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Social-ecological systems, social diversity, and power: insights from anthropology and political ecology

Michael Fabinyi, Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University
Louisa Evans, Geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter
Simon J Foale, Department of Anthropology, Archaeology and Sociology, James Cook University


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A social-ecological system (SES) framework increasingly underpins the “resilience paradigm.” As with all models, the SES comes with particular biases. We explore these key biases. We critically examine how the SES resilience literature has attempted to define and analyze the social arena. We argue that much SES literature defines people’s interests and livelihoods as concerned primarily with the environment, and thereby underplays the role of other motivations and social institutions. We also highlight the SES resilience literature’s focus on institutions and organized social units, which misses key aspects of social diversity and power. Our key premise is the importance of inter- and multi-disciplinary perspectives. To illustrate this, we draw attention to the critique of earlier ecological anthropology that remains relevant for current conceptualizations of SESs, focusing on the concepts of social diversity and power. And we discuss insights from social anthropology and political ecology that have responded to this critique to develop different ways of incorporating social diversity and power into human-environment relations. Finally, we discuss how these social science perspectives can help improve the understanding of the “social” in SES resilience research.

Key words

anthropology; political ecology; power; social diversity; social-ecological system

Copyright © 2014 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