What, if anything, is a social niche?
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The term “social niche” is rapidly increasing in usage, particularly in the context of “social niche construction.” But what (if anything) is a social niche? Here, we survey papers that have used the term to uncover commonalities and discrepancies in its definition. We aim to alert researchers to the need for more consistency in how the term is used in the literature, and we provide a working definition of “social niche:” the set of social environments in which the focal individual has non-zero inclusive fitness. We consider the extent to which a social niche is analogous to an ecological niche, discuss whether a population-level social niche can be meaningfully identified, and describe conceptual insights about the properties of social niches, focusing on social niche construction. We highlight questions about social niches that demand more theoretical and empirical attention.
KeywordsSocial niche Social niche construction Social behavior Social evolution Individual differences
We thank Volker Rudolf and Alex Perkins for useful conversations about ecological niche theory. We thank Eric Wice for pointing out that we should include the term “inclusive” in the definition of a social niche. We thank Judy Stamps for pointing out that social niche construction and phenotypic plasticity are equivalent only on certain timescales, and for her general support in the development of these ideas. JBS and APG were supported by Rice University startup funds.
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