The term “social impact” is relatively new (1980’s), but the concept is certainly as old as human community: what we do affects others and ultimately affects our community, small or large. The ultimate direction of our community is therefore based on the accumulation of small actions as much as larger ones. Clearly, those impacts can be negative or positive, or even negative to some while being positive to others, and the impact can be either short-lived or complex and transformational in a much broader, greater and long-lasting sense. A “social impact study” is therefore an analysis of here/there and before/after where each of those points of analysis (“here/there” or “before/after”) is based on the point of view of someone in the interconnected “community” being explored.
This type of analysis achieves several important things. It creates an opportunity for self-reflection in the people living the experience being explored; everyone involved becomes both a learner and a teacher; it creates an awareness of a network of people participating in a collaborative effort, and therefore builds community by its very process (the parts become more aware of the whole); it develops lines of communication, as well as shared understandings and narratives; it provides some mitigation to researcher bias and superimposed privileged perspectives by giving the power to define value to the community participating in the study; and it can inspire further local, autonomous, or grassroots actions by reinforcing the reflection-action cycle of community development. Change happens because we understand how it can happen.
Seen through the lens of systems theory then, thoughtful and engaging social impact studies can create the kinds of feedback loops and social infrastructures that are helpful in strengthening the very community being explored.