When Legitimacy Shapes Environmentally Responsible Behaviors: Considering Exposure to University Sustainability Initiatives

Lesley Watson, Karen Hegtvedt, Cathryn Johnson, Christie Parris, Shruthi Subramanyam
2017 Education Sciences  
This study examines how perceptions of the legitimacy of university sustainability efforts-support by the administration (authorization) or from students' peers (endorsement)-as well as the physical context in which students live, matter in shaping students' environmentally responsible behaviors (ERBs). Using survey data collected from fourth-year students at a university in the Southeastern US, we employ Seeming Unrelated Regression to analyze the impact of perceived legitimacy and context on
more » ... acy and context on recycling and conservation behaviors, controlling for demographic characteristics, pro-environmental attitudes, and environmental identity. Our findings indicate that students' perceptions of what university administrators support affect the likelihood of students to enact recycling and conservation behaviors, and peer support influences conservation behaviors. This research contributes to the literature on legitimacy by examining how legitimacy processes work in natural, rather than experimental, settings. The present study examines how perceptions of university sustainability efforts help to shape students' ERBs. Although previous research demonstrates university effects on ERBs, rarely do studies ask why such effects emerge. Using a legitimacy framework [5,6], we argue that perceived university support for sustainability efforts enhances students' frequency of enacting such behavior owing to an obligation to comply and abide by collective norms. Johnson, Dowd and Ridgeway argue "Something is legitimate if it is in accord with the norms, values, beliefs, practices, and procedures accepted by a group" [7] (p. 55). Given that students are embedded in an institutional culture with particular values and norms, and surrounded by their peers both residentially and academically, we consider legitimacy stemming from two sources. We examine support from people occupying positions of authority in the organizational hierarchy, labeled "authorization," and support from individuals' peers, labeled "endorsement." We capture these sources of legitimacy in terms of respondents' perceptions that administrative authorities and other students at the university encourage the enactment of ERBs. We also consider the role of physical context (i.e., where students live) in fostering legitimacy perceptions as well as behavior. Key findings that emerge from the study have implications for further research on factors shaping ERBs as well as university sustainability efforts. The extant literature on antecedents to ERBs focuses primarily on how individual-level factors such as environmental attitudes and identities [8, 9] affect ERBs (see [10] for a review). This study aims to determine how contextual and legitimacy processes affect ERBs, in addition to these individual-level factors. Furthermore, our findings contribute to legitimacy research by examining how legitimacy affects behavior outside of the laboratory [5], and by exploring possible antecedents to perceptions of legitimacy. We begin with a discussion of university sustainability efforts and the role of the university context in ERBs. We then turn to our distinct theoretical focus, providing an overview of social psychological literature on legitimacy and applying it to understanding ERB. Data to test our hypotheses come from survey responses from fourth-year students at a private university in the Southeastern US. Our analysis includes controls for individual-level factors known to affect students' behaviors, such as environmental attitudes and identities.
doi:10.3390/educsci7010013 fatcat:scoxsri6lvegfm5frcjxelyc7y