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Bots, P. W. G., M. Schlüter, and J. Sendzimir. 2015. A framework for analyzing, comparing, and diagnosing social-ecological systems. Ecology and Society 20(4):18.
Guest Editorial, part of a special feature on A Framework for Analyzing, Comparing, and Diagnosing Social-Ecological Systems

A framework for analyzing, comparing, and diagnosing social-ecological systems

1Delft University of Technology, 2Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, 3International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
Key words: framework development; governance system; resource system; sustainability


Between the years 1337 and 1339, the artist Ambrogio Lorenzetti adorned the walls of the Palazzo Pubblico of Siena, Italy, with frescoes depicting allegories of good government and bad government and their effects on city and country (see Fig. 1). His imagery is lucid and effective. The “good government” fresco depicts a wise monarch surrounded by personifications of virtues such as justice, restraint, magnanimity, prudence, fortitude, and peace. The “effects” fresco shows the city of Siena and its surrounding countryside as a serene yet dynamic society: craftsmen bent to their work, women celebrating, merchants doing business, men building houses, and farmers tending their thriving fields. In sharp contrast, the “bad government” fresco shows a horned figure clad in black surrounded by epitomes of vices like perfidy, cruelty, avarice, fraud, tyranny, and war; the effects are depicted as an urban and a rural landscape dominated by ruins, fallow fields, and scenes of violence and robbery.

The reason to evoke 14th-century art in Ecology and Society is that to our eyes Lorenzetti’s frescoes express three ideas that are at the heart of this special feature. The first idea is that there exists a causal relation between governance and prosperity: good governance leads to wealth, abundance, and safety; and bad governance leads to poverty, famine, and violence. The second idea is that a society prospers or suffers through the vigor and actions of individuals; governments only set the conditions. Lorenzetti paints the rulers in scenes that are separate from those depicting the effects of their ruling. Under good governance, people use their energy, skills, and natural resources in cooperative ways that accumulate wealth. Under bad governance, abuse of the same assets results in havoc. The third idea is that it is possible to diagnose governance: that one can tell good governance from bad governance not only by its effects on society, but also by examining its features.

These three 14th-century ideas are elucidated in 21st-century fashion by Elinor Ostrom, whose research has focused on the interaction between humans and natural resource systems, and in particular on the question of why some resource systems are sustainable whereas others collapse as a result of overexploitation by their users. Ostrom’s (2005) analysis of the ways in which different societies have developed different institutional arrangements for natural resource management has made clear that there are no universal solutions or “panaceas” for