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Capturing emergent phenomena in social-ecological systems: an analytical framework

Maja Schlüter, Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Sweden
L. Jamila Haider, Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Sweden
Steven J. Lade, Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Sweden; Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University, Australia
Emilie Lindkvist, Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Sweden
Romina Martin, Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Sweden
Kirill Orach, Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Sweden
Nanda Wijermans, Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Sweden
Carl Folke, Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Sweden; Beijer Institute, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Sweden


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Social-ecological systems (SES) are complex adaptive systems. Social-ecological system phenomena, such as regime shifts, transformations, or traps, emerge from interactions among and between human and nonhuman entities within and across scales. Analyses of SES phenomena thus require approaches that can account for (1) the intertwinedness of social and ecological processes and (2) the ways they jointly give rise to emergent social-ecological patterns, structures, and dynamics that feedback on the entities and processes that generated them. We have developed a framework of linked action situations (AS) as a tool to capture those interactions that are hypothesized to have jointly and dynamically generated a social-ecological phenomenon of interest. The framework extends the concept of an action situation to provide a conceptualization of SES that focusses on social-ecological interactions and their links across levels. The aim of our SE-AS (social-ecological action situations) framework is to support a process of developing hypotheses about configurations of ASs that may explain an emergent social-ecological phenomenon. We suggest six social-ecological ASs along with social and ecological action situations that can commonly be found in natural resource or ecosystem management contexts. We test the ability of the framework to structure an analysis of processes of emergence by applying it to different case studies of regime shifts, traps, and sustainable resource use. The framework goes beyond existing frameworks and approaches, such as the SES framework or causal loop diagrams, by establishing a way of analyzing SES that focuses on the interplay of social-ecological interactions with the emergent outcomes they produce. We conclude by discussing the added value of the framework and discussing the different purposes it can serve: from supporting the development of theories of the emergence of social-ecological phenomena, enhancing transparency of SES understandings to serving as a boundary object for interdisciplinary knowledge integration.

Key words

action situation; agency; complex adaptive systems; emergence; explanation; intertwindness

Copyright © 2019 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