Tag Archives: social-ecological systems

‘Pluralisms-a-plenty’: engaging with the social world in social-ecological systems research

A reflection on challenges and opportunities of dealing with multiple kinds of pluralisms in doing SES research (e.g. ontologies, epistemologies, theories, methodologies), particularly from an early career scholar perspective.

Guest post by:

  • James Patterson, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Waterloo
  • Jessica Cockburn, PhD Candidate, Rhodes University
  • Vanessa Masterson, PhD Candidate, Stockholm Resilience Centre
  • Simon West, PhD Candidate, Stockholm Resilience Centre
  • Jamila Haider, PhD Candidate, Stockholm Resilience Centre
  • Marta Berbes, PhD, York University

Social-ecological systems (SES) research is increasingly engaging with the socialscience domain. For example, this is reflected in growing SES literature working with political ecology, adaptive governance, and collective action perspectives. Scholars are also increasingly drawing on rich bodies of literature from various social science disciplines that have developed over many decades, yet until recently remained largely unconnected with resilience thinking, such as political science, sociology, and critical theory. Critiques persist about the extent to which resilience thinking suitably engages with social science theories and insights (e.g., Cote and Nightingale 2012, Olsson et al. 2015, see also West et al. 2015). Although much more work is required in this area, research conducted from social science perspectives is increasingly making its way into SES discourse, at least as reflected in some of the main journals of the SES research community. More broadly, SES research has opened opportunities and frontiers for inter- and transdisciplinary research which may previously not have been as apparent (e.g. Stone-Jovicich 2015, Fischer et al. 2015). Further, it appears that the SES and resilience research community is beginning to engage more critically and reflectively with the challenges of working at the interface of the natural and social sciences.

Early career scholars have been key contributors to the increasing sophistication with which resilience thinking engages with social science theories and insights. Early career scholars have embraced, challenged, critiqued, and pushed the boundaries of resilience thinking. They have built on the tremendous opportunity created by early resilience scholars who brought attention to the key need to understand and respond to dynamics and linkages between social and ecological systems. This included the difficult work of fighting against disciplinary boundaries and opening up a well-funded and successful research arena. This was a critical first step in opening up new ways of thinking and practicing problem-based science that have since flourished. Early career scholars have actively taken on the challenges that this initial ‘opening up’ has produced and as a result are contributing in many exciting ways to extending and broadening resilience thinking.

Despite the dynamism and ongoing development of resilience thinking, there have been valid criticisms raised about the extent to which resilience thinking may connect with and be compatible with social science theories and insights. For example, rich traditions of understanding the social world through fundamentally social science concepts and tools such as agency, institutions and institutional change, politics, power, knowledge and culture have largely remained untapped, and to some extent, unacknowledged. Where these concepts are mentioned in SES research, it is at times done fleetingly, and there is a need for SES and resilience scholars to engage more deeply with social theories which can be used to frame such research. This has led to robust critiques of resilience thinking. Sometimes these critiques are levelled at particular heuristics, terms, and concepts but this critique may mis-characterise or simplify the diversity of the broader field of scholarship. However, valid points are also raised about the need for resilience scholars to engage more deeply with wider existing bodies of literature that we have a lot to learn from.

A key way in which resilience thinking could continue to mature is by bringing greater critical reflexivity to our own research choices and the ‘lenses’ through which we interpret the world. The need for reflexivity becomes particularly apparent when we start engaging with the plethora of social science theories, insights and disciplines that are salient to resilience thinking and SES research. A fundamental challenge that engagement with the breadth and diversity of social science raises is that there are many valid ontologies for knowing reality, and many ways of investigating and understanding this reality to produce knowledge (epistemology). This becomes especially salient for research in the social domain. Which aspects of the social world matter to us and which ones don’t? How do we know what we know? How do we investigate complex and sometimes unknowable social phenomena? This point is put eloquently by Dryzek when he states that:

While real problems exist, our interaction with them can only ever be through culturally constructed lens – meaning that we can never know nature, except through the interpretive mechanism of culture, which means all perspectives are partial and contestable (Dryzek, 1997: 10).

