Ecology and SocietyEcology and Society
 E&S Home > Vol. 17, No. 3 > Art. 11
The following is the established format for referencing this article:
Plummer, R., B. Crona, D. R. Armitage, P. Olsson, M. Tengö, and O. Yudina. 2012. Adaptive comanagement: a systematic review and analysis. Ecology and Society 17(3): 11.

Adaptive Comanagement: a Systematic Review and Analysis

1Brock University, 2Stockholm Resilience Centre, 3University of Waterloo


This paper outlines the results of a systematic review of the literature on adaptive comanagement (ACM). Adaptive comanagement is an emergent governance approach for complex social–ecological systems that links the learning function of adaptive management (experimental and experiential) and the linking (vertically and horizontally) function of comanagement. Given the rapid growth of adaptive comanagement scholarship, there is value in a systematic analysis of how the concept is being conceptualized to elucidate agreement and discrepancies and to examine the challenges this presents for cross-case comparisons and the possibility of arriving at more generalizable insights. A synthesis-based methodology has been developed involving a comprehensive search and screening of academic databases and the internet. A detailed analysis of 108 documents was undertaken to characterize the state of the ACM literature, unpack the construct of ACM, and examine relationships among aspects of ACM based on accumulated experiences to date. The systematic review and analysis reveals imprecision, inconsistency, and confusion with the concept. Robust evidentiary insights into how the variables or components of ACM interrelate as well as relate to goals and outcomes are, therefore, presently not possible. These findings lead to the discussion of a series of challenges for ACM scholarship. Opportunities remain for ACM scholars to pursue theoretical development in rigorous ways that facilitate empirically based cross-site comparisons.
Key words: adaptive comanagement; environmental governance; systematic review


Efforts to guide nature–society interactions, sustain ecosystem services, and improve human well-being require holistic, integrative, and multi-level institutional arrangements (Gunderson et al. 1995, Ostrom et al. 2002, Folke et al. 2005). Such arrangements are hypothesized to “... have the potential to deal with the complexity of interdependent social–ecological systems (SES) and enhance the fit between ecosystem dynamics and governance systems” (Olsson et al. 2010: 263). Adaptive comanagment (ACM) has been put forward as one such promising approach (Carlsson and Berkes 2005).

Although the exact origin of the term “ACM” is unclear, it appears to have emerged in the course of a project at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in 1997. At that time, it served to highlight the social context of adaptive management (sensu Lee 1993) but has since also come to represent an enrichment of comanagment scholarship in the directions of complexity science and resilience thinking (Plummer and Armitage 2007b). Thus, ACM combines the adaptive and collaborative narratives in resource management to engender a distinct approach. Berkes et al. (2007) synthesize the following similarities and differences between these approaches in terms of their respective focus on establishing links, temporal scope, spatial scope, and capacity building. Adaptive management focuses on learning-by-doing, takes place over the medium to long term through cycles of learning and adaptation, and concentrates on the relationships, requirements, and capacity of managers. comanagment establishes vertical institutional links, tends to produce snapshots with short to medium timeframes, bridges local level and government level(s), and is concerned with the capacity of resource users and communities. Adaptive comanagment thus forges links (both horizontal and vertical) for shared learning-by-doing between various actors, over a medium to long time horizon. It is multi-scale in spatial scope and concerned with enhancing and including the capacity of all actors with a stake for sustainably managing the resource at hand.

Today, more than 100 published items reflect the applied experiences and scholarship of ACM. Although it is not a governance panacea and must be tailored to specific contexts (Armitage et al. 2009, Berkes 2009, Plummer and Hashimoto 2011), ACM is recognized as having the potential to: address the problem of “fit” by enhancing the congruence between social institutions and biophysical systems (Olsson et al. 2007, Galaz et al. 2008); become an agent of governance that is good, right, and authentic as well as an arena in which to embrace uncertainty (Fennell et al. 2008); and, build adaptive capacity (Armitage 2007, Fabricius et al. 2007). Ultimately, ACM “... creates an ‘adaptive dance’ between resilience and change with the potential to sustain complex social–ecological systems” (Olsson et al. 2004:87; see also Folke et al. 2005, Berkes et al. 2007, Schultz 2009).

Reviews have been conducted to elucidate different aspects of the ACM concept (Plummer and Armitage 2007b, Plummer 2009). These have focused on synthesizing the core components of ACM (Plummer and Armitage 2007b) as well as comparing different conceptual models and identifying phases and critical variables associated with the ACM process (Plummer 2009). Although useful in drawing together the literature on these different topics, neither of the reviews systematically considered the entire body of ACM literature. Moreover, neither one draws on the accumulated empirical evidence to analyze the goals, components, and outcomes, or how these are linked. These shortcomings are also highlighted by Huitema et al. (2009). This paper attempts to address these gaps through a comprehensive systematic review and analysis of the ACM literature.

Given the growing body of work on ACM, there is value in systematically analyzing how the concept is being used for several reasons: to elucidate agreement but also discrepancies in how ACM is conceptualized and applied in the literature, and to examine the challenges this presents for cross-case comparisons and the possibility of arriving at more generalizable insights about how ACM contributes to improved natural resources and their governance. In an effort to achieve this, we examine the literature guided by three main objectives: (1) to broadly characterize the state of the ACM literature, (2) to enhance our understanding of how ACM is defined and operationalized, and (3) to examine how this is related to specific outcomes.

The paper is organized as follows. First, we briefly elaborate on the rationale for employing a systematic review as an analytical approach. Second, we describe the patterns emerging from our analysis. Figure 1 positions the three objectives of the paper in relation to the key analytical considerations made and offers the reader a roadmap to the presentation of results. Attention is particularly focused on the links between the stated purpose of ACM, how it is operationalized, and the outcomes this gives rise to. Third, we discuss these findings in relation to issues raised in previous reviews of ACM and reflect upon how they contribute to a more holistic understanding of ACM. We conclude by pointing out some implications for future research and practice.


