promote a consensus. Functionalism has much in common with the values of the New Right, but there are some major differences.


GCP Global Carbon Project
GDP Gross Domestic Product – The total value of goods and services produced within a country
GEC Global Environmental Change
GNI Gross National Income Previously known as Gross National Product, Gross National Income comprises the total value of goods and services produced within a country (i.e. its Gross Domestic Product), together with its income received from other countries (notably interest and dividends), less similar payments made to other countries

G7/G8 Group The G7 Group of major industrialised democracies comprises Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the United States. The Group of Eight (G8) includes Russia. Their Heads of Government meet annually at the G7/G8 Summit to discuss areas of global concern

Global culture – When icons and products are recognised across the world such as the olden arches of McDonalds or the Coca Cola logo. A global culture is closely related to globalisation

Globalization – Term applied to the process of increasing global interconnectedness, whereby goods and services, capital flows, workers increasingly move around the world encouraged by trade and revolutions in communications and technology

Governance – Political and institutional relationships, including those of power and knowledge


HIV Human Immunodeficiency Virus

Hegemony – Concept associated with Antonio Gramsci to explain how the upper-class maintain power through the subtle use of ideas to win the consent of subordinated groups. Ordinary people are led to believe that the prevailing existing order is somehow natural and normal.

Hermeneutics – Derived from the Greek word hermeneuein meaning ‘to interpret’, hermeneutics is the science of interpretation of texts, but is generally used as another term for the interpretive or phenomenological methodological approach

Heuristics – Heuristics are usability principles or ‘rules of thumb’, with which a product/ system should be guided from


IAHS International Association of Hydrological Sciences
IAI Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research
ICSECA International Contributions for Scientific, Educational and Cultural Activities
ICSU International Council for Science
IDF World Bank Institutional Development Fund
IDS Institute of Development Studies, UK
IDTs International Development Targets
IFAD International Fund for Agricultural Development
IFPRI International Food Policy Research Institute

Ignorance -due both to uncertainty about probabilities and ambiguity over outcomes – in other words: exposure to the possibility of surprise.

Incertitude – a general state of knowledge, which may take the form of various combinations of more specific conditions of risk, uncertainty, ambiguity or ignorance.
Industrialisation – The process of a culture or a region becoming more economically dependent on manufacturing than on farming.

Inequality- Differences in levels of access to wealth and power between social groups

Informal economy – This involves work effort but does not always lead to monetary reward or official recognition as work. This includes the ‘black economy’ and work done in the home

Informed consent – Participants in research give their permission for research to be conducted on them in full knowledge of what it is that they are agreeing to

Innovation – Response within Robert Merton’s anomic paradigm when a person accepts the goals set by society, but rejects the socially-acceptable means of achieving them.

Interpretive approach – Important theoretical approach closely associated with phenomenology and the sociological perspective of interactionism that explains social life through the interpretation of the meanings that lie behind the behaviour of individuals.

Interpretivism – A social research style that emphasises understanding how people act in relation to others around them



Keynes, John Maynard – Economist who shaped the economic policies of the ‘golden age’ of full-employment that existed in the 1950s and 1960s. In particular he advocated ‘demand management’ policies whereby governments should make-up any shortfall in spending to ensure demand equals supply at full employment level of the economy

Keynesian economics – Named after John Maynard Keynes whose economics of demand-led full-employment resulted in a period of unparalleled growth and sustained affluence through the 1950s to the end of the 1960s

Knowledge society – Term associated with Daniel Bell to refer to the importance of those who produce and control knowledge (typically professionals) in securing a position of cultural advantage for themselves in post-industrial society



MA Millennium Ecosystem Assessment

Macro-level – Term that usually applies to a grand-view such as of the whole of society or the social structure

Macro-theory – Grand theories such as functionalism or Marxism which see society as a system made up of interdependent parts

Metanarratives – Literally means ‘big stories’, but used by Jean-Francois Lyotard to refer to the Post-Enlightenment assumption that science and technology would solve society’s problems and conquer nature. Lyotard sees the grand theories of sociology (Marxism, functionalism, etc.) as metanarratives that have equally failed to deliver since there can never be objectives truths. Statements are judged, not by truth, but usefulness

Methodological – plurality The use of more than one sociological method in a single study to ensure reliability and validity


NAS National Academy of Sciences, US
NEPAD New Partnership for Africa’s Development
NERC Natural Environment Research Council
NGO Non-Governmental Organisation

Nationalism – A sense of allegiance to a single nation

Nationality – Geographical and legal identity associated with a nation state

Normative – Theories concerned with ‘what ought to be’, as opposed to ‘what is’


OECD Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. A group of 30 industrial countries promoting growth and high employment among its members, fostering international trade and contributing to global economic development.
ODI UK Overseas Development Institute


Paradigm -A theoretical model used as a tool for understanding an issue in real life. It is a pattern of thinking. Pronounced ‘paradime’

Pathways – the particular directions in which interacting social, technological and environmental systems co-evolve over time
Pluralism – A variety of different views and perspectives on society make up our culture

Polarization – Term for the division of society to extremes, such as the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer

Positivism – Scientific sociology, based on the view that only observable and measurable behaviours should be studied

Poverty dynamics – Term that explores the meanings, experiences and measurement of poverty over a period of time

Programme Aid – Financial assistance specifically to fund (i) a range of imports, or (ii) an integrated programme of support for a particular sector, or (iii) discrete elements of a recipient’s budgetary expenditure. In most cases, support is provided as part of a World Bank/International Monetary Fund co-ordinated structural adjustment programme


