How to do Social Analysis

Social analysis is a method for describing the local community in terms of the economic, cultural, and political systems that shape it. Without a grasp of the broader context, our projects can feel like a game of Whac-A-Mole as we seek solutions to local problems in isolation. Not only that, we might miss the positive resources, such as dreams, economic resources, and local traditions that can help us improve the community in which we live. 

  1. What do you notice about our situation here today? What are people experiencing? This step is descriptive. Brainstorm with a group, ask for stories from people you know, or do a survey.
  2. What changes have occurred in the past twenty years? This question gets at the historical dimension of the situation. A neighborhood where it’s unsafe to cross the street may be the result of decisions made years ago about speed limit, crosswalks, or on-street parking.
  3. What influence does money have in our situation? This question addresses the economic system. For example, a working mother may have an adequate job but she can’t keep it because of a predatory loan with a very high interest rate.
  4. Who makes the most important decisions around here? In other words, how does power get exercised?  Look at formal structures like the mayor’s office or city council, or informal structures like influential leaders, organizations, or coalitions.
  5. What are the most important relationships people have here? This question deals with those other social relations so important to nourishing our life together, including the family, the neighborhood, friends at work and school, and social-media connections.
  6. What are the most important traditions of the people? A community’s culture, including religion, the arts and music, and local traditions, shape life in important ways.
  7. What do people want most in life? Don’t just ask people about their problems, but try to unearth their hopes for the future. Hold a community-wide planning process to bring people together and share their dreams with each other.
  8. What will things be like in ten years if they keep going in the same way? A primary purpose of social analysis is to broaden our perspective to see all the various dimensions of our situation, including the future. Then we can ask, “What is our preferred future?”
  9. What are the most important causes of the way things are today? This question requires us to sift through and prioritize the many reasons for a given social reality. Though many people are hungry, the root cause is often poverty, not the lack of food per se.

Source: Joe Holland and Peter Henriot, SJ, Social Analysis: Linking Faith and Justice (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1983).

Image: MF McHugh Staff Blog,


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