Information revealed by a single case study or individual respondent can yield rich and valuable insights. However, the information necessary to infer relationships or develop theory may only be gained from a systematic comparison of a wider universe of cases and experiences. In the same way, literature reviews inevitably share the biases of social surveys and raise the challenges of formulating conclusions reached by a single review (Petticrew and Roberts 2006).

According to Thorne et al. (2004:1343), synthesis-based methodologies refer to a family of methodological approaches with the common aim of building new knowledge from a rigorous analysis of existing research findings. These methodologies are distinguishable from single reviews in the way data are collected and treated. A synthesis-based methodology is especially desirable when uncertainty or questions surround a subject where previous research has been conducted, and when an “overall picture” of evidence on a topic is useful to direct future research and methodological innovations (Petticrew and Roberts 2006). The orderly and transparent nature of such reviews permits the detection of literature omissions (Petticrew and Roberts 2006) and gaps not obvious in single studies (Crowther and Cook 2007). Although, historically, systematic reviews have tended to be quantitative in nature, qualitative systematic reviews have emerged as a similarly useful methodology (Dixon-Woods et al. 2006, Hughes et al. 2009, O’Connell and Downe 2009). For all these reasons, systematic reviews have received increasing interest and are an appropriate means to accomplish the intent of this research.

Drawing upon the literature of synthesis-based methodologies in social sciences with a qualitative orientation (Petticrew and Roberts 2006, Atkins et al. 2008, Rahimi et al. 2009), as well as the guidelines set in biological conservation (Pullin and Stewart 2006, Pullin and Knight 2009), a four-step approach was devised for the systematic review and analysis of ACM. The steps in the method are detailed in the Appendix 1, and more details on the analytical (coding) procedures undertaken to achieve each objective are described in Appendix 2. Key search terms included ecosystem or ecology* or environment* or natural resource and ACM or adaptive comanagment or adaptive collaborative management. No attempt was made by the researchers to judge or evaluate the use of these terms or labels in papers beyond the screening criteria set forth (see Appendix 2) because doing so would interfere with the objectives of the study. Similarly, no attempt was made by the researchers to interpret the implicit meaning of text as reported in the items. The directed screening included peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed items. The analysis involved an iterative process of open, axial, and selective coding to track down our objectives.

Systematic reviews and analyses are not unsusceptible to methodological challenges and have been criticized for pooling conceptually and methodologically dissimilar studies (Petticrew and Roberts 2006). The inclusion of observational studies also makes such reviews more vulnerable to bias, as these studies are more prone to bias themselves (Petticrew and Roberts 2006). Thus, it is important to acknowledge that systematic reviews ultimately reflect, and are not independent of, the quality of contributing studies (Crowther and Cook 2007). The diversity of disciplines and perspectives from which the items in this systematic review were drawn makes it imperative to also acknowledge the different interpretation of variables, outcomes, and successes. The common exclusion of unpublished data may result in the over-representation of studies with positive findings (Petticrew and Roberts 2006) and cause such reviews to miss out on potentially important insights (Dixon-Woods et al. 2006). Conversely, the inclusion of such studies may expose the systematic review to data of lesser quality (Crowther and Cook 2007). Finally, and rather unavoidably, considerable judgment is involved in reviewing data despite best efforts to achieve objectivity (Pullin and Stewart 2006). In addition to these limitations generally associated with systematic reviews, specific conditions are identified throughout the following sections to ensure accurate interpretation.


A total of 108 items (e.g., journal articles, book chapters, theses) were included in the analysis as an outcome of the search and screening criteria (see Appendix 1). Figure 2 presents the date of publication of these items and illustrates the upward trend in publication of ACM scholarship. Our first concern was to understand the nature of the types of studies being undertaken to address ACM. As it is an amalgam of different types of scholarship—ranging from conceptual to the applied—axial coding was undertaken to discern the primary orientation of each item (Appendix 2). Sixty-seven items were identified as theoretical, and 30 (of 67) items were purely conceptual and made no mention of a case. The remaining 37 also included information based on a case study. Forty-one items were identified as empirical in orientation.

Studies combining conceptual and empirical elements were the most prevalent. For example, 57 cases were included in 37 of the items identified as theoretical; only 45% of these theoretical items did not involve any case studies. Similarly, in those identified as empirical, 71 cases were included and 95% of these review items contained one or more case. The remaining 5% presented original empirical research other than a case study. In total, the systematic review revealed 128 cases of ACM, with 41% of these cases not involving the presentation of primary data. An acknowledged limitation of this analysis is that the total amount does not account for the same case appearing in multiple items. Therefore, we anticipate the total number of unique ACM cases to be fewer.

A second interest was to characterize the ACM literature according to the contexts in which ACM was being studied. Axial coding was conducted to discern several contextual considerations including the primary resource sector or environmental concern, resource scale, scale of institution, and geographic location of items reviewed. Table 1 describes these contextual elements and summarizes the findings of all the items.

Results show that ACM arrangements were studied most frequently at a regional scale, but that a local focus was also prevalent. Recognizing that the term “regional scale” and “local scale” may be interpreted differently, we use the former when the scale of the collaboration is primarily of interest to more than one geographic community and the latter when the scale of collaboration primarily concerns one geographic community. Despite these operational guides, it is valuable to note that in some situations the distinction between scales was difficult to discern. Moreover, horizontal and vertical links are inherent in ACM at both scales, and we did not attempt to discern the degree of these links. The locations in which ACM was examined most frequently were North America, Europe, and Asia. The three most frequent types of resources or environmental aspects considered were forestry, fisheries, and water resources, and the scales at which these were investigated both regionally and locally were well represented.

