Social environment: introduction

How we behave, our relationships, our gender and ethnic group, our education and work, the conditions and communities in which we live, and how we feel about ourselves are all elements of the social environment. These elements overlap and interact with elements of the physical environment to influence our health and impact on how long we live.

Given its clear link with health, the social environment has featured heavily in health-related policy documents stretching back to the late 1990s. In current policy terms, the Scottish Government's overall 'purpose' of sustainable economic growth requires action on a range of inequalities in both health and other, related, social outcomes. Progress is monitored via the Scotland Performs website, and delivery is underpinned by seven 'purpose targets' and fifteen 'national outcomes', with progress measured by 45 national indicators covering key areas of health, justice, environment, economy, and education. A large number of these indicators are relevant to the social environment: for example in relation to educational attainment, crime, homelessness and more.

The social environment also features prominently in the government's three social policy frameworks: Achieving Our Potential, the Early Years Framework, and Equally Well 2008 (with the latter also highlighting the close links between the social environment and health inequalities). These policy frameworks recognise the clear links between early life (of which the social environment is a crucial part), cycles of poverty and poor health.

A number of components of the Scottish Government's current (2016-17) programme for government relate directly to the social environment (e.g. the focus on educational attainment).

The fact that the social environment encompasses such a large number of different overlapping topics means that there is a similarly large number of different data sets relevant to its measurement and understanding. However, there are also important features of the social environment which are very difficult to measure, especially using routine survey or administrative data: e.g. well-being, social capital and related concepts. The data presented within these web pages, therefore, are merely examples of a small number of indicators relevant to the social environment, and as such, barely scratch the surface of this important aspect of health and well-being.

Section updates:

  • The last major update of this section was completed in November 2016.
  • The next major update is due to be carried out by end November 2017.