Conceptualizing Social-Ecological Systems

I’ve recently been teaching about social-ecological systems and because I think it is important to conceptualize systems graphically these discussions caused me to reflect on the conceptual diagrams of social-ecological systems

Conceptualizing something as a social-ecological system hides some aspects of reality to focus on others. Social-ecological systems focus on the interactions and
Factors that distinguish social-ecological systems from other approach feedbacks between social and ecological, in particular how social and ecological alter one another and “co-evolve.”

As a systems approach it focuses on structures and processes, but because it comes from a resilience orientation in is particularly interested in how these structures persist and reorganize in response to shocks, gradual changes, or purposeful transformations.

Below are a number of different takes on conceptual diagrams of social-ecological systems that I think show some different aspects of social-ecological systems.

There are many other conceptual diagrams of social-ecological systems and I’d welcome any comments that point to other papers that have particularly interesting or different conceptual diagrams.

The full citations of the papers are:

  • Berkes, Folke, and Colding editors. 2003. Navigating Social Ecological Systems. Cambridge University Press.
  • Chapin, F.S., Lovecraft, A.L., Zavaleta, E.S., Nelson, J., Robards, M.D., Kofinas, G.P., Trainor, S.F., Peterson, G.D., Huntington, H.P. & Naylor, R.L. (2006) Policy strategies to address sustainability of Alaskan boreal forests in response to a directionally changing climate. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 103, 16637-43. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0606955103
  • Anderies, J. M., M. A. Janssen, and E. Ostrom. 2004. A framework to analyze the robustness of social-ecological systems from an institutional perspective. Ecology and Society 9(1): 18. [online] URL:
  • Bennett, E.M., Peterson, G.D. & Gordon, L.J. (2009) Understanding relationships among multiple ecosystem services. Ecology Letters, 12, 1394-404. DOI: 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2009.01387.x

3 thoughts on “Conceptualizing Social-Ecological Systems”

  1. Where is the sense in these models that human systems are part of the natural system, existing within or on top of, and depending on ecosystem services and energy from outside the economic system, that also generate heat and waste? Until you incorporate those, the models are not complete and only reflect our economic perspectives of man as independent of nature? That kind of thinking is what got us in this mess to begin with?

  2. Don’t these models describe our systems of explanations, as relationships between categories of information, not the organization of social -ecological systems themselves?

    It seems to me the right way to conceptualize them is to show the explanatory model in the context of the actual system being explained, so people can both better understand what the theory is about, and display some of the things the theory leaves out.

    The biggest difference to me could be how explanatory models are made of mental rules for connecting categories of information, and so made to be self-consistent, and nature is not. Natural ecological systems are made of improper sets of organizations of independently designed and behaving parts, that are generally all actively learning new ways of working together. What I’m finding is probably the best new scientific way of studying that is a “pattern language” approach, for identifying key complex patterns of design, to use in studying individual systems and their differences.

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