It is important to recognize the variable nature of the case material presented in the items. For example, in some items, the case involved a general sector or resource (e.g., forestry), whereas in others, it may have involved both a sector and specific location (e.g., forestry in Indonesia). Consequently, the numbers of cases identified for the contextual aspects do not necessarily equal the total number of case studies identified. Another caveat here is that a broad and inclusive definition of case study was employed. It is acknowledged that using such a term conceals great variability, especially insofar as some case material was brief and others were more robust and conveyed greater depth. Nonetheless, the broad pattern reveals that studies usually combine conceptual and empirical elements, involve one or more cases, are examined in North America, Europe, and Asia, and consider forestry, fisheries, water, wildlife, wetlands, and protected areas.


Our second objective sought to comprehensively understand ACM based on experiences accumulated to date, and our third objective aimed to examine how aspects of ACM relate to outcomes. Specific questions corresponding to these objectives were developed in step one of the systematic review (see Appendix 1) and are used here as sub-headings to unpack ACM from accumulated experiences. Figure 1 also offers a structural guide to the presentation of the results.

How is ACM Defined?

A key issue in being able to compare ACM processes across cases to discern patterns in what contributes to success or failure is that the concept under study is well, and consistently, defined. A logical starting point, therefore, was to examine how the purpose(s) of ACM—i.e., the aims, goals, and intentions of ACM—were defined across our surveyed items (Appendix 2).

Two major themes emerged from the analysis. The first, combining the learning aspect of adaptive management with the linking function of collaboration, was the most frequently cited purpose (25 items, 42 passages) of ACM. Equally frequent was the expression of ACM as encompassing collaboration, the capacity to adapt, and some additional aspect (25 items, 37 passages). The additional aspects contained herein were widespread and included knowledge, resilience, enhanced management and governance, improved human well-being, enhanced communication, and policy innovation.

A number of additional purposes of ACM emerged beyond the two main themes. These themes were less concerned with joining learning and linking functions. Among these themes were statements referring only to the capacity to adapt (18 items, 23 passages), only to collaboration (four items, four passages) or only to one of these and one “other” (e.g., sustainability, resilience, revision of institutions, and knowledge). Moreover, themes also conveyed the intended consequence without relating it to adaptive capacity or collaboration (nine items, 10 passages). These consequences included sustainability, improved human well-being, and resilience. Illustrative of this theme are Charles’s (2007:83) remarks: “the premise here is that desirable resource management policies and practices—in this case, those relating to ACM—are those that enhance the sustainability and resilience needed in any ‘healthy’ resource system.”

Further analysis of the relationship among themes reveals the extent to which purposes of ACM are multi-tiered and multi-faceted. A general pattern can be discerned where studies of ACM appear to cluster along two axes: those primarily concerned with fostering capacity for adaptation and encouraging the development of connections through collaboration; and those also explicitly concerned with ACM as means to bring about a number of desirable changes through adaptation and collaboration associated with discourses on social–ecological resilience (sensu Folke (2006)) and sustainability. These aims are not mutually exclusive, as evidenced by the numerous minor themes that connect them in various ways. Finally, it is interesting and thought provoking to note that our analysis shows that 46% of items did not convey any purpose of ACM. Although speculative, we wonder if this relatively high degree of items is due to an assumption of implicit intent when employing the term ACM. Moreover, a similar assumption may explain the additional purposes of ACM that were revealed and do not include the joining of adaptation and collaboration.

What Components (Variables) of ACM Are Garnering Attention?

As experience with ACM grows, scholars and practitioners are exploring and examining an increasing range of variables that are believed to be critical components of the ACM process. Analysis identified 12 variables receiving particular attention by ACM scholars. As illustrated in Fig. 3, they range considerably in the amount of focus they receive. The five most commonly focused on include learning, knowledge, networks, shared power, and organizational interactions.

Table 2 briefly describes each variable and identifies associated themes. For the three most prevalent categories (learning, knowledge, networks), the breadth and depth of the emerging themes are pronounced. Learning, for example, exhibits the sub-theme of social learning and emerged in 81 items and 400 passages. Although it is beyond the scope of this paper to identify the extensive number of themes within each category, social learning should be highlighted for appearing in more items than some of the main variables (for example, bridging organizations, incentives). It refers to learning that occurs through human interactions and as a process of iterative reflection (often characterized by multiple loops) and has received intense consideration within the ACM literature.

What Outcomes of ACM Are Being Realized?

Adaptive comanagment is instrumental in nature, and those engaging with the concept do so with the underlying premise that the process will lead to some type of outcome. Our analysis revealed 60 distinct themes representing outcomes in 196 passages, across 61 items. The outcomes of ACM as revealed by the systematic review are categorized as “actual” or “potential” and are presented in Tables 3 and 4. The “actual” category encompasses passages based on direct substantiated observations or experiences as well as statements of causal assertion. The “potential” category refers to passages of text that are speculative or anticipatory in nature, offering outcomes theorized or anticipated by the authors. In total, 44 actual outcomes emerged from 22 items. Conflict resolution was the most frequent actual outcome of ACM. The potential category revealed 41 outcomes of ACM from 52 items. The development of adaptive capacity emerged clearly as the potential outcome with the greatest frequency.

