Social Science Research Agenda

The research questions of this agenda cover a range of topics including issues of social and environmental justice, working within a broad and diverse learning ecosystem, and holistic approaches to conservation. The questions are representative of a shift in the social conversation about the role of public-serving institutions such as zoos and aquariums. Social science research that pursues understanding of the research questions will shape the future of how zoos and aquariums operate, including their engagement with communities and their potential to meet conservation missions.

View the full Social Science Research Agenda document here.

How can zoos and aquariums help build a more equitable society through critical reflection on their internal operations, culture, and communications? How can zoo and aquarium diversity, equity, access, and inclusion (DEAI) efforts support this?

This agenda was developed as a global pandemic (COVID-19) converged with a rapidly growing
social movement spurred by racial injustices (Black Lives Matter). While these crises were
not the impetus for identifying research that would enhance understanding the role of zoos
and aquariums within this context, they were emblematic of the bigger changes in the social
climate, including expectations of organizations - both for- and non-profit - and provided added
urgency and relevance for the agenda. This is where the first key research question prompts
zoos and aquariums to take stock of their operations, including work culture, communications,
and other business practices. This question is about understanding how the operations of
zoos and aquariums may be contributing to the continuation of or could be used to dismantle
certain societal norms and privileges that are now seen by many as antiquated and divisive.
This question also invites reflection on a historical legacy within the zoological/conservation
world that includes colonialism and a focus on the values of western and northern countries.
Organizational culture and its role in meeting conservation initiatives was first explored by
members of AZA’s 2018-2019 Executive Leadership Development Program to support AZA
SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction. In 2019, AZA’s Board of Directors created a one-year
Conservation Culture Task Force that created a logic model (see Appendix B for outcomes)
describing the relationship among organizational culture, conservation practices, visitor
engagement, and public perception. It is efforts like these that social science research can
inform and support moving forward. As detailed in the sub-questions, there are a number of
questions about zoo and aquarium operations, norms, and practices that can be explored.

What is the role of zoos and aquariums in communities, including in the context of striving for environmental and social justice?

The second key research question identifies the need to look not only internally at how zoos
and aquariums function from the perspective of social equity, but also externally at their
role and impact within their communities. In the years leading up to this agenda, community
engagement became a more central focus of many zoos and aquariums. However, this was
often used as a blanket term for anything a zoo or aquarium did to reach new, more diverse
audiences, or to provide increased free or reduced-cost access to the facility. This key research
question recognizes that community engagement is a collaborative process with greater
complexities and requires sharing of power, co-creation, and transparency among the zoo or
aquarium and the communities they serve both locally and globally. Embedded in this question
is also the issue of environmental justice. While a complex issue, it is an important one for
zoos and aquariums to engage with and look at the opportunity they have to bridge access
and opportunity for marginalized populations. Zoos and aquariums’ position in communities
affords them the opportunity to contribute to solutions rather than perpetuate the problem.
For example, zoos and aquariums may help in addressing ways to remove barriers to accessing
nature in ways that are safe and culturally relevant. While some zoos and aquariums have
already begun to approach such questions, many have not. Research of those zoos and
aquariums who are doing this work already could help inform and equip those who are not yet
prepared to do so.

What is the role of zoos and aquariums in contributing to social change toward conservation?

The third key research question builds on the foundation created by the first two key
research questions. The internal and external examination of the work of zoos and aquariums
culminates with the question of what they can do to influence social change in the context
of their missions. In particular, this focuses on moving beyond support for individual behavior
change and conservation action efforts to larger systemic change and long-term changes in
social norms, policies, and systems. In 2018, Greta Thunberg emerged as a new voice, the next
generation’s advocate, for confronting climate change. Her work and the attention it has drawn
symbolizes the need for societal level change to mitigate the detrimental effects of climate
change. The 2010 AZA framework for social science research also recognized the need to tackle
behavior change but reflection on the work done since then showed that these efforts largely
focused on the individual rather than the community or societal level. It has become apparent
that in addition to individual behavior change, the world needs governments, corporations,
and communities to make changes. There is a clear role here for zoos and aquariums - one that
builds on existing engagement within the community and leading by example through equitable
internal practices. The sub-questions of this key research question require zoos and aquariums
to revisit the impact they intend to make in the world and how they will do that in this context
of social change.

What is the role of zoos and aquariums in contributing to the development of a person’s intellectual, social-emotional, and physical well-being?

The fourth key research question is more aligned with the original intention of the 2010 AZA
framework for social science research. This question is about the positioning of zoos and
aquariums within an individual’s life experiences, including but not exclusive to education.
Education is at the forefront of most zoo and aquarium missions and a substantial amount of
research has already been done to understand this impact and potential of zoos and aquariums
in this area (e.g., the Why Zoos and Aquariums Matter studies consider zoos and aquariums
in the context of the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) learning ecosystem).
While much has been answered about the educational efforts of zoos and aquariums, there is
still much more to be learned, including longitudinal studies on the long term effects of learning
experiences; the role of zoos and aquariums in providing social services; possible mental and
physical health benefits of zoo and aquarium experiences; how zoos and aquariums evolve
to address the changing recognition of what constitutes a family; and how they connect with
visitors in the times of crises such as the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. The sub-questions for
this key research question use an expanded whole-person approach to learning and thriving,
bringing attention to these gaps in our understanding, as well as the need to continue
contributing to the growing literature base on intellectual, social, and emotional learning within
zoos and aquariums.

How can zoos/aquariums maximize their systemic impact on “conservation”?

The fifth and final key research question represents a holistic approach to understanding and
advancing conservation. There is now consensus within the field that conservation cannot
focus solely on the animal or biological systems. The human dimension of conservation has
grown in recent years. When AZA launched SAFE in 2015, it included public and stakeholder
engagement as a key component of the conservation action plans. More zoos and aquariums
are identifying strategies for directly engaging people in conservation as well as recognizing the
importance of community leadership to sustain conservation gains. With this comes the need
for related measures to understand what effect these strategies are having on human behavior
and subsequently on saving and protecting wildlife. In addition, zoos and aquariums are
recognizing the importance of understanding the needs and priorities of people and the impact
of potential conservation actions on people and communities. Conservation cannot be done in a
vacuum yet oftentimes efforts narrowly focus on an intervention that is specific to the animals’
needs and neglects the human component. Taking this more holistic, multi-faceted approach to
conservation is encouraging but more work needs to be done to understand its effectiveness
and identify promising practices for zoos and aquariums to adopt.

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