Qualitative – This refers to research that is concerned with meaning and emotions

Qualitative method – This involves the collection of meanings, collected from interviews, diaries, letters and observation. It is usually richer and more detailed than quantitative data, but difficult to determine how representative it is as there is a danger of subjectivity

Quantifiable – Where findings from research can be measured in statistical form

Quantitative – This refers to research concerned with numerical and statistical data

Quantitative method – This involves the collection of numerical data, collected from questionnaires and observation. Data that can be manipulated mathematically (statistically)


Radical sociology – Term associated with the view that sociology should criticise power structures in society with reference to structural inequalities such as gender, class, ethnicity, disability

Reductionism – Practice of treating everyone within a social group as having similar characteristics

Reflexivity – recognition that framings of a system are partly constituted by the observer’s own circumstances and so are conditioned by (as well as inform) intended action.

Representative sample – The extent to which a sample can be said to reflect the social characteristics of a target population

Representativeness – The extent to which a small group can be said to reflect the social characteristics of a larger group from which it is drawn

Research – Investigation to derive evidence and/or test hypotheses

Research strategy – The methodological approach to undertaking research

Resilience – the ability to sustain structure or functional value despite short term episodic shocks in the system environment or context.

Risk – when possible outcomes have been well characterised and it is also possible confidently to determine the probabilities associated with each.

Robustness – the ability to sustain structure or functional value despite long term enduring stress from system environment or changes in context.


SAC Scientific Advisory Committee
SADC Southern African Development Community
SEI Stockholm Environment Institute
SPRU SPRU Science and Technology Policy Research, University of Sussex, UK
SRI System of Rice Intensification

Smith, Adam (1723-1790) – a classical economist who praised the free market system, so efficient it acted as if by an ‘invisible hand’

Social appraisal – social processes through which knowledges are gathered and produced to inform decision making and wider institutional commitments.
Social – Broad term relating to people and their interaction and engagement with each other

Social change – Alteration of economics, norms or values of a society

Social conflict – When there are divisions and competing power struggles between groups of people

Social control – The way in which people’s behaviour is affected by the social rules of the cultures in which in they live

Social inequality -Having unequal access to rewards and power in society

Social planning – The systematic attempt to order and structure people’s lives by central and local government

Social policy – Actions by public bodies such as government, councils, etc. in response to social issues and problems

Social power – The ability and authority to control others

Society – There is no fully agreed definition of society; however, it usually refers to groups of people who live and work together or who share social mores and values

Sociology – The systematic study of society

Sociological determinism -The idea that people’s lives are shaped by structures external to them and beyond their control

Stability – the ability to sustain structure or functional value despite short term episodic shocks due to the dynamics of the system itself

Statistical model – Simplified deconstruction of real life in order to test hypotheses and theories.

Status system – An ordering of society, or a component part, centred around an accepted and clearly defined hierarchy

Structuralism – Theoretical approach that sees individuals shaped by factors external to them, that impact in a way they have little control over

Subsistence A form of living in poverty where only basic necessities are consumed

sustainability – (in general usage, with a lower case ‘s’): the general capability to maintain any unspecified feature of system structure or function over indefinite periods of time.

Sustainability – the capability of maintaining specified values of human wellbeing, social equity and environmental quality over indefinite periods of time.
(System) environment – those relevant parts of the external world which interact with a system.

(System) framing – the different ways of understanding or representing a social, technological or natural system and its relevant environment

(System) context – a term referring collectively to the totality of framings of a given system and its associated environments.

(System) property – a feature of a system or its behaviour, for instance in the face of shocks or stresses arising in its own evolution or that of its environment or context, including:

  • resilience – the ability to sustain structure or functional value despite short term episodic shocks in the system environment or context.
  • robustness – the ability to sustain structure or functional value despite long term enduring stress from system environment or changes in context.
  • durability – the ability to sustain structure or functional value despite long term enduring change due to the evolution of the system itself.
  • stability – the ability to sustain structure or functional value despite short term episodic shocks due to the dynamics of the system itself


Theory A set of ideas, offering an explanation, usually based upon reasoned evidence


UNDP United Nations Development Programme
UNEP United Nations Environment Programme
UNESCO United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
UNFCCC United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
UNU United Nations University
USAID US Agency for International Development
USNAS US National Academy of Sciences

Uncertainty – when possible outcomes have been well characterised, but there is little basis for assigning probabilities

Urban community – An area with a cohesive identity within a town or city

Urban sociology – The social study of towns and cities

Urbanism – The process of developing towns and cities

Urbanisation – Growth of towns and cities

Urbanise – To transform a rural area into towns and cities


Value – The guiding principles or beliefs which affect how people act

Value system – A broad collection of subjective ideas, such as support for the free-enterprise market system

Variable – Something in research that is subject to change


WCRP World Climate Research Programme
WHO World Health Organisation
WMO World Meteorological Organisation of the UN

World Bank – The term World Bank is commonly used to refer to the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the International Development Association. Three other agencies are also part of the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation, the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency and the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes. Together these organizations are referred to as the World Bank Group
World Trade Organisation – The World Trade Organisation exists to ensure that trade between nations flows as smoothly, predictably and freely as possible. To achieve this, the World Trade Organisation provides and regulates the legal framework which governs world trade. Decisions in the World Trade Organisation are typically taken by consensus among the 146 member countries and are ratified by members’ parliaments.