Comparing the categories of “actual” and “potential” outcomes reveals several similarities and differences. Both encompass a relatively long list of outcomes, and the frequency of mention of many of these is low (fewer than two items and fewer than three passages). Within the five outcomes with the greatest strength (i.e., highest frequency of number of items and passages), the development of adaptive capacity is the only one to occur in both themes. In broadening consideration to all the outcomes that emerged, 18 were identified as both potential and actual. Analysis also reveals that eight outcomes that emerged appear contradictory. We use the term “appear contradictory” to refer to instances where outcomes seem to be in opposition and stress that all systematic reviews are limited by the reporting in the different items that are analyzed. Examples of such contradictory outcomes include: resolution of conflict or dispute vs. temporary increase in explicit conflict; increased resource health vs. reduced resource health; increased equity in distribution of benefits and costs vs. unequal distribution of benefits). In all instances of these contradictions, the strength was low (fewer than two items and fewer than three passages). The presence of such contradictions suggests that the outcomes of ACM are not always straightforward. In the potential category, there appears to be a clear demarcation point between the six outcomes with the greatest strength (eight or more items and 15 or more passages) and the remainder (five or fewer items and seven or fewer passages). A similar demarcation point is not evident in the actual outcomes that emerged. This suggests that when authors hypothesize around outcomes, they tend to range within a much narrower scope than the diversity found in reality.

Is ACM a Success?

The opening paragraphs of this paper allude to the positive expectations (or potentiality) associated with ACM. Our query sought to take stock of the successes and failures of ACM by systematically analyzing all 108 items. A total of 17 items in the systematic review contained information about the success of ACM in 28 passages. Similar to the outcomes, specific success was found to be treated in two ways, as an observable phenomenon directly linked to the ACM process or as an anticipated outcome. Therefore, we used a similar system of categorization for success, distinguishing between “actual success” and “potential success” in the items reviewed.

Table 5 lists the successes identified from coding within each respective category (actual and potential). Within each category, eight specific successes were identified. Participation and involvement of relevant stakeholders was the actually observed success of ACM with the greatest cumulative number of mentions. An example is illustrated by (Ayles et al. 2007:137): “...the success of the plan, as exhibited not just by the recovery of the char stock but also by the community support it garnered, is a matter of pride for the working group and the Paulatuk HTC. It is viewed as a success for comanagment in the wider ISR community, and in 2003, the working group members received the FJMC comanagment Award for their contribution to comanagment in the Arctic. A further result is that community members are ready to take greater personal responsibility for the management of their resources.”

Conflict resolution and collaboration were the only successes to appear as both actual and potential.

Twenty of the items addressed failure, lack of success, and/or undesirable consequences of ACM. The categories “actual failure” and “potential failure” were again useful to differentiate those with and without an empirical basis. Table 6 presents the 12 actual failures and the 11 potential failures associated with ACM. Failure to achieve sustainable resource use or social–ecological resilience is the specific actual failure with the greatest strength (eight items and eight passages). For example, Fabricius and Cundill (2010:60–61) observed that “despite the existence of a window of opportunity, and the benefits of adaptive comanagment coupled with several decades’ experience working in rural African communities in community-based natural resource management setting, things still went wrong. Since there was no structure to report to, the Village Land Committees, while continuing to exist, have not progressed further than developing the mini management plans, with negative implications for monitoring, institutions and, ultimately, ecosystem resilience.” Comparative analysis of the actual and potential categories reveals considerable overlap, as nine specific failures appear in both. However, 75% of the specific failures across both categories emerged with relatively little strength (fewer than two items and fewer than two passages).

In attempting to appraise the achievements of ACM, the review compares the empirical (i.e., actual) evidence on successes and failures of ACM accumulated thus far. Acknowledged limitations in making this comparison are that the labels of success and failure are variously defined by authors and also vary considerably in scope. Notwithstanding this caveat, there are eight themes of actual success and 12 themes of actual failure from experience thus far. Of all the themes, failure to achieve sustainable resource use or social–ecological resilience emerged with the greatest frequency (eight items, eight passages). Moreover, four themes appear in both the success and the failure categories, signaling that the associated results of ACM are mixed thus far. These include: resource health/achievement of sustainable resource use or social–ecological resilience; participation and involvement of relevant stakeholders/ failure to facilitate pluralism and linkages, community well-being, and conflict.

Can Insights Be Drawn as to How Aspects of ACM Relate to Outcomes?

Our third objective sought to examine how aspects of ACM relate to outcomes of ACM processes. To do this, we first analyzed the relationship between items containing information on successes and failures and the presence of a clear purpose of ACM. We then focused on identifying the factors that contribute to the success or failure of ACM. By factors, we refer both to the key variables or components associated with ACM in the reviewed literature (Table 2), as well as other, potentially contextual, factors, such as research and practical experience, ecological disturbances, and presence of crisis. Finally, we examined the definition, measurement, and findings associated with the factors across the items in which it was found. We then determined the presence or absence of a consistent pattern from which robust conclusions may be drawn.

Given the criticality of clearly and consistently defining ACM in making comparisons and establishing patterns, we probed the relationship between the items containing information on successes and failures and the extent to which a clear purpose of ACM was also conveyed. Fifty-four percent of all items containing information on successes and failures of ACM also conveyed a clear purpose. A difference between the failure and success categories is evident, as 60% of those items in the former category also had a clear purpose of ACM, whereas only 47% of items in the latter category did. These results are concerning as the absence of clear purpose/definition (as well as diversity of definitions identified above) hinders the ability to evaluate outcomes.

Factors contributing to success and failure receive a strong focus within the ACM literature. Similar to the analysis of successes and failures above, these factors were categorized according to their “actual” (i.e., from experience) or “potential” (i.e., anticipatory) nature. Seventy-five passages, across 38 items, contained information on factors contributing to the success of ACM (Table 7). Social networks was the “actual” factor most frequently documented, cited almost twice as many times as the second strongest theme, which was learning. Five themes (social networks; learning; participation of relevant stakeholders in management; generation, use and sharing of information and knowledge; management flexibility) appeared in both the actual and potential categories. The number of factors identified as potentially contributing to successful ACM is almost double the number that emerged from actual experience.