These issues are especially confounding when working at the interface of the ‘social’ and ‘ecological’ worlds as we do in resilience and SES research. As a result, we need to recognise fundamental challenges regarding ontology, epistemology, theory, and methodology. Ontological commitments involve choices about what we see as ‘existing’ in the world (e.g., people, social actors, values, cultures, producers, consumers, motivations, texts, discourses, morality, rules, social relations, feedbacks) (following Mason 2002). Epistemological commitments are about what knowledge counts in our work and how this can be demonstrated (e.g., whether or not it is possible to discover objective ‘truth’). Theoretical lenses are important because they frame how we see and interpret the situation we’re looking at (e.g., a critique of resilience thinking has been the arguably inappropriate application of some ecological concepts to social systems). Methodological choices are important because they are our way of exploring and constructing knowledge about a situation, and different approaches in the same situation can lead to different insights. Navigating these multiple pluralisms requires particular skills and competencies, which ought to be considered in the education and training of emerging scholars in SES and resilience research and practice.

More broadly, the choices we make if looking at either the social or ecological world will probably be very different. That is, if one were working with an exclusively natural science research question, or a particular social science research question, the discipline and tradition within which one would find oneself would strongly shape epistemological commitments and methodological choices. However, in working at the interface of the social and ecological worlds, and recognising their intrinsic interconnectedness, we need to be especially conscious of these choices because we can be pulled in different directions. In SES research, we are no longer working on a solely natural research object, or a solely social research object, but on a new cross-cutting research object. This requires not only new and innovative approaches, but also that researchers are reflective and critical in our choice of tools and approaches. Without being deeply aware and reflective on the choices and commitments we make on these topics we risk falling into the trap of taking particular interpretations for granted, and ‘reifying’ a fixed view of how social-ecological systems operate which can constrain new possibilities for inquiry and insight (following Ison 2010).

So what should be done?

As an important first step in exploring these new frontiers, we need to be conscious of such challenges and critically aware of our choices. We also need to critically examine which ways of knowing, exploring and testing are suitable for asking and answering different kinds of questions in SES research. Resilience thinking owes a lot of its foundations to (post) positivist natural science and economics and the innovative thinking of these pioneers, who did not need to engage with the diversity of ontologies and epistemologies of social science. Perhaps now is the time for a systematic exploration of these ontologies and epistemologies and their compatibility with resilience approaches. Which ontologies, epistemologies, theories, and methodologies are compatible with notions of complex adaptive systems, resilience, and SESs?

Consequently, we need to be especially mindful of the various commitments and choices we make when a plurality of options is on the table: ontologically, epistemologically, theoretically, and methodologically. Recent publications exploring the interface of social and ecological research in SESs call for pluralism in methodologies (e.g. Olsson et al 2015, Fischer et al. 2015). However, we must also guard against cooking up “a tasteless soup of pluralisms”, and of combining theories and methodologies which may have underlying ontologies and epistemologies that are incompatible with one another. This means engaging meaningfully with the ontological and epistemological underpinnings of our work, to ensure that we combine multiple ways of knowing and doing in coherent ways. Particularly for scholars who are traditionally trained in the natural sciences, engaging deeply with the meta-philosophies underlying our research choices is a new endeavour, and one which may be overwhelming at times.  A counter challenge for critical social scientists on the other hand is to have more qualitative methods and knowledge systems validated by the broader SES research community.

The commitments and choices we make about ontologies, epistemologies, theories, and methodologies in our research shape how we see and work with social-ecological problems. They are not a ‘given’ (i.e., something that we can take for granted), nor are they objective and value-free scientific endeavours, but choices that need to be made consciously and reflexively (i.e., they may change over time as our own understanding changes). This adds a whole new set of challenges when engaging with the social world. But they are challenges that cannot be avoided and are indeed crucial for deepening the social dimensions of resilience thinking, and engaging in an ethical and honest way (to avoid ‘scientific imperialism’ (Olsson et al 2015)).

Resilience thinking and SES research is an enormous and ongoing collaborative endeavour. After all, it is a bold agenda to trigger a paradigm shift in society from a place of thinking linearly and about social and ecological domains as separate entities, to deeply recognising and engaging with dynamics, change, and linkages between social and ecological domains! However, if we are to collectively continue to work towards such a paradigm shift then we need to take on the challenge of engaging with the social world head-on. This will require critical reflexivity in our own research practice and deep reflection on issues of ontology, epistemology, theory, and methodology in our own work. Despite recent critique (Olsson et al. 2015) resilience thinking and social science are not irreconcilable, and we see current points of tension as research frontiers to be tackled rather than fundamental barriers. The ground is fertile and early career scholars are taking up the challenge.


