The Epistemological Challenges And Methodological Issues Of The Evaluation Of Social Impacts In A Life Cycle Perspective

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Social Life Cycle Assessment (SLCA) is the last tool developed within the Life Cycle Thinking (LCT), i.e., the conceptual framework devoted to the assessment of the impact generated during every phase of the life cycle of a product or service, from planning to disposal (cradle to grave).

Within this framework, Life Cycle Assessment (eLCA or LCA) is the first tool that reached a standardization and is dedicated to the assessment of environmental impacts, while Life Cycle Costing (LCC) is devoted to the accounting and evaluation of all costs (and economic impacts). SLCA has been developed to assess the social impacts occurring during a product’s life, but it is striving to reach a consensus about standardized impact assessment methods. Consequently, there are a great variety of methodological proposals differing in terms of procedures and social sustainability concepts underlying the studies.

The aim of our research was to explain this difficulty and track down the reasons for this diversity of approaches in the scientific and cultural heritage of the disciplines linked to SLCA, i.e., social sciences.

SLCA was developed within the engineering milieu of LCA, which assess impacts in the realm of natural sciences (also called “hard sciences”). These latter are studied through the lenses of positivism-oriented epistemologies; their typical methods (observation, empirical test of hypotheses, deductive reasoning) were for a long time considered the only ones that deserved the mention of “scientific methods.”

But the object of social sciences is relationships, actions, and perceptions, which entail a diversity of perspectives. In this case, the narrow rules of natural sciences are difficult to follow, because social phenomena are multi-layered events. This is the reason why social sciences are considered multiparadigmatic, and many epistemological positions are possible.

Paradigms in SLCA

To better understand the differences between natural and social sciences, the concept of “paradigm” is very important. According to Thomas S. Kuhn (1962), this term indicates the set of theoretical beliefs and methodological techniques consensually shared by a scientific community during a period of “normal science.”

A paradigm consists of three elements (Tab.1): ontology, epistemology, and methodology, which together guide the design, planning, and implementation of the research. Many paradigms exist in social sciences, with very different research processes, objectives, and insights.

Positivism-orientedInterpretivism-oriented
Ontology: the relationship with reality Critical realism I. exists only one objective reality probabilistically apprehendable.Relativism. Subject and object are dependent. Many realities can exist.
Epistemology: the way of knowledge Dualism researcher-research. Replicated findings are probably true. Explanation of reality.Knowledge is interpreted. Realities can be understood and described.
Methodologies: the methods to reach knowledge Nomothetic, mainly quantitative. Experimental and/or statistical analyses. Probability sampling.Hermeneutical, dialectical.

Mainly qualitative methods. Stakeholders’ perceptions and experiences.

Scientific validity External validity, verifiability.

Statistical confidence level.

Agreements, reasoning, dialogue.
Source: Iofrida (2016); Iofrida et al. (2018).

Table 1: Main differences between groups of scientific paradigms

A critical review of the scientific literature on SLCA has been conducted to highlight which epistemological positions have been applied during the first ten-year period.

78 scientific studies have been selected and analyzed by means of a classification matrix, according to specific criteria belonging to the above-mentioned groups of paradigms. The impact assessment methodology was one of the main distinguishing element and the principal source of diversity in SLCA proposals.

Review results showed that 78% of the selected studies could be ascribed to the group of interpretivism-oriented paradigms, only the 21% could be ascribed to the post-positivist ones, and 1% of studies presented characteristics of both groups. These data deserve great attention, because, since the beginnings of SLCA, most of the scholars supported the idea that it was possible to analyze social impact in the same way it was done in LCA with environmental ones, and therefore assuming a post-positivist stance.

There is no winner in this comparison. Every paradigm has its assets (Tab. 2). Papers belonging to the post-positivism-oriented group furnished explanations of the cause-effect relationships between life cycle and impacts. In this case, results are generalizable, objective and free from bias about the context.