Forty-eight passages, across 24 items, address factors (actual and potential) contributing to failure of ACM (Table 8). The number of potential factors contributing to ACM failure was again greater than the number of actual ones, although the degree of congruence was substantial, with 14 themes occurring in both.

In comparing the factors (actual and potential) contributing to success and those contributing to failure of ACM, a total of eight themes emerged in common (i.e., positive attributes of the factor contributed to success and negative attributes contributed to failure). These include: conflict; resources; policies and institutions; stakeholder participation/commitment; communication, information, knowledge; learning, adaptation, problem solving and self-organization; leadership; and social networks. These factors closely resemble many of the components of ACM, particularly the subthemes within the enabling conditions component. Given our definition of factors above, this is not surprising, but rather confirms that studies of ACM do attempt to link key components of ACM to actual outcomes.

The identified factors contributing to the success or failure of ACM in the actual category were then examined to determine if a similar pattern was consistently evident. We set a minimum requirement for comparability at five items and, using selective coding, considered the definition, measurement, and findings associated with each factor (i.e., social networks, learning, participation, conflict of interests) across all items in which it was found. This revealed substantial variability in precision in terms of how each factor was conceptualized and measured. For example, “participation” and “conflict of interests” tend to be colloquially employed and intuitively gauged. The interests of stakeholder groups are often poorly defined and participation suffers from a lack of rigor in assessment. Terms of engagement and power relations in reference to participation are often not dealt with in detail, and thus, the level of participation of individual groups is difficult to assess and relate to outcomes. Similarly, terminology associated with “learning” is diverse (e.g., learning, learning by doing, social learning, reproductive learning, transformative learning, loop learning, active learning, action learning, learning from experience, systematic learning, shared learning) and defined in varying detail. This diversity and the varying degree of details provided make assessment of its contribution to outcomes difficult. Only a minority of the items examined employ traceable assessment methods; primarily qualitative observations of learning characteristics that are variously understood (e.g., Fisher et al. 2007, Plummer and FitzGibbon 2007). This finding is consistent with observations about the “paradox of learning” in ACM more generally by Armitage et al. (2008). “Social networks” is another factor that receives increasing attention in ACM work as a factor contributing to success. The conceptualization of social networks is broad and ranges from simply referring to social relations as a binary variable to tightly conceptualized and highly sophisticated methods of different types of social relations stemming from the field of social network analysis. In the former case, assessment becomes difficult as social relations are ubiquitous and treatment of social networks as either present or not lends little analytical sharpness to evaluate impacts on outcomes. Studies employing more formal methods of definition and analysis make use of more clearly defined operational measures (e.g., density, cohesion, centralization) (see Bodin and Norberg 2005, Bodin and Crona 2009). The diverse conceptualizations of these factors and general lack of operational measures to assess their contribution to outcomes make it impossible currently to derive robust conclusions from experience accumulated with ACM to date.


ACM has received and is receiving considerable attention because of its potential to provide a governance form for addressing circumstances of complexity and uncertainty, as well as enhance the fit with ecosystem dynamics (Folke et al. 2005, Olsson et al. 2010). This has led to rapid conceptual development and practical uptake as witnessed in the large number of studies identified for this review. The emerging ACM literature holds the potential to offer productive insights on dealing with change.

We sought to understand the whole “complex of ACM” through this systematic review. This included characterizing the state of the literature, better understanding how ACM is defined and operationalized, and examining how aspects of ACM relate to specific outcomes. However, as the findings in the previous section reveal, the rapid, sometimes unstructured, development can also lead to considerable imprecision, inconsistency, and confusion. For example, a clear purpose or definition of ACM was absent in about half of the items containing information on successes and failures. Moreover, we found very little basis for meaningful comparisons when looking across factors in relation to successes or failures and no robust findings. This led us to abandon our further aspirations to gain knowledge about how the variables or components of ACM interrelate as well as relate to goals and outcomes. Based on our systematic review and analysis, we highlight a number of critical challenges for ACM scholarship that we see emerging from the current state of the ACM literature.
In drawing upon insights gained from this systematic review, we offer some examples of best practices of ACM study design and elements to derive comparative insights in Table 9. Although we promote more precision and rigor to allow for systematic comparison, we also agree with Colfer (2005) who, based on her extensive experience with CIFOR’s ACM project, also highlights the need to consider non-reductionist approaches. In this regard, employing methods such as qualitative meta-ethnography (Nobit and Hare 1988, Atkins et al. 2008) or qualitative and quantitative meta-synthesis (Smart 2004) may offer an alternative means to gain powerful insights into the “whole complex of ACM.”


In his synthesis, Plummer (2009) presents a number of pertinent questions regarding ACM scholarship, such as: To what extent can variables (e.g., social and political context, properties of networks, assets employed by agencies, organizations, and individuals, attributes of organizations and individuals, key functions of individuals) be traded off? Which variables always need to be present? And which variables can improve its quality? Our findings make it clear that addressing these questions remains a formidable challenge because existing research is insufficient in terms of definitional clarity, measurement, and findings. They also reveal two interesting gaps in ACM scholarship. The first regards the matter of outcomes. Although numerous and diverse outcomes were evident, a disjuncture remains between those associated with ACM and those from ACM, as signaled by the “potential” and “actual” demarcation in the results. The second concerns the notion of success/failure. In addition to the “potential” and “actual” distinction, there was even less scholarship addressing this matter.