  • Cote, M., Nightingale, A.J., 2011. Resilience thinking meets social theory: Situating change in socio-ecological systems (SES) research. Progress in Human Geography 36, 475–489.
  • Dryzek, J. 1997. The politics of the Earth: Environmental discourses. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Fischer, J., Gardner, T.A., Bennett, E.M., Balvanera, P., Biggs, R., Carpenter, S., Daw, T., Folke, C., Hill, R., Hughes, T.P., Luthe, T., Maass, M., Meacham, M., Norström, A.V., Peterson, G., Queiroz, C., Seppelt, R., Spierenburg, M., Tenhunen, J., 2015. Advancing sustainability through mainstreaming a social–ecological systems perspective. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 14, 144-149.
  • Ison, R.L., 2010. Systems practice: how to act in a climate-change world. Springer, London.
  • Mason, J., 2002. Qualitative Researching, 2nd ed. SAGE Publications Ltd, London, U.K.
  • Olsson, L., Jerneck, A., Thoren, H., Persson, J., O’Byrne, D. 2015. Why resilience is unappealing to social science: Theoretical and empirical investigations of the scientific use of resilience. Science Advances 1(4): 1-11. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1400217
  • Stone-Jovicich, S. 2015. Probing the interfaces between the social sciences and social-ecological resilience: insights from integrative and hybrid perspectives in the social sciences. Ecology and Society 20(2): 25. http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-07347-200225
  • West, S., Galafassi, D., Haider, J., Marin, A., Merrie, A., Ospina-Medina, D., Schill, C. 2015 “Critically reflecting on social-ecological systems research”, Resilience Science blog URL: http://rs.resalliance.org/2015/02/11/critically-reflecting-on-social-ecological-systems-research/


Should we measure resilience?

I’ve been reflecting on the idea of measuring resilience since the conference in Montpellier last month where @vgalaz quipped “Resilience metrics is the new black @resilience2014”. Efforts to measure resilience are well underway while at the same time there are concerns about what exactly is being measured and whether this shift in focus misses the point of what resilience thinking has to offer. My own thinking on this is that it depends on what you are trying to achieve but a deeper understanding of both perspectives is likely to benefit both approaches in the long-term.

Approaching the dialogue from two perspectives
The Resilience 2014 conference aimed to facilitate dialogue among researchers and practitioners from the resilience research community and the development community. To date, resilience has been conceptualized and applied in a variety of ways. Research along the lines of Holling, Gunderson, Folke, and Walker as well as many others in the Resilience Alliance network and beyond, has emerged from a complex adaptive systems’ perspective and in particular, a focus on ecosystems and integrated social-ecological systems. By contrast, development communities tend to approach resilience from a more human-centered perspective with a focus on livelihoods, risk reduction, and human well-being. What both communities hold in common is a desire to operationalize resilience by applying theoretical insights to real world problems and changing the way we manage and interact with the environment for more sustainable and equitable outcomes.

The demand side of resilience in development
The rapid uptake of resilience thinking by development agencies and foundations has forced the issue of resilience implementation and challenged the research community to make the leap from theory to practice to metrics. While resilience practice is not entirely new (see Walker & Salt 2012) and case studies have informed theoretical advances over the years the wide-ranging application of resilience thinking to development issues, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Development programs and projects operate within a different realm and have their own established frameworks, protocols, and practices. Notably, development programs require well-defined mechanisms for evaluating interventions and more specifically, metrics for quantifying and judging the success of their actions and investments. Thus the challenge that presents itself is how to measure resilience, if indeed it can or should be measured? This is a nuanced question, and much like the concept it addresses, there are multiple dimensions and no easy answers but it remains a worthy pursuit.

To measure or not to measure?
There is a concern shared by many that resilience may not live up to its promise for a variety of reasons including the potential for narrow interpretations and a selective or limited understanding of what can be a relatively abstract concept, but also because of a what some have identified as a lack of quantifiable metrics for evaluation purposes. In Luca Alinova’s plenary presentation he spoke of the very real threat of resilience being adopted and applied in name only, whereby others capitalize on the current trendiness of the concept while much of the same ineffective practices continue under the guise of a new name. In his words “there is a big risk of labeling some bad habits with a new name”. Any failures of course, will have a handy scapegoat and an enormous opportunity will have been lost. Similarly, there is a real risk that in the rush to measure resilience and develop quantitative metrics for comparative purposes, what is actually measured may represent the same things that have long been monitored and measured but are now being packaged in the language of resilience to meet the demand.

