Home | Archives | About | Login | Submissions | Notify | Contact | Search
 E&S Home > Vol. 11, No. 1 > Art. 12

Copyright © 2006 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance.
Go to the pdf version of this article

The following is the established format for referencing this article:
Walker, B. H., J. M. Anderies, A. P. Kinzig, and P. Ryan. 2006. Exploring resilience in social-ecological systems through comparative studies and theory development: introduction to the special issue. Ecology and Society 11(1): 12. [online] URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol11/iss1/art12/

Guest Editorial, part of Special Feature on Exploring Resilience in Social-Ecological Systems

Exploring Resilience in Social-Ecological Systems Through Comparative Studies and Theory Development: Introduction to the Special Issue

Brian H. Walker 1, John M. Anderies 2, Ann P. Kinzig 2 and Paul Ryan 1

1CSIRO, 2Arizona State University


This special issue of Ecology and Society on exploring resilience in social-ecological systems draws together insights from comparisons of 15 case studies conducted during two Resilience Alliance workshops in 2003 and 2004. As such, it represents our current understanding of resilience theory and the issues encountered in our attempts to apply it.

Key words: resilience; theory; resilience application; resilience synthesis; resilience case studies


The concept of resilience in ecological systems was introduced by C. S. (Buzz) Holling (1973), who published a classic paper in the Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics on the relationship between resilience and stability. His purpose was to describe models of change in the structure and function of ecological systems. The notion of resilience is growing in importance as a concept for understanding, managing, and governing complex linked systems of people and nature (Folke et al. 2004). A good example is coral reef systems subjected to multiple human interventions (Adger et al. 2005, Hughes et al. 2005). T. P. Hughes (personal communication) recently found several thousand records after Googling the phrase “coral reef resilience,” indicating the current prevalence of the term. Although some ecologists (e.g., Pimm 1991) consider resilience to be a measure of how fast a system returns to an equilibrium state after a disturbance, Holling (1973) defined it as a measure of how far the system could be perturbed without shifting to a different regime. The former definition, i.e., return time, is now known as “engineering resilience” (Holling 1996). However, this special issue uses the latter definition, which Holling (1996) called “ecological resilience”; this concept is further defined in the following article.


This Special Issue on Exploring Resilience in Social-Ecological Systems continues the expansion and application of theories and ideas about resilience in interlinked systems of people and ecosystems, with expansions into some areas of social science. Similar ideas appear to have had a parallel evolution in fields such as psychology (Deveson 2003) or mental health (Walsh 2003). Over the last decade, however, much work has been done to expand and test the applicability of these concepts to fields that are linked to ecology. One of the first was the edited volume by Berkes and Folke (1998), which explored traditional and current management in linked social-ecological systems. That work was expanded by the Resilience Network, an ephemeral research group that produced four edited volumes, each of which explored different interdisciplinary connections. Gunderson and Pritchard (2002) focused on ecological state changes resulting from human actions in a variety of ecosystems. Berkes et al. (2003) documented how humans across a wide range of cultural settings have adapted to ecosystem changes in ways that influence the resilience of the combined social-ecological system. Dasgupta and Mäler (2004) explored the economic implications of state changes in ecosystems, and Gunderson and Holling (2002) attempted to develop a theoretical synthesis based on preliminary investigations into linked systems.

The case study comparisons and this special issue were orchestrated by The Resilience Alliance, an international consortium of 15 research groups that grew out of the Resilience Network. One specific objective of the group is to bring together ecologists, economists, political scientists, mathematicians, social scientists, and archaeologists to begin an interdisciplinary assessment of the ideas developed in previous works.

To continue building resilience “theory,” it would, of course, be most desirable to develop a set of hypotheses, conduct controlled experiments to test them, and through this process develop a set of basic facts or “laws of social-ecological system dynamics.” Unfortunately, these classical scientific approaches work best under highly reduced and controlled conditions. They are of far less use in the real-world situations of coupled social-ecological systems in which variables cannot be tightly controlled and independently manipulated, replication can be difficult or impossible, and people are understandably reluctant to subject themselves and their livelihoods to experimental manipulations for the sake of advancing scientific understanding.