The issues raised in the discussion signal that ACM scholarship is at an important crossroads. This provides a valuable opportunity to think carefully about future research directions. What is the ultimate aim of ACM research? Scholars could continue along the present path of amassing research on ACM in rather unspecific and uncoordinated ways. This is somewhat natural for a young field, and progress has been and will continue to be made by this growing body of research. However, comparative studies, designed and conducted within a common framework of theory and method, are among the most powerful tools of social research, allowing stronger causal inferences and protecting against mistaken generalization (see Table 9). The current state of the ACM literature, as illustrated by this systematic review, makes it clear that achieving such causal inference and beginning to build a general theory around ACM remain a distant goal unless these issues can be addressed.

Moving forward to address this challenge may occur in several ways. Gutiérrez et al. (2011) recently employed a systematic review and meta-analysis to complete the first comprehensive assessment of attributes (social, economic, and ecological) contributing to the success of fisheries comanagment globally. In their work, 19 variables relating to comanagment attributes from Ostrom’s (2009) framework were assessed to predict eight binary measures of success, from which leadership, social capital, and incentives emerged as attributes promoting successful fisheries. Even with the use of binary measures, they highlight the challenge in discerning causal connections from differentially conceived and conducted studies and echo the need for long-term data collection across contexts for meaningful empirical comparisons.

Albeit representing only one group of ACM scholars, we argue that a key aim of ACM research should be to develop theory that will help guide human–environment interactions toward sustainable trajectories. Considering how this path could be pursued while still being sensitive to context is informed by the work of Ostrom, who writes that “moving beyond panaceas to develop cumulative capacities to diagnose the problems and potentialities of linked SESs requires serious study of complex, multivariable, nonlinear, cross-scale, and changing systems” (2007:15181). In moving toward the development of a diagnostic method, she advances a nested, multi-tier framework with the intention of enabling researchers to accumulate coherent and empirical answers to questions concerning the patterns of interactions and outcomes, the relationship between endogenous governance and actions in the absence of external incentives or rules, and ultimately, the robustness or sustainability of the particular configuration. Constructing an analogous nested conceptual map and approach for ACM is worthy of contemplation. Organizing the many considerations (i.e., definitions, variables/components, factors, and outcomes) revealed in this systematic review would similarly enable researchers to analyze interactions and outcomes of an empirical case. Such a framework could facilitate comparisons among cases, enhance understanding of the effects of contextual attributes, and contribute clarity to ACM scholarship. It could also fill the lacuna concerning potential and actual outcomes as well as successes/failures of ACM. As Ostrom (2009:419) stresses, “without a common framework to organize findings, isolated knowledge does not cumulate.” But pursuing such aspirations requires greater precision and rigor in ACM research. It requires forethought about and adherence to specificity and consistency of concepts, definitions, measurements, and methodologies. Moving forward to improve our understanding of how ACM can contribute to sustainable human–environment interactions in coordinated and complementary ways will facilitate both quantitative and qualitative comparisons and circumvent limitations of drawing post hoc comparisons. It would also represent a significant step toward establishing the foundation of a theory around the concept of ACM.


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 authors extend thanks to Rob de Loë and Becky Swainson for their insightful conversations about evidence-based approaches as well as to the individuals who assisted with this research project (Samantha Purdy, Joslyn Spurgeon, Steven Simpson, and Katie Vaughan). Financial support for this work is gratefully acknowledged from the Brock University Chancellor's Chair in Research Excellence, the Canadian Water Network, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Contributions by Crona were facilitated by funding from the Swedish Research Council Formas. Crona and Olsson were also funded by Mistra through a core grant to the Stockholm Resilience Centre.


Armitage, D. 2007. Building resilient livelihoods through adaptive co-managment: the role of adaptive capacity. Pages 62–82 in D. Armitage, F. Berkes, and N. Doubleday, editors. Adaptive co-management: collaboration, learning and multi-level governance. UBC Press, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Armitage, D., M. Marschke, and R. Plummer. 2008. Adaptive co-management and the paradox of learning. Global Environmental Change 18:86–98.

Armitage, D. R., R. Plummer, F. Berkes, R. I. Arthur, I. J. Davidson-Hunt, A. Diduck, N. C. Doubleday, D. S. Johnson, M. Marschke, P. McConney, E. W. Pinkerton, and E. K. Wollenberg. 2009. Adaptive co-management for social–ecological complexity. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 6:95–102.

Atkins, S., S. Lewin, H. Smith, M. Engel, A. Fretheim, and J. Volmink. 2008. Conducting a meta-ethnography of qualitative literature: Lessons learnt. BMC Medical Research Methodology 8:21-31.

Ayles, B. G., R. Bell, and A. Hoyt. 2007. Adaptive fisheries co-management in the western Canadian Arctic. Pages 125–150 in D. Armitage, F. Berkes, and N. Doubleday, editors. Adaptive co-management: collaboration, learning, and multi-level governance. UBC Press, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Berkes, F. 2009. Evolution of co-management: role of knowledge generation, bridging organizations and social learning. Journal of Environmental Management 90:1692–1702.

Berkes, F., D. Armitage, and N. Doubleday. 2007. Synthesis: adapting, innovating, evolving. Pages 308–327 in D. Armitage, F. Berkes, and N. Doubleday, editors. Adaptive co-management: collaboration, learning, and multi-level governance. UBC Press, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Bodin, Ö., and B. I. Crona. 2008. Management of natural resources at the community level: exploring the role of social capital and leadership in a rural fishing community. World Development 36(12):2763–2779.

Bodin, Ö., and B. I. Crona. 2009. The role of social networks in natural resource governance: what relational patterns make a difference? Global Environmental Change 19(3):366–374.

Bodin, Ö., and J. Norberg. 2005. Information network topologies for enhanced local adaptive management. Environmental Management 35(2):175–193.

Carlsson, L., and F. Berkes. 2005. Co-management: concepts and methodological implications. Journal of Environmental Management 75:65–76.

Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). 2009. ACM and beyond: climate change adaptation. [online] URL:

Charles, A. 2007.  Adaptive co-management for resilient resource systems: some ingredients and the implications of their absence. Pages 83–105 in D. Armiatge, F. Berkes, and N. Doubleday, editors. Adaptive co-management: collaboration, learning and multi-level governance. UBC Press, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Charmaz, K. 2000. Grounded theory: objectivist and constructivist methods. Pages 509–536 in N. K. Denzin, and Y. S. Lincoln, editors. Handbook of qualitative research. Second edition. Sage Publications, London, UK.

Colfer, C. J. P., editor. 2005. The complex forest: communities, uncertainty, and adaptive collaborative management. RFF Press/Resources for the Future, Washington, D.C., USA.

Collaboration for Environmental Evidence. 2010. Guidelines for systematic review in conservation and environmental management. [online] URL:

Corbin, J., and A. Strauss. 2008. Basics of qualitative research. Third edition. Sage Publications, Los Angeles, California, USA.

Crowther, M. A., and D. J. Cook. 2007. Trials and tribulations of systematic reviews and meta-analyses. Pages 493–497. American Society of Hematology Education Program Book. [online] URL:

Cundill, G., and C. Fabricius. 2010. Monitoring the governance dimension of natural resource co-management. Ecology and Society 15(1): 15. [online] URL:

Dixon-Woods, M., S. Bonas, A. Booth, D. R. Jones, T. Miller, A. J. Sutton, R. L. Shaw, J. A. Smith, and B. Young. 2006. How can systematic reviews incorporate qualitative research? A critical perspective. Qualitative Research 6(1):27–44.

Eavely, A. C., I. Fazey, M. Pinard, and X Lambin. 2008. The influence of philosophical perspectives in integrative research: a conservation case study in the Cairngorms National Park. Ecology and Society 13(2): 52. [online] URL:

Fabricius, C., C. Folke, G. Cundill, and L. Schultz. 2007. Powerless spectators, coping actors, and adaptive co-managers: a synthesis of the role of communities in ecosystem management. Ecology and Society 12(1): 29. [online] URL:

Fabricius, C., and G. Cundill. 2010. Building adaptive capacity in systems beyond the threshold. Pages 43–68 in D. Armitage and R. Plummer, editors. Adaptive capacity and environmental governance. Springer-Verlag, Berlin, Germany.

Fisher, R., R. Prabhu, and C. MacDougall, editors. 2007. Adaptive collaborative management of community forests in Asia. Center for International Forestry Reserach, Bogor, Indonesia.

Fennell, D., R. Plummer, and M. Marschke. 2008. Is adaptive co-management ethical? Journal of Environmental Management 88(1):62–75.

Folke, C. 2006. Resilience: the emergence of a perspective for social–ecological systems analysis. Global Environmental Change 16:253–267.

Folke, C., S. Carpenter, T. Elmqvist, L. Gunderson, C. S. Holling, B. Walker, J. Bengtsson, F. Berkes, J. Colding, K. Danell, M. Falkenmark, M. Moberg, L. Gordon, R. Kaspersson, N. Kautsky, A. Kinzig, S. A. Levin, K.G. Mäler, L. Ohlsson, P. Olsson, E. Ostrom, W. Reid, J. Rockstöm, S. Savenije, and U. Svedin. 2002. Resilience and sustainable development: building adaptive capacity in a world of transformations. Report for the Swedish Environmental Advisory Council Ministry of the Environment, Stockholm, Sweden.

Folke, C., T. Hahn, P. Olsson, and J. Norberg. 2005. Adaptive governance of social–ecological systems. The Annual Review of Environment and Resources 30:441–473.

Füssel, H-M. 2007. Vulnerability: a generally applicable conceptual framework for climate change research. Global Environmental Change 17:155–167.

Galaz, V., T. Hahn, P. Olsson, C. Folke, and U. Svedin. 2008. The problem of fit among biophysical systems, environmental and resource regimes, and broader governance systems: insights and emerging challenges. Pages 147–186 in O. Young, L. A. King, and H. Schroeder, editors. Institutions and environmental change: principal findings, applications, and research findings. MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.

Garaway, C. J., and R. I. Arthur. 2004. Adaptive learning: a practical framework for the implementation of adaptive co-management—lessons from selected experiences in South and Southeast Asia. MRAG Ltd., London, UK.

Glaser, B. G., and A. L. Strauss. 1967. The discovery of grounded theory: strategies for qualitative research. Aldine Publishing Company, Chicago, Illinois, USA.

Gondo, T. 2009. Adaptive co-management of natural resources: a solution or part of the problem? 2009 Amsterdam Conference on the Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change, 2–4 December 2009, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. [online] URL:

Guidetti, P., S. Bussotti, F. Pizzolante, and A. Ciccolella. 2010. Assessing the potential of an artisanal fishing co-management in the marine protected area of Torre Guaceto (southern Adriatic Sea, SE Italy). Fisheries Research 101:180–187.

Guidetti, P., and J. Claudet. 2010. Comanagement practices enhance fisheries in marine protected areas. Conservation Biology 24(1):312–318.

Gunderson, L. H., C. S. Holling, and S. Light. 1995. Barriers and bridges to renewal of ecosystems and institutions. Columbia University Press, New York, New York, USA.

Gutiérrez, N. L., R, Hilborn, and O. Defeo. 2011. Leadership, social capital and incentives promote successful fisheries. Nature 470(7334):386–389.

Hughes, N., S. J. Closs, and D. Clark. 2009. Experiencing cancer in old-age: a qualitative systematic review. Qualitative Health Research 19(8):1139–1153.

