Sustainability Science

, Volume 14, Issue 5, pp 1363–1379 | Cite as

Social values, needs, and sustainable water–energy–food resource utilisation practices: a rural Swazi case study

  • Michelle R. BrearEmail author
  • Bonginkosi M. Mbonane
Special Feature: Original Article Theoretical traditions in social values for sustainability
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Special Feature: Theoretical traditions in social values for sustainability


Social values structure sustainability practices, including needs-fulfilment practices utilising water–energy–food nexus resources. However, robust theories outlining the interrelations of values, needs and needs-fulfilment practices are lacking. Our aim is to conceptualise and model these interrelations from a sociological perspective that accounts for structure and agency. We do this through a participatory ethnography of a community-based, child-focused food security intervention in rural Eswatini, which defined sustainability in terms of local water–energy–food self-sufficiency. We collected ethnographic data and analysed it informed by a sociological theory of practice, a capabilities-based definition of needs, and a conceptualisation of values as lived and relational. Daily needs-fulfilment practices (lived values) like head-loading and cooking with fuelwood, were influenced by cultural (community-level) values, but primarily structured by (lack of) available resources to enable agents to choose alternative practices. Needs-fulfilment practices held multiple layers of often contradictory meaning. For example, arduous, gendered practices like head-loading water and fuelwood, which detracted from women’s needs like bodily integrity and health, were valued because they were the only actualisable possibilities for fulfilling other needs. Practices that were overtly valued “instrumentally” (materially/economically), were also tacitly valued for fulfilling non-material (socio-cultural) needs, typically associated with “intrinsic” value and altruism. Apparently altruistic practices (i.e., not economically valued) were underpinned by self-interest in social and cultural resource gain. The results highlight important contributions that a (1) philosophically informed, universal definition of needs and (2) sociological conceptualisation that considers structure and agency, can make to further developing plural theories of social values for sustainability.


Needs Water–energy–food nexus Lived values Capabilities approach Structure and agency Ethnography 



We are grateful to the community members who shared their time and knowledge in the survey and focus group discussions, and to the community researchers who helped design and implement the study. We appreciate the critical input on earlier drafts of this manuscript provided by Melissa Hansen, Shogo Kudo and Doreen Allisaw. Data were collected as part of MRB’s PhD studies, which were funded by an Australian Postgraduate Award and a Monash University (Australia, Melbourne) Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences Postgraduate Excellence Award. These studies were supervised by Helen Keleher, Charles Livingstone, Andrea Whittaker, Bruce Missingham, Jane Fisher and Karin Hammarberg. We thank them for the valuable methodological and theoretical insights they contributed. In the writing of this article MRB was funded by a postdoctoral research fellowship from the Afromontane Research Unit, at the University of the Free State (South Africa, Qwaqwa). We could not have produced this article without critically constructive feedback from two anonymous reviewers and special issue editors (especially Christopher Raymond and Andrea Rawluk). We greatly appreciate the attention, patience and intellectual input that you have provided us.

Author contributions

MRB lead the study, including facilitating and co-designing the participatory action research, designing and implementing the ethnography and leading the data analysis. She drafted the manuscript. BMM participated as a co-researcher in designing and implementing the PAR, including collecting and translating the focus group data and analysing focus group audio and transcripts and map data. He read and provided critical feedback on the manuscript.


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Copyright information

© Springer Japan KK, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Education Studies and Afromontane Research UnitUniversity of the Free State-QwaqwaPhuthaditjhabaSouth Africa
  2. 2.Global Public Health Unit, School of Public Health and Preventive MedicineMonash UniversityMelbourneAustralia
  3. 3.ManziniSwaziland

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