Rather, we must of necessity rely on developing general theory based on well developed principles from the natural and social sciences, in particular ecology, economics, and political science, and confront it through comparative analyses of many cases. By combining the insights gained through theory development and those derived from qualitative analysis of these case studies, we can improve our understanding of how social-ecological systems operate, and extract generalities about the fundamental processes that structure the interactions between human societies and ecological systems. Examples of how this progression of theory development and generalization has worked so far includes research on lakes and wetlands (Carpenter et al. 1999a,b, Gunderson 2001, Carpenter and Brock 2004, Olsson et al. 2004), rangelands (Perrings and Walker 1997, Janssen et al. 2000, Anderies et al. 2002, Janssen et al. 2004), irrigation systems (Redman and Kinzig 2003, Anderies 2005), coral reefs (Hughes et al. 2003, Bellwood et al. 2004, Hughes et al. 2005), plus more general theoretical and synthesis work (Carpenter et al. 2001, Scheffer et al. 2001, 2003, Walker et al. 2002, 2004). The work presented here is a continuation of this process, including new insights emerging from the comparison of an ever-growing set of cases.

The first paper in this special issue (Walker et al. 2006) deals with the set of developing propositions that emerged from the two workshops. Although they are incomplete and will undoubtedly change, they serve as a useful interim set of statements that reflect our current understanding. Each of these propositions is addressed in one or more of the papers that follow.

The main part of the special issue consists of seven papers that present some of the insights gained from comparisons of 15 of the social-ecological systems that have been the subjects of research by members of the Resilience Alliance. Some have been studied for many years and have a wealth of detailed information; others have been undertaken only in the past three years. All of them, however, consider the social-ecological systems with which they are concerned at multiple scales and examine the feedbacks within and between the social and ecosystem domains. The first paper in this group (Cumming et al. 2006) examines the origins and effects of scale mismatches - a hypothesized cause of loss of resilience. The next (Janssen et al. 2006) takes a network perspective of social-ecological systems and looks at how changing structures and connections in systems influence their resilience to external shocks. The third paper (Gunderson et al. 2006) provides an overview of how resilience, adaptability, and transformability play out in lake and wetland systems. The following three papers focus on different aspects of how the dynamics of social-ecological systems are determined. Abel et al. (2006) examine how two different outcomes occurred in each of two regions during the rapid “backloop” phases of change and the attributes of the systems that determined the outcomes. Next, the paper by Olsson et al. (2006), on navigating toward adaptive governance, compares five case studies in terms of their capacity to undergo transformation and identifies networks, especially “shadow” networks, and leadership as crucial attributes. The third paper in this set (Lebel et al. 2006) deals with governance and resilience, addressing the question: Do certain governance attributes enhance the capacity of a society to manage resilience? The comparisons of a wide range of case studies produced a set of eight governance-related attributes that influence the resilience of the social-ecological systems involved. The last of the main papers (Kinzig et al. 2006) offers a new insight into the complex ways in which multiple regime shifts occur in social-ecological systems, across domains, and across scales. The view of resilience that encompasses a single regime shift caused by a threshold on one, albeit dominant, variable, as in much of the work on lakes, rangelands, and irrigation systems mentioned above, is expanded to a more holistic view in which social-ecological systems have a number of thresholds at different scales and in both the ecological and socio-economic domains. [ERRATUM].

The concluding paper (Anderies et al. 2006) draws together the insights that have come out of the comparisons. The title reflects the conclusion that top-down optimization for defined “products” from linked social-ecological systems is a policy and management strategy that finally deserves “burial” some 30 yr after the publication of a paper that offered an epitaph for the concept of maximum sustainable yield (Larkin 1977). Although top-down optimization allowed for increased welfare in the early phases of natural resource use and exploitation, the secondary effects of this narrow approach are now accumulating everywhere, and we must move on. The reasoning is embodied in the insights from the 15 case studies, which offer an alternative, resilience-based approach to resource management and governance. The complexity of linked social-ecological systems is such that a tight body of theory governing their dynmaics is unlikely in the near future, if ever, and it is proposed instead that an evolving framework that allows for generalization and transportability of results is what we should aim for. Managing social-ecological systems will always be a combination of “art” and science, but the science is a very important part when it comes to avoiding costly mistakes. The key insights from the preceding papers are presented, followed by a set of 11 tentative “messages” for policy and management.

This special issue marks the end of a phase of research, much of which was made possible through a grant from the James S. McDonnell Foundation. It represents an expansion of the concepts in the book Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems (Gunderson and Holling 2002) and presents insights from the first efforts to compare, in some detail, the resilience of linked social-ecological systems at regional scales. The aim of publishing these papers as an integrated special issue is to bring this collective set of new and emerging ideas to a wide scientific audience. Our hope is that it might serve as a platform for a greatly increased program of research in many countries and organizations, which will lead to a better basis for sustainable development and an approach that we might tentatively call “adaptive governance for resilient social-ecologcial systems.”