Huitema, D., E. Mostert, W. Egas, S. Moellenkamp, C. Pahl-Wostl, and R. Yalcin. 2009. Adaptive water governance: assessing the institutional prescriptions of adaptive (co)management from a governance perspective and defining a research agenda. Ecology and Society 14(1):26. [online] URL:

Kofinas, G. P., S. J. Herman, and C. Meek. 2007. Novel problems require novel solutions: innovation as an outcome of adaptive co-management. Pages 249–267 in D. Armitage, F. Berkes, and N. Doubleday, editors. Adaptive co-management: collaboration, learning and multi-level governance. UBC Press, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Lee, K. 1993. Compass and gyroscope: integrating science and politics for the environment. Island Press, Washington, D.C., USA.

May, B., and R. Plummer. 2011. Accommodating the challenges of climate change adaptation and governance in conventional risk management: adaptive collaborative risk management (ACRM). Ecology and Society 16(1):47. [online] URL:

Miles, M. B., and A. M. Huberman. 1994. Qualitative data analysis. Second edition. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, California, USA.

Muñoz-Erickson, T. A., B. Aguilar-González, M. R. Loeser, and T. D. Sisk. 2010. A framework to evaluate ecological and social outcomes of collaborative management: lessons from implementation with a northern Arizona collaborative group. Environmental Management 45:132–144.

Nadasdy, P. 2007. Adaptive co-management and the gospel of resilience. Pages 208–227, in D. Armitage, F. Berkes, and N. Doubleday, editors. Adaptive co-management: collaboration, learning and multilevel governance. UBC Press, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Nobit G. W., and R. D Hare. 1988. Meta-ethnography: synthesizing qualitative studies. Sage Publications, Newbury Park, California, USA.

O’Connell, R., and S. Downe. 2009. A metasynthesis of midwives’ experience of hospital practice in publicly funded settings: compliance, resistance and authenticity. Health: An Interdisciplinary Journal for the Social Study of Health, Illness and Medicine 13(6):589–609.

Olsson, P., C. Folke, and F. Berkes. 2004. Adaptive comanagement for building resilience in social–ecological systems. Environmental Management 34(1):75–90.

Olsson, P., C. Folke, V. Galaz, T. Hahn, and L. Schultz. 2007. Enhancing the fit through adaptive co-management: creating and maintaining bridging functions for matching scales in the Kristianstads Vattenrike Biosphere Reserve Sweden. Ecology and Society 12(1):28. [online] URL:

Olsson, P., Ö Bodin, and C. Folke. 2010. Building transformative capacity for ecosystem stewardship in social–ecological systems. Pages 263–286 in D. Armitage, and R. Plummer, editors. Adaptive capacity and environmental governance. Springer-Verlag, Berlin, Germany.

Ostrom, E. 2007. A diagnostic approach for going beyond panaceas. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 104:15181–15187.

Ostrom, E. 2009. A General Framework for analyzing sustainability of social-ecological systems. Science 24(5939): 419-422. DOI: 10.1126/science.1172133

Ostrom, E., T. Dietz, N. Dolsak,, P. C. Stern, S. Stonich, and E. U. Weber, editors. 2002. The drama of the commons. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., USA.

Petticrew, M., and H. Roberts. 2006. Systematic reviews in the social sciences: a practical guide. Blackwell Publishers, Malden, Massachusetts, USA.

Plummer, R. 2009. The adaptive co-management process: an initial synthesis of representative models and influential variables. Ecology and Society 14(2):24. [online] URL:

Plummer, R., and D. Armitage. 2007a. A resilience-based framework for evaluating adaptive co-management: linking ecology, economy and society in a complex world. Ecological Economics 61:62–74.

Plummer, R., and D. R. Armitage. 2007b. Charting the new territory of adaptive co-management: a Delphi study. Ecology and Society 12(2): 10. [online] URL:

Plummer, R., and J. E. FitzGibbon. 2007. Connecting adaptive co-management, social learning and social capital through theory and practice. Pages 38–61 in D. Armiatge, F. Berkes, and N. Doubleday, editors. Adaptive co-management: collaboration, learning and multi-level governance. UBC Press, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Plummer, R., and A. Hashimoto. 2011. Adaptive co-management and the need for situated thinking in collaborative conservation. Human Dimensions of Wildlife Management 16:222–235.

Pullin, A. S., and T. M. Knight. 2009. Doing more good than harm—building an evidence-base for conservation and environmental management. Biological Conservation 142:931–934.

Pullin, A. S., and G. B. Stewart. 2006. Guidelines for systematic review in conservation and environmental management. Biological Conservation 20(6):1647–1656.

Rahimi, B., V. Vimarlund, and T. Timpka. 2009. Health information system implementation: a qualitative meta-analysis. Journal of Medical Systems 33:359–368.

Schultz, L. 2009. Nurturing resilience in social–ecological systems. Dissertation, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden.

Smart, J. C., editor. 2004. Higher education: handbook of theory and research. Vol. XIX. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, The Netherlands.

Smit, B., and J. Wandel. 2006. Adaptation, adaptive capacity and vulnerability. Global Environmental Change 16:282–292.

Thorne, S., L. Jensen, M. H. Kearney, G. Nobit, and M. Sandelowski. 2004. Qualitative meta-synthesis: reflections on methodological orientation and ideological agenda. Qualitative Health Research 14(10):1342–1365.

Walker, B., and D. Salt. 2006. Resilience thinking. Island Press, Washington, D.C., USA.

Address of Correspondent:
Ryan Plummer
Environmental Sustainability Research Centre,
Brock University
St. Catharines, Ontario
L2S 3A1
Jump to top
Table1  | Table2  | Table3  | Table4  | Table5  | Table6  | Table7  | Table8  | Table9  | Figure1  | Figure2  | Figure3  | Appendix1  | Appendix2