The fact remains however, that resilience will and already is, being measured.

What exactly is being measured?
If resilience must be measured to be meaningful to the development community, then how best to measure it? Luca Alinovi suggests we need to measure resilience at the household level rather than at an individual level because it is the interactions that are important. He also cautioned though that we are still far away from the dynamic analysis that is needed as well as a general approach for different types of systems.

Much of the discussion at Resilience 2014 around the topic of metrics tended to focus on food security and crisis impacts. Alexis Hoskins presented on the progress being made by the Food and Nutrition Security Resilience Measurement Technical Working Group that has produced a framing paper outlining the challenges in measuring resilience. They have also produced a set of resilience measurement principles that echo Alinovi’s call for dynamic analysis and reflect both systems-based requirements (multi-level interactions, rates of change, inherent volatility) as well as human dimensions (e.g., desirability of system states, people’s perceptions, vulnerability connections). The recommendations and next steps that follow from the measurement principles appear promising because they account for the underlying concepts of complex systems dynamics and cross-scale interactions, while recognizing the need for both quantitative and qualitative data to understand causal mechanisms.

Other presenters similarly advocated for a mixed method approach to measuring resilience, combining qualitative and quantitative data, as well as steps for interpreting data and providing the necessary contextualization that metrics alone cannot fully capture. Yet another type of approach offered by Christophe Bene, was a resilience proxy based on the cost of impacts calculated from the sum of anticipation costs + impact costs + recovery costs. Bene’s postulate being “the more resilient an individual the lower the costs it takes to get through a specific shock”. Assigning monetary values as a means of measuring resilience has many parallels in the ecosystem services literature, which increasingly recognizes the need to also consider nonmonetary values.

What is missing?
There is clearly something to be gained by measuring resilience, but any formula attempting to capture a dynamic system property will inevitably involve tradeoffs for simplifying purposes and something will be lost. Understanding exactly what is missing from resilience metrics or what is potentially lost with a shift in focus from understanding the resilience of a system to measuring the resilience of a system remains to be clearly articulated. In resilience assessment, a main objective of the exercise is to re-conceptualize a system, place, or issue from an alternative perspective, i.e., through a resilience lens and focusing on interactions such that new insights emerge and interventions can be better informed. How a system behaves is not a function of the sum of its parts so it follows that measuring component parts cannot capture what is meaningful about resilience.

To date, most metrics being proposed focus on social variables and the human dimensions of resilience, as opposed to taking an integrated social-ecological systems (SES) approach. Conceptualizing humans as part of nature and placing people within ecosystems, instead of keeping them separate, represents an important advance in resilience research and sustainability science more broadly. Metrics for resilience and more generally, the application of the concept in practice also stands to benefit from taking an SES approach.

Some considerations for developing resilience metrics
It has been said before that resilience is an overarching concept that encompasses many other core concepts. Biggs and colleagues (2012) identify seven principles for building resilience of ecosystem services. Assuming a given bundle of ES is desirable (and knowing for whom it matters), these seven facets can be managed to strengthen and enhance the resilience of the system. They include: maintaining diversity and redundancy, managing connectivity, managing slow variables and feedbacks, fostering complex adaptive systems thinking, encouraging learning, broadening participation, and promoting polycentric governance systems. To the extent resilience metrics can effectively address these seven principles, they would provide valuable information to anyone wanting to characterize and monitor the capacity of the system to maintain a desired set of ecosystem services in the face of continued change or disturbance.

A final consideration is that resilience is not always a good thing. As Brian Walker stated in his plenary presentation, part of the understanding required is knowing where we need to build resilience, and where we need to reduce it to enable transformation. A range of different types of traps characterized by rigid social and ecological processes that are tied to environmental degradation and livelihood impoverishment make change a real challenge (Boonstra and de Boer, 2014). Where traps exist, the goal may be to reduce the resilience of the current state of the system and build transformative capacity, which may require monitoring and measuring a different set of variables.

Measuring resilience should be possible but finding suitable indicators and metrics that retain key attributes of the concept will also need to reflect the fact that resilience is a means and not an end.