Post-positivism-oriented paradigmsInterpretivism-oriented paradigms
StrengthContext-freeRich in meaning
Generalizable and objectiveHolistic
Free from personal values  In-depth investigation
Affordable and quickComprehensive understanding
WeaknessReductionistContext-bound
Poor in meaningsSubjective
SimplificativeLong  and costly
SuperficialWeak in generalizability
Source: Iofrida (2016); Iofrida et al. (2018:476).

Table 2: Strength and weaknesses of each group of paradigms

Papers belonging to the interpretivism-oriented group mainly provided a description of a current situation, taking into consideration actors’ meanings and perceptions.

Both groups of paradigms revealed to be suitable for SLCA, but the choice should be made in accordance with the purposes of a study and after deciding what kind of quality criteria are wanted for results. Therefore, it is important to clarify the epistemological position before going through the methodological procedures.

To test and compare these two different paradigms, two methodologies have been conceived and applied to the same case study, i.e., the citriculture in Calabria region of South Italy, starting from opposite paradigms: a post-positivist methodology (the Psychosocial Risk Factors impact Pathway), and an interpretivist one (the participative Social Impact Matrix).

The case study: The Calabrian citriculture

Many issues affect the Calabrian agricultural sector, and citrus-growing specifically. Permanent crops are the most important cultivations in Calabria (46% of the total cultivated area, compared to the 18% at national level). Olives are the most cultivated plants, followed by citruses; Calabrian clementine and its hybrids represent about 60% of national production. In terms of average standard of production, citrus-growing shows the best economic performance compared to other agricultural sectors. However, it is also well-known for social issues linked to the seasonal migration of foreign workers during the harvesting period, with episodes of mistreatment and discrimination.

The post-positivist methodology: The Psychosocial Risk Factors impact Pathway

A first methodology started from a post-positivist position and was therefore based on cause-effect relationships validated by previous empirical studies found in scientific literature that provided statistical measures of association between working conditions and health concerns, in terms of odds ratio (OR). These are defined as psychosocial risks factors (PRF), i.e., “those aspects of work planning and management – and their relative social and environmental contexts – that can potentially lead to physical or psychological damages” (Cox and Griffiths, 1995:69).

The PRF impact pathway has been applied to two Calabrian citrus-growing scenarios: the agricultural life cycle phases (i.e. from cradle to gate) of oranges for industries and of clementines for fresh consumption in two fictitious farms ideally located in the  Plain of Gioia Tauro (province of Reggio Calabria). A surface of 3 ha has been considered, with a plant life of 40 years, and a conventional farming management.

The methodology consisted of four steps:

  1. The inventory of working hours required for each task (such as tillage, pruning, harvesting, phytoyatric treatments) and for each one of the 6 agricultural phases, from planting to disposal;
  2. The literature review to gather psychosocial risk factors, expressed in odds ratio, which have been classified in classes of association intensity: weak (1< OR <1.3), moderate (1.3< OR <1.7), and strong (1.7<OR<8);
  3. The PRF Matrix, that linked every working condition to a physical or psychosocial disease or disorder;
  4. The quantification of working hours that potentially expose workers to one or more diseases, distinguished per classes of intensity.

Insights showed that the agricultural phases of industrial orange’s life cycle  (Fig.1) entails 58,120 hours of work with exposure to the risk of chronic bronchitis (strong association),  42,510 hours of work exposing to the risk of back pain (strong association),  and 28,562 hours of work exposing to risk of upper limbs pain (moderate association).

Figure 1: PRF impact pathway assessment of industrial oranges life cycle. Source: Iofrida (2016:81)

The agricultural phase of the clementine’s life cycle (Fig.2) entails 68,916 hours of working tasks, exposing to the risk of back pain (strong association), and the risk of neck and shoulder pain (39,334 hours with a strong association) and upper limbs pain (39,060 hours with a moderate association).

Figure 2: PRF impact pathway assessment of clementines life cycle. Source: Iofrida (2016:82)

However, a further development of the research demonstrated that many diseases with a possible mortal course are linked to the use of chemicals (pesticides, herbicides, insecticides).

