Importance of creating “social support”

Social support is important to all hunters if they are to continue hunting. If you grew up hunting (or doing anything else) with your father, other family members and friends you know exactly how important support and encouragement can be as you learned new skills.  Without social support, new and novice hunters are very likely to give up the activity. Unfortunately, while there is an acknowledged need, little research has been conducted on how to develop strong social support systems. Similarly, there have been very few practical, documented efforts directed specifically at creating social support.

However, efforts to create and foster social support can and should be built into your program. Developing small group activities, rather than lecturing, can help establish social networks early in the program. Encouraging and facilitating networking among program participants and the establishment of social support networks outside of the program are both important.

The need for social support occurs at many different levels. Researchers at Cornell University’s Human Dimensions Research Unit identified five “nested levels of social structures” that influence the adoption of hunting and shooting behaviors. These social structures are defined as the “social habitat” that encompasses the full spectrum of support that hunters and hunting require.  This habitat is provided by a host of people and social structures that extend well beyond state agencies and their partners.

Figure 1. “Nested levels of social structures” proposed by researchers at Cornell’s Human Dimensions Research Unit.

The individual level of social support is closely tied to a person’s self-identity. For more information regarding a person’s self-identity see Cornell’s Hunter Recruitment and Retention in New York: A framework for Research and Action.

 If a person lacks a sense of belonging to the hunting social world, they are not likely going to continue participating. For young participants, this sense of belonging most often comes from family or friends; for young adults, this sense of belonging can come from a larger social network, such as friends, classmates and mentors. For food-motivated participants, this sense of belonging to a food-centric group likely already exists. However, it may not exist for hunting activities related to acquiring local foods.

Encouraging or creating opportunities to create, enhance or express person’s self-identity that aligns with hunting and hunters within your program also will help create and support the individual level of social support. Self-identity is often expressed in clothing, clothing accessories and language. However, be aware that potential participants in food-focused programs may be “different” from the current rank and file hunters, and they may have different ways to express this self-identity.

The family, friends and mentor level is the level normally thought of when the topic of social support is discussed. Most research on social support has focused on the individual and family levels. Research has shown that family support is a key predictor of long-term hunting participation.  Family supported hunters are more likely to see hunting as ingrained or as a key component of their life, tend to hunt at an earlier age and are more involved in hunting and hunting-related activities. Hunters who do not have family support typically start at an older age and may hunt for different reasons than family-supported hunters.

In addition, the reasons people begin hunting may be very different today than they were 20-30 years ago. Food-motivated participants in your programs likely fall into this latter category. As a result, they likely will require different types of social support than those who come from a family of active hunters. 

The role of mentors for non-family supported hunters cannot be overstated. However, programs (and the mentors they recruit) should avoid putting too much emphasis on getting potential hunters out hunting, while neglecting to try and create the spectrum of conditions and activities that produce the socialization into the hunting culture. Traditional socialization activities include wild fish and game dinners, story telling, scouting, shooting range sessions, camping, work sessions at “deer camp,” shopping for hunting equipment, and a host of other activities.

Purposefully creating both traditional and new socialization activities will require innovation, as well as involving the participants in their design. For example, establishing social networks via social media may be effective at creating a social support structure that replaces the role of family and community for food-motivated participants. Involving participants will be critical in the design and ultimate effectiveness of these social media support structures.

Other “levels" of social support identified by Cornell include:

  • Community Support Networks
  • Local Physical and Social Landscape
  • Society at large

These levels are important to consider because they address access to land, and the larger society in which hunting takes place. An important, and different, aspect of these social structures for food-motivated participants is the emergence of different motivations for hunting. These motivations include an important ethical decision on how to obtain food, as well as taking up hunting to become more involved as an “environmental steward” who is taking an active part in the environment. See the section on potential motivations of food-motivated or adult-onset participants for more information.

For more information regarding building social support see Cornell’s Hunter Recruitment and Retention in New York: A Framework for Research and Action.

It is important to remember that it will take conscious innovation to develop activities and actions that fulfill the social support needs of your participants. Developing small group activities, rather than lecturing, can help establish social networks early in the program. Encouraging and facilitating networking and the establishment of social support networks outside of the program or between sessions will also be helpful.