Biggs et al. 2012. Towards Principles for Enhancing the Resilience of Ecosystem Services. Annu. Rev. Environ. Resour. 37:421-48.

Walker, B. & D. Salt. 2012. Resilience Practice: Building capacity to absorb disturbance and maintain function. Island Press, Washington, D.C.

Readings on ES in a Social-Ecological Context (with a resilience emphasis)

Recently I developed a short reading list for PhD students working on ecosystem services at the Stockholm Resilience Centre.  This list seeks to cover and introduce a broad area of ecosystem service research with a focus on understanding ecosystem services in a social-ecological context, with a special focus on resilience.


  1. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. 2005. MA Conceptual framework.  Chapter 1 in Ecosystems and Human WellBeing: Status and Trends. Island Press (Washington, DC). [available online at: http://www.csrc.sr.unh.edu/~lammers/MacroscaleHydrology/Papers/MilleniumAssessment-ResponsesAssessment-01-MA%20Conceptual%20Framework.aspx.pdf]
  2. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. 2005.  Analytical Approaches for Assessing  Ecosystem Condition and Human Well-being.  Chapter 2 in Ecosystems and Human WellBeing: Status and Trends. Island Press (Washington, DC). [available online at: http://www.pik-potsdam.de/news/public-events/archiv/alter-net/former-ss/2009/06.09.2009/cramer/literature/de_fries_et_al_mea.pdf

Ecology and ES

  1. Kremen, C. (2005). Managing ecosystem services: what do we need to know about their ecology?. Ecology Letters, 8(5), 468-479.
  2. Lavorel, S., Grigulis, K., Fourier, J. & Cedex, G. (2012) How fundamental plant functional trait relationships scale-up to trade-offs and synergies in ecosystem services. Journal of Ecology, 100, 128–140.

Institutions & ES

  1. Jack, B.K., Kousky, C. & Sims, K.R.E. (2008) Designing payments for ecosystem services: Lessons from previous experience with incentive-based mechanisms. PNAS, 105, 9465–70.
  2. Muradian, R., Corbera, E., Pascual, U., Kosoy, N. & May, P.H. (2010) Reconciling theory and practice: An alternative conceptual framework for understanding payments for environmental services. Ecological Economics, 69, 1202–1208.
  3. Rathwell, K. J., and G. D. Peterson. 2012. Connecting social networks with ecosystem services for watershed governance: a social-ecological network perspective highlights the critical role of bridging organizationsEcology and Society 17(2): 24.
  4. van Noordwijk, M., & Leimona, B. (2010). Principles for Fairness and Efficiency in Enhancing Environmental Services in Asia: Payments, Compensation, or Co-Investment? Ecology and Society15(4), 17.

Proposed Framework Extensions

  1. Chan, Kai MA, et al. 2012 Where are cultural and social in ecosystem services? A framework for constructive engagement. BioScience 62(8): 744-756.
  2. Daw, T., Brown, K., Rosendo, S. & Pomeroy, R. 2011 Applying the ecosystem services concept to poverty alleviation: the need to disaggregate human well-being. Environmental Conservation, 38, 370–379.
  3. Daniel, T. C., Muhar, A., Arnberger, A., Aznar, O., Boyd, J. W., Chan, K., … & von der Dunk, A. 2012. Contributions of cultural services to the ecosystem services agenda. PNAS109(23), 8812-8819.
  4. Fisher, B., Turner, R. & Morling, P. (2009) Defining and classifying ecosystem services for decision making. Ecological Economics, 68, 643–653.

ES & Resilience

  1. Biggs, R., Schlüter, M., Biggs, D., Bohensky, E. L., BurnSilver, S., Cundill, G., … & West, P. C. (2012). Toward Principles for Enhancing the Resilience of Ecosystem Services. Annual Review of Environment and Resources37(1).
  2. Enfors et al., 2008 Making investments in dryland development work: participatory scenario planning in the Makanya catchment, Tanzania.  Ecology and Society, 13 (2)42
  3. Raudsepp-Hearne, C., Peterson, G.D., Tengö, M., Bennett, E.M., Holland, T., Benessaiah, K., MacDonald, G.K. & Pfeifer, L. (2010) Untangling the Environmentalist’s Paradox: Why Is Human Well-being Increasing as Ecosystem Services Degrade? BioScience, 60, 576–589.