The interpretivist methodology: The participative Social Impact Matrix (SIM)

A second methodology started from an interpretivist position, with a strong dependence between researchers and research, and taking into account the perception of stakeholders. Nine scenarios were compared, from three main agricultural areas (Sibari Plain in the province of Cosenza – CS, Lamezia Terme Plain in the province of Catanzaro – CZ, and Gioia Tauro Plain in the province of Reggio Calabria – RC), and with three techniques of cultivation (organic, integrated, conventional).

The methodology consisted of four steps:

  1. The territorial analyses and the literature review about the main issues of the areas analyzed, which served as the focus groups with local experts to choose impact categories and indicators;
  2. The inventory analysis consisted in the calculation of the indicators to complete the Social Impact Matrix;
  3. The impact assessment consisted, firstly, in the homogenization of inventory data (in a positive direction) and the normalization. Then, the Analytic Hierarchy Process (AHP) was applied as a multi-criteria method to involve three groups of affected actors (workers, local communities, society from the three areas) in the evaluation of the relative importance of each impact category;
  4. The application of the set of weights and the interpretation of results.

Participation played a key role to make the assessment legitimate and adherent to reality.

Insights showed that the organic production of Lamezia Terme Plain (CZ) and Sibari Plain (CS) were the best scenarios (Fig. 3), as it also resulted in a first unweighted evaluation.

Figure 3: Scenarios ranking with the application of local weights. Source: Iofrida (2016:93), De Luca et al. (2015:393)

A further overall ranking elaborated from a unique set of weights (regional preferences) showed that organic growing has the best social performance.

Comparison of the two epistemologically opposite research processes to evaluate social impacts

The PRF impact pathway and the participative SIM have been very different in terms of epistemological stances, research procedures, and methodological choices.

Results differed in terms of meanings, and typology of scientific validity; they can be useful for different contexts of research.  

The PRF post-positivist methodology allowed evaluating the impacts attributable to the very functioning of the citruses life cycle, in an objective way, and the methodology can be generalizable and applicable to other contexts. It is limited to only a group of affected actors (workers), but it would be possible to extend the study to other stakeholders. Furthermore, this methodology is in line with the current state of the art of LCA, based on cause-effect relationships between inventories of matter and energy flows and impact categories.

The interpretivism-oriented methodology allowed evaluating the impacts as actors felt them, by mixing quali-quantitative techniques and multicriteria analysis tools. Despite its context-specific feature, the scientific legitimacy is provided by stakeholder participation and their opinions.

There is no winner!

The two research procedures led to different insights and meanings. The first provided explanation (as it is required in nomothetic sciences), the second furnished a description of a situation (typical of hermeneutic and idiographic sciences). This same “dichotomy” can be found between the two main families of a paradigm of social sciences.

The methodological diversity of SLCA literature can find a justification in the epistemological eclecticism of social sciences. Until now, this eclecticism found a place in SLCA too. Both groups of paradigms can be useful, but they serve different purposes, and it is of utmost importance to keep it in mind when dealing with social impacts within the Life Cycle Thinking framework.

These findings are described in the articles “Can social research paradigms justify the diversity of approaches to social life cycle assessment?” by Nathalie Iofrida and colleagues, published in The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment; “Social Life Cycle Assessment and Participatory Approaches: A Methodological Proposal Applied to Citrus Farming in Southern Italy,” by Anna Irene De Luca and colleagues, published in Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management; and “Psychosocial risk factors’ impact pathway for Social Life Cycle Assessment: An application to citrus life cycles in South Italy,” by Nathalie Iofrida and colleagues, published in The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment

This work is a summary of a three-year Ph.D. research project led by Nathalie Iofrida from the Mediterranean University of Reggio Calabria, entitled “Paradigmatic stances and methodological issues in Social Life Cycle Assessment. Comparison of two different methodological proposals applied to agricultural products,” and it was co-founded by the European Commission, European Social Fund, and by the Region of CalabriaThis thesis was tutored by Dr. Anna Irene De Luca (advisor), Dr. Alfio Strano (supervisor), and Prof. Giovanni Gulisano (mentor).

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