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E&S Home > Vol. 23, Iss. 4 > Art. 46 > Abstract Open Access Publishing 
Social-ecological systems as complex adaptive systems: organizing principles for advancing research methods and approaches

Rika Preiser, Centre for Complex Systems in Transition, Stellenbosch University, South Africa
Reinette Biggs, Centre for Complex Systems in Transition, Stellenbosch University, South Africa; Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Sweden
Alta De Vos, Department of Environmental Science, Rhodes University, South Africa
Carl Folke, Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Sweden; Beijer Institute, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Sweden


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The study of social-ecological systems (SES) has been significantly shaped by insights from research on complex adaptive systems (CAS). We offer a brief overview of the conceptual integration of CAS research and its implications for the advancement of SES studies and methods. We propose a conceptual typology of six organizing principles of CAS based on a comparison of leading scholars’ classifications of CAS features and properties. This typology clusters together similar underlying organizing principles of the features and attributes of CAS, and serves as a heuristic framework for identifying methods and approaches that account for the key features of SES. These principles can help identify appropriate methods and approaches for studying SES. We discuss three main implications of studying and engaging with SES as CAS. First, there needs to be a shift in focus when studying the dynamics and interactions in SES, to better capture the nature of the organizing principles that characterize SES behavior. Second, realizing that the nature of the intertwined social-ecological relations is complex has real consequences for how we choose methods and practical approaches for observing and studying SES interactions. Third, engagement with SES as CAS poses normative challenges for problem-oriented researchers and practitioners taking on real-world challenges.

Key words

complex adaptive systems; normative implications; ontology; social-ecological systems; typology of systemic features and dynamics

Copyright © 2018 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087