Tradeoffs & Bundles of ES

  1. Bennett, E.M., Peterson, G.D. & Gordon, L.J. (2009) Understanding relationships among multiple ecosystem services. Ecology Letters, 12, 1394–404.
  2. Raudsepp-Hearne, C., Peterson, G.D. & Bennett, E.M. (2010) Ecosystem service bundles for analyzing tradeoffs in diverse landscapes. PNAS, 107, 5242–7.
  3. Nelson, E., Mendoza, G., Regetz, J., Polasky, S., Tallis, H., Cameron, Dr., Chan, K.M., Daily, G.C., Goldstein, J., Kareiva, P.M., Lonsdorf, E., Naidoo, R., Ricketts, T.H. & Shaw, Mr. (2009) Modeling multiple ecosystem services, biodiversity conservation, commodity production, and tradeoffs at landscape scales. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 7, 4–11.


  1. Cowling, R.M., Egoh, B., Knight, A.T., O’Farrell, P.J., Reyers, B., Rouget’ll, M., Roux, D.J., Welz, A. & Wilhelm-Rechman, A. (2008) An operational model for mainstreaming ecosystem services for implementation. PNAS, 105, 9483–9488.
  2. Daily, G.C., Polasky, S., Goldstein, J., Kareiva, P.M., Mooney, H. a, Pejchar, L., Ricketts, T.H., Salzman, J. & Shallenberger, R. (2009b) Ecosystem services in decision making: time to deliver. Frontiers in Ecology & the Environment, 7, 21–28.
  3. O’Farrell, P. J., Anderson, P. M., Le Maitre, D. C., & Holmes, P. M. (2012). Insights and opportunities offered by a rapid ecosystem service assessment in promoting a conservation agenda in an urban biodiversity hotspotEcology and Society17(3), 27.

Questions + Futures

  1. Carpenter, S.R., Mooney, H. a, Agard, J., Capistrano, D., Defries, R.S., Díaz, S., Dietz, T., Duraiappah, A.K., Oteng-Yeboah, A., Pereira, H.M., Perrings, C., Reid, W. V, Sarukhan, J., Scholes, R.J. & Whyte, A.  2009. Science for managing ecosystem services: Beyond the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. PNAS, 106, 1305–12.
  2. Kinzig, A., Perrings, C., Chapin III, F., Polasky, S., Smith, V., Tilman, D. & Turner II, B. 2011. Paying for Ecosystem Services — Promise and Peril. Science, 334, 603–604.
  3. Kremen, C. and R.S. Ostfeld. 2005. A call to ecologists: measuring, analyzing, and managing ecosystem services. Frontiers in Ecology and Environment 3:10:540-548.
  4. Norgaard, R.B. 2010. Ecosystem services: From eye-opening metaphor to complexity blinder. Ecological Economics, 69, 1219–1227.

This list over emphasizes the research from Stockholm Resilience Centre, which is useful for us, but probably not for those with other interests.  For those who are interested – I have a broader open Mendeley of papers of ecosystem services – here.

Please suggest papers that our students should be reading in the comments.


Wikipedia page on Social-ecological systems

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that wikipedia has a substantial and good page on the concept of social-ecological system.

Socio-ecological system – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

A socio-ecological system consists of ‘a bio-geo-physical’ unit and its associated social actors and institutions. Socio-ecological systems are complex and adaptive and delimited by spatial or functional boundaries surrounding particular ecosystems and their problem context. [1]

A socio-ecological system can be defined as: [2](p. 163)

  • A coherent system of biophysical and social factors that regularly interact in a resilient, sustained manner;
  • A system that is defined at several spatial, temporal, and organisational scales, which may be hierarchically linked;
  • A set of critical resources (natural, socioeconomic, and cultural) whose flow and use is regulated by a combination of ecological and social systems; and
  • A perpetually dynamic, complex system with continuous adaptation. [3] [4][5]

Scholars have used the concept of socio-ecological systems to emphasise the integrate concept of humans in nature and to stress that the delineation between social systems and ecological systems is artificial and arbitrary. [6] Whilst resilience has somewhat different meaning in social and ecological context [7], the SES approach holds that social and ecological systems are linked through feedback mechanisms, and that both display resilience and complexity. [5]

I urge Resilience Science to go and improve it.
I noticed there are no images.

