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Not just another variable: untangling the spatialities of power in social–ecological systems

Micah L Ingalls, Department of Natural Resources, Cornell University


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Increased attention has been paid to how the spatial dimensions of social–ecological systems are formative in shaping their ability to negotiate change and remain resilient. This paper moves this research further by exploring how diverse forms of power play a crucial role in shaping these spatial dimensions and the production of social–ecological outcomes. Grounding these explorations in a National Protected Area in Lao PDR, this paper explores how power relationships operate through the spatial and temporal domains of complex systems. Findings suggest (at least) four important insights: (1) the exercise of power materializes in policies and programs and becomes written onto the spaces of social–ecological systems through boundary creation, zonation, and other social processes that (re)define spatial meanings; these meanings vary by social actor; (2) policies and programs map out unevenly across space and time as they interact with antecedent social–ecological conditions in ways that preclude linear causal relationships between policy and outcomes; (3) although local in their expression, spatialized disputes in social–ecological systems draw on cross-scalar discourses and networks of power to bolster, undermine, and (de)legitimize competing environmental and social narratives; and (4) however powerful institutions and actor-networks may be, they are never fully hegemonic as they are attenuated by other discourses and operations of power, although these all play out across a highly uneven sociopolitical terrain. Paying greater attention to the spatial and temporal dynamics of power may be much more than a project of introducing yet another variable into the already complex admixture of analytic elements. Rather, by rendering these explicit as objects of analysis, common insights may change entirely or even be overturned.

Key words

conflict; governance; Lao PDR; protected area; social–ecological systems; spatial resiliences

Copyright © 2017 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