Responses to this article are invited. If accepted for publication, your response will be hyperlinked to the article. To submit a response, follow this link. To read responses already accepted, follow this link


The bulk of the work reported in this Special Issue on Exploring Resilience in Social-Ecological Systems was supported by a generous grant from the James S. McDonnell Foundation (USA). We also acknowledge the support of the EcoMuseum, Kristianstad, Sweden, in the conduct of the first workshop comparing the various case studies, and a grant from the Myer Foundation (Australia) and generous personal grants from Lady M. Southey (Australia) and Clare Cannon (Australia) for the second workshop, conducted in Australia. We thank Rochelle Lawson for editorial assistance in style, proofing, cross-referencing, and getting the special issue into shape.


Abel, N., D. H. M. Cumming, and J. M. Anderies. 2006. Collapse and reorganization in social-ecological systems: questions, some ideas, and policy implications. Ecology and Society 11(1): 17. [online] URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol11/iss1/art17/.

Adger, W. N., K. Brown, and E. L. Tompkins. 2005. The political economy of cross-scale networks in resource co-management. Ecology and Society 10(2): 9. [online] URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol10/iss2/art9/.

Anderies, J. M. 2005. Minimal models and agroecological policy at the regional scale: an application to salinity problems in southeastern Australia. Regional Environmental Change 5:1-17.

Anderies, J. M., M. Janssen, and B. Walker. 2002. Grazing management, resilience, and the dynamics of a fire driven rangeland system. Ecosystems 5:23-44.

Anderies, J. M., B. H. Walker, and A. P. Kinzig. 2006. Fifteen weddings and a funeral. Ecology and Society 11(1): 21. [online] URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol11/iss1/art21/.

Bellwood, D. R., T. Hughes, C. Folke, and M. Nyström. 2004. Confronting the coral reef crisis. Nature 429:827-833.

Berkes, F., and C. Folke, editors. 1998. Linking social and ecological systems: management practices and social mechanisms for building resilience. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Berkes, F., J. F. Colding, and C. Folke, editors. 2003. Navigating nature’s dynamics: building resilience for complexity and change. Cambridge University Press, New York, New York, USA.

Carpenter, S. R., and W. A. Brock. 2004. Spatial complexity, resilience and policy diversity: fishing on lake-rich landscapes. Ecology and Society 9(1): 8. [online] URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol9/iss1/art8/.

Carpenter, S. R., W. A. Brock, and P. Hanson.1999a. Ecological and social dynamics in simple models of ecosystem management. Conservation Ecology 3(2): 4. [online] URL: http://www.consecol.org/vol3/iss2/art4/.

Carpenter, S. R., D. Ludwig, and W. A. Brock. 1999b. Management of eutrophication for lakes subject to potentially irreversible change. Ecological Applications 9:751-771.

Carpenter, S. R., B. H. Walker, M. A. Anderies, and N. A. Abel. 2001. From metaphor to measurement: resilience of what to what? Ecosystems 4:765-781.

Cumming, G., D. Cumming, and C. Redman. 2006. Scale mismatches in social-ecological systems: causes, consequences, and solutions. Ecology and Society 11(1): 14. [online] URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol11/iss1/art14/.

Dasgupta, P., and K-G. Mäler, editors. 2004. The economics of non-convex ecosystems. Kluwer Academic, Dordrecht, The Netherlands.

Deveson, A. 2003. Resilience. Allen and Unwin, St Leonards, Australia.

Folke, C., S. R. Carpenter, B. H. Walker, M. Scheffer, T. Elmqvist, L. H. Gunderson, and C. S. Holling. 2004. Regime shifts, resilience, and biodiversity in ecosystem management. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics 35:557-581.

Gunderson, L. H. 2001. Managing surprising ecosystems in Southern Florida. Ecological Economics 37:371-378.

Gunderson, L. H., S. R. Carpenter, C. Folke, P. Olsson, and G. Peterson. 2006. Water RATs (resilience, adaptability, and transformability) in lake and wetland social-ecological systems. Ecology and Society 11(1): 16. [online] URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol11/iss1/art16/.

Gunderson, L. H., and C. S. Holling, editors. 2002. Panarchy: understanding transformations in human and natural systems. Island Press, Washington, D.C., USA.

Gunderson, L. H., and L. Pritchard, editors. 2002. Resilience and the behavior of large-scale ecosystems. Island Press, Washington, D.C., USA.

Holling, C. S. 1973. Resilience and stability of ecological systems. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 4:1-23.

Holling, C. S. 1996. Engineering resilience versus ecological resilience. Pages 31-44 in P. Schulze, editor. Engineering within ecological constraints. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., USA.

Hughes, T. P., A. H. Baird, D. R. Bellwood, M. Card, S. R. Connolly, C. Folke, R. Grosberg, O. Hoegh-Guldberg, J. B. C. Jackson, J. Kleypas, J. M. Lough, P. Marshall, M. Nyström, S. R. Palumbi, J. M. Pandolfi, B. Rosen, and J. Roughgarden. 2003. Climate change, human impacts, and the resilience of coral reefs. Science 301:929-933.

Hughes, T. P., D. R. Bellwood, C. Folke, R. S. Steneck, and J. Wilson. 2005. New paradigms for supporting the resilience of marine ecosystems. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 20(7):380-386.

Janssen, M. A., J. M. Anderies, and B. H. Walker. 2004. Robust strategies for managing rangelands with multiple stable attractors. Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 47:140-162.

Janssen, M. A., Ö. Bodin, J. M. Anderies, T. Elmqvist, H. Ernstson, R. R. J. McAllister, P. Olsson, and P. Ryan. 2006. Toward a network perspective of the study of resilience in social-ecological systems. Ecology and Society 11(1): 15. [online] URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol11/iss1/art15/.

Janssen, M. A., B. H. Walker, J. Langridge, and N. Abel. 2000. An adaptive agent model for analysing co-evolution of management and policies in a complex rangeland system. Ecological Modelling 131:249-268

Kinzig, A. P., P. Ryan, M. Etienne, H. Allyson, T. Elmqvist, and B. H. Walker. 2006. Resilience and regime shifts: assessing cascading effects. Ecology and Society 11(1): 20. [online] URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol11/iss1/art20/.

Larkin, P. A. 1977. Epitaph for the concept of maximum sustained yield. Transactions of the American Fisheries Society 106(1):1-11.

Lebel, L., J. M. Anderies, B. Campbell, C. Folke, S. Hatfield-Dodds, T. P. Hughes, and J. Wilson. 2006. Governance and the capacity to manage resilience in regional social-ecological systems. Ecology and Society 11(1): 19. [online] URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol11/iss1/art19/.

Olsson, P., C. Folke, and T. Hahn. 2004. Social-ecological transformation for ecosystem management: the development of adaptive co-management of a wetland landscape in southern Sweden. Ecology and Society 9(4): 2. [online] URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol9/iss4/art2/.

Olsson, P., L. H. Gunderson, S. R. Carpenter, P. Ryan, L. Lebel, C. Folke, and C. S. Holling. 2006. Shooting the rapids: navigating transitions to adaptive governance of social-ecological systems. Ecology and Society 11(1): 18. [online] URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol11/iss1/art18/.

Perrings, C., and B. Walker. 1997. Biodiversity, resilience and the control of ecological-economic systems: the case of fire-driven rangelands. Ecological Economics 22:73-83.

Pimm, S. 1991. The balance of nature? University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois, USA.

Redman, C. L., and A. P. Kinzig. 2003. Resilience of past landscapes: resilience theory, society, and the longue durée. Conservation Ecology 7(1): 14. [online] URL: http://www.consecol.org/vol7/iss1/art14/.

Scheffer, M., W. Brock, and F. Westley. 2000. Socioeconomic mechanisms preventing optimum use of ecosystem services: an interdisciplinary theoretical analysis. Ecosystems 3:451-471.

Scheffer, M., S. R. Carpenter, J. Foley, C. Folke, and B. H. Walker. 2001. Catastrophic shifts in ecosystems. Nature 413:591-596.

Walker, B. H., S. R. Carpenter, J. M. Anderies, N. Abel, G. S. Cumming, M. A. Janssen, L. Lebel, J. Norberg, G. D. Peterson, and R. Pritchard. 2002. Resilience management in social-ecological systems: a working hypothesis for a participatory approach. Conservation Ecology 6(1): 14. [online] URL: http://www.consecol.org/vol6/iss1/art14.

Walker, B. H., L. H. Gunderson, A. P. Kinzig, C. Folke, S. R. Carpenter, and L. Schultz. 2006. A handful of heuristics and some propositions for understanding resilience in social-ecological systems. Ecology and Society 11(1): 13. [online] URL: http://www.consecol.org/vol11/iss1/art13/.

Walker, B. H., C. S. Holling, S. R. Carpenter, and A. P. Kinzig. 2004. Resilience, adaptability, and transformability. Ecology and Society 9(2): 5. [online] URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol9/iss2/art5/.

Walsh, F. 2003. Family resilience: a framework for clinical practice. Family Proceedings 42:1-18.

Address of Correspondent:
Brian H. Walker
CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems
P.O. Box 284
Canberra, ACT 2601 Australia

Home | Archives | About | Login | Submissions | Notify | Contact | Search