More conceptual diagrams of social-ecological systems

Following up on my post yesterday on conceptual diagrams of social-ecolgoical systems (SES), below are some more SES conceptual diagrams from the journal Ecology and Society.

I did a google search that found a bunch of nice and not so nice diagrams in Ecology and Societyy, which is the main journal publishing research that uses the term social-ecological system (at least according to ISI’s web of science).  Below is a sampling of images, and below that a few examples.

Continue reading

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: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol9/iss1/art18/
  • 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

Adaptive Agricultural and Environmental Decision-making Postdoc at UC Davis

UC Davis Post-Doctoral Position in Adaptive Agricultural and Environmental Decision-making with Mark Lubell.

The UC Davis Department of Environmental Science and Policy seeks to fill one post-doctoral position in Adaptive Agricultural and Environmental Decision-making. The post-doctoral position will be for two years residence with possible third year renewal, starting Fall 2011 or earlier. The post-doctoral fellow will support a USDA funded project analyzing local rangeland restoration programs and individual factors that encourage ranchers to engage in adaptive rangeland management. The project involves analyzing data from structured survey of California ranchers, with possible addition of comparative data from Wyoming. The project also involves designing and expert elicitation or mental models process to map the decision-making process of ranchers in conjunction with an agro-ecological field experiment in adaptive rangeland management. The study will advance basic science in adaptive decision-making and coupled social-ecological systems. The project is being conducted by an interdisciplinary team including natural and social scientists. More information about the rangeland management project can be found here: UC Davis Adaptive Rangeland Management Project.

The post-doctoral fellow will be a member of Dr. Mark Lubell’s Center for Environmental Policy and Behaviorand housed in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy. In addition to the rangeland restoration project, the post-doc will have opportunities to participate in other projects on sustainable agriculture, water management, and climate change; mentor graduate students, teach classes, develop new research funding; and generally support an active research group.

Applicants should be recent recipients of a doctoral degree, with demonstrated interest and publication ability in agricultural and environmental decision-making and policy. Applicants are required to have a background in survey design and analysis, social science theory, and strong skills in quantitative statistical and network analysis. Applicants should also be trained in the design and analysis of expert elicitation protocols such as semantic networks, multi-criteria decision making, mental models, learning models, decision-making under uncertainty, and risk perception. The project requires strong interpersonal and language skills to interact directly with agricultural communities and stakeholders. Experience with rangeland management is preferred but not required. The position is open with respect to academic discipline, and could include behavioral decision theory, economics, political science, sociology, or other appropriate social science training.

Please notify Dr. Mark Lubell (mnlubell@ucdavis.edu) as soon as possible if you intend to apply, and send full applications electronically by August 1, 2011. Applications received by this date will be given first consideration, although we will continue to accept applications after that date. Applications should include a CV, letter describing research interests and background as applied to this project, examples of any relevant publications, and three letters of reference. Top candidates will be screened by telephone with possibility of campus visit. The University of California, Davis, is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer with a strong institutional commitment to the development of a climate that supports equality of opportunity and respect for differences.

The Anthropocene: spread of an idea

The Anthropocene, the idea that the entire planet has become a social-ecological system, is now being discussed in the mass media.  Three recent sightings…

1) The Economist has a feature story A man-made world: Science is recognising humans as a geological force to be reckoned with.  The author writes:

To think of deliberately interfering in the Earth system will undoubtedly be alarming to some. But so will an Anthropocene deprived of such deliberation. A way to try and split the difference has been propounded by a group of Earth-system scientists inspired by (and including) Dr Crutzen under the banner of “planetary boundaries”. The planetary-boundaries group, which published a sort of manifesto in 2009, argues for increased restraint and, where necessary, direct intervention aimed at bringing all sorts of things in the Earth system, from the alkalinity of the oceans to the rate of phosphate run-off from the land, close to the conditions pertaining in the Holocene. Carbon-dioxide levels, the researchers recommend, should be brought back from whatever they peak at to a level a little higher than the Holocene’s and a little lower than today’s.

The Earth’s history shows that the planet can indeed tip from one state to another, amplifying the sometimes modest changes which trigger the transition. The nightmare would be a flip to some permanently altered state much further from the Holocene than things are today: a hotter world with much less productive oceans, for example. Such things cannot be ruled out. On the other hand, the invocation of poorly defined tipping points is a well worn rhetorical trick for stirring the fears of people unperturbed by current, relatively modest, changes.

In general, the goal of staying at or returning close to Holocene conditions seems judicious. It remains to be seen if it is practical. The Holocene never supported a civilisation of 10 billion reasonably rich people, as the Anthropocene must seek to do, and there is no proof that such a population can fit into a planetary pot so circumscribed. So it may be that a “good Anthropocene”, stable and productive for humans and other species they rely on, is one in which some aspects of the Earth system’s behaviour are lastingly changed. For example, the Holocene would, without human intervention, have eventually come to an end in a new ice age. Keeping the Anthropocene free of ice ages will probably strike most people as a good idea.

2) The New York Times has a discussion between a number of thinkers on the Anthropocene – The Age of Anthropocene: Should We Worry? The discussants include Jon Foley, Erle Ellis, Ruth DeFreis, and Brad Allenby.

3) There are also shorter articles in the BBC and Discovery News.

Job: Assistant Prof. in Systems Ecology @ Stockholm University

The Natural Resources Management group of the Department of  Systems Ecology at Stockholm University, which is closely connected to the Stockholm Resilience Centre is looking for an Assistant Professor.  Applications are due May 31,2011.  For full details see the job ad, which states:

Subject description: Natural resource management includes studies of the role of biodiversity in generation of ecosystem services, dynamics of social-ecological systems and institutions and governance related to management of ecosystems.

Main tasks: Research, and to some extent teaching and supervision.

Required qualifications: A person who has been awarded a PhD or a qualification from another country that is considered equivalent to a PhD is qualified for employment as an associate university lecturer. Preference is given to candidates awarded their degree no more than five years before the closing date for applications. Candidates awarded their degree more than five years previously are also given preference if special grounds apply, such as leave of absence because of illness, leave of absence for military service, leave for an elected position in a trade union or student organization, or parental leave or other similar circumstances.

The applicant must have the ability to collaborate as well as the competence and qualities needed to carry out the work tasks successfully.

Assessment criteria: Special weight will be given to scientific proficiency. Some weight will also be given to teaching proficiency.

When merits are similar according to the general criteria, the following should be considered as special merits:

• Experience of ecological research bordering to research in social science and economics.

Additional information: An associate university lecturer is employed for 4 years. The employment can be extended to 5 years maximum, if he or she has taught more than 25 % at the undergraduate level.

An associate university lecturer can apply for promotion to a tenured position as university lecturer. Assessment criteria for the evaluation can be obtained from the Faculty of Science.

The applicant is expected to contribute to strengthening collaboration among the research groups in natural resource management, marine ecology and marine ecotoxicology at the Department of Systems Ecology and with research groups at the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

Further information about the position can be obtained from professor Thomas Elmqvist, e-mail: thomase@ecology.su.se, telephone +46 (0)8 16 12 83 or the Head of Department Nils Kautsky, e-mail: nils@ecology.su.se, telephone +46 (0)8 16 42 51.

Clive Hamilton on climate denialism and social-ecological systems and

Clive Hamilton is an author and Professor of Public Ethics at Charles Stuart University and Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics in Australia.  He has been writing about the ethics of climate change, and climate denial.

In his interesting talk, Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change, one of the points he makes is the importance and difference of a social-ecological perspective:

Developments in climate science have revealed a natural world so influenced by human activity that the epistemological division between nature and society can no longer be maintained. When global warming triggers feedback effects, such as melting permafrost and declining albedo from ice-melt, will we be seeing nature at work or human intervention? The mingling of the natural and the human has philosophical as well as practical significance, because the “object” has been contaminated by the “subject”.

Climate denial can be understood as a last-ditch attempt to re-impose the Enlightenment’s allocation of humans and Nature to two distinct realms, as if the purification of climate science could render Nature once again natural, as if taking politics out of science can take humans out of Nature. The irony is that it was Enlightenment science itself, in the rules laid down by the Royal Society, that objectified the natural world, putting it on the rack, in Bacon’s grisly metaphor, in order to extract its secrets. We came to believe we could keep Nature at arms-length, but have now discovered, through the exertions of climate science, something pre- moderns took for granted, that Nature is always too close for comfort.

For more see his book, Requeim for a Species, or his related talk at the UK’s RSAFacing up to Climate Change.