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Methods for understanding social-ecological systems: a review of place-based studies

Alta de Vos, Department of Environmental Science, Rhodes University, South Africa
Reinette Biggs, Centre for Complex Systems in Transition, Stellenbosch University, South Africa; Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Sweden
Rika Preiser, Centre for Complex Systems in Transition, Stellenbosch University, South Africa


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In recent years, social-ecological systems (SES) have emerged as a prominent analytical framing with which to investigate pressing sustainability issues associated with the Anthropocene era. Despite the growth of SES research, the lack of a delineated set of methods commonly contributes to disorientation for those entering into a field where methodological pluralism is the norm. We conduct a review of SES research, focusing particularly on methods used in this field. Our results reflect the rapid growth in SES research relative to other publications in relevant subject areas, and suggest a maturation of the field. Whilst institutions investigating SES have been mostly based in the global north, focal SES has been more globally distributed, although key regions, especially island regions, remain poorly studied. Key problems addressed in the studies related to policy, trade, conservation, adaptation, land use change, water, forests, sustainability, urban problems, and governance and institutions. We identified 311 methods, which we grouped into 27 method categories that can serve as a guide to SES research methods for newcomers to the field. We also performed an exploratory assessment of the ability of these methods to account for key features of SES as complex adaptive systems. We found that methods do better at accounting for the relational and context-dependent nature of SES, and least well with complex causality. Our study highlights the plurality of methods used in SES research, and helps highlight key areas in need of further methodological development.

Key words

complex adaptive systems; global change; methodological pluralism; methods; place-based; resilience; social-ecological systems

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