The Ecology, Prevention, and Risk Mitigation of Social Change

By Avon Hart-Johnson, PhD (2020)

There is no shortage of social problems in the world. Most do not occur in isolation and

are usually connected in broader contexts. Such problems can be viewed through a systems or

ecological framework. The following paper addresses how systems thinking can be integrated

into social change initiatives, including those that focus on preventing the recurrence of social

problems. This paper also includes an explanation of the importance of risk mitigation when

planning for social change.


Community experts suggest that it is far easier to prevent problems than it is to fix them

(Nelson & Prilleltensky, 2010). By the time problems have taken hold, it is likely that they have

already affected many other areas. Prevention entails taking steps to reduce or omit the onset of

problems such as adverse community health-related issues or reducing the prevalence of mental

health or human problems (e.g., social, economic, or environmental).

Prevention has its roots in public health (Nelson & Prilleltensky, 2010). The U.S.

Department of Health and Human Services (n.d.) focuses on multiple areas of prevention in

which advanced human services professional practitioners may be directly or indirectly involved:

(1) vaccines and immunizations; (2) nutrition and fitness; (3) health screenings; (4) mental health

and substance use; (5) environment; and (6) lifestyles. When advanced human services

professional practitioners consider fostering strategies for social change in these areas, it is wise

to think about how to prevent related problems and address any risk of recurrence.

Nelson and Prilleltensky (2010) indicated that prevention can be an effective strategy

even if the root cause of the problem is unclear. To illustrate, these authors use the example of

John Snow, a British doctor who traced a public health problem (Cholera) back to a single water-

well located in London, England during an 1854 epidemic. As the story goes, as many as 616

people drank from the same well and got sick and died. As a result, the town enacted

preventative strategies to stop the spread of the disease and future deaths and sickness before

having a full understanding of it.

Ecological Systems and Prevention

Human services prevention strategies should be designed in a manner that considers a

systems approach to well-being. It should be clear that prevention is not just a singular or

individualized approach. Prevention strategies should entail addressing the structural issues

associated with social problems such as policy, local and national political forces, economic

pressures, and so forth. Also, remember that focusing on solving one problem may have

downstream or cascading impacts on other areas (Stroh, 2015). Therefore, it is wise to use a

systems approach.

One way of better understanding the broader context of a problem is to ask questions

such as: “What happened? What has it been happening? Why?” Also, one might ask: “Why are

these problems occurring? How do the problems relate to much broader public concerns? Who

are the stakeholders (collaborators)? Who has the power and how does this power differential

show up in the context of the social problem? What are the root causes and how might we

prevent the problem from occurring?” Each of these questions could provide greater insights

regarding the social problem.

Many Tools and Templates for Brainstorming

In this course, you will learn about many tools and templates that can be used as a means

of critical analysis and brainstorming. Stroh (2015) uses an iceberg analogy as an annotated

framework for change agents to utilize when inquiring about the depth and breadth of social

problems (see Stroh, 2015, p. 37, Figure 3.2 The Iceberg). Bronfenbrenner’s (1992) ecological

systems framework is another tool that can be used to help better understand the

interrelationships that occur in the context of a social problem. Bronfenbrenner proposed a

framework to explain how individuals are interconnected to a broader set of systems. This

ecological framework can help us to see how an individual’s microsystem includes such

connections as family, peers, church, and educational settings. If a person experiences a problem

such as a mental health issue, they could interact with the exosystem, which may include

accessing healthcare systems, utilizing community resources, and possibly learning about free

human services through the local news or mass media. It is also possible that the broader

macrosystems affect their lives. For example, social stigma is an issue that individuals with

mental health concerns often face. National level public outreach might include introducing or

passing legislation for mental health access for affected individuals.

The ecological systems framework helps us to better understand that individuals are not

islands. They have multiple touch-points with others in their communities as a part of a greater

whole. It is then reasonable to understand that when part of the system is hurting, the greater

whole is also suffering in some way. Therefore, as you consider your social change endeavors,

remember to include a focus on systems, preventative measures, and also risk mitigation.

Risk Mitigation

Risk mitigation entails taking steps to reduce risks. Therefore, critical analysis of

problems that include assessment of risk is important. Stroh (2015) indicated that one should

anticipate and forecast these types of issues. For example, when people are sent to prison, 95%

of them will return back to their communities. However, if they do not have preventative

measures (job, family support, and required health care such as mental health services), then they

are at a risk for recidivism. Mitigating the risk might entail working with people in the entire

ecological systems framework. For example, you could elicit family support for housing

(microsystem), use community centers (exosystem) for job preparation, and ensure that the ban-

the-box legislation is properly followed (macrosystem).


Implementing social change requires careful consideration about how the problem can be

solved effectively. Problems are generally not isolated events, but rather have tenets into many

other social systems and levels of the ecological framework. It is also possible to prevent

problems by implementing strategies that reduce the risk of these problems from taking place.

However, when attempting to affect positive social change, it is wise to implement strategies that

will create sustainable and lasting social change.


Bronfenbrenner, U. (1992). Ecological systems theory. In R. Vasta (Ed.), Six theories of child

development: Revised formulations and current issues (p. 187–249). Jessica Kingsley


Nelson, G., & Prilleltensky, I. (Eds.). (2010). Community psychology: In pursuit of liberation

and well-being (2nd. ed.). Palgrave Macmillan.

Stroh, D. P. (2015). Systems thinking for social change: A practical guide to solving complex

problems, avoiding unintended consequences, and achieving lasting results. Chelsea

Green Publishing.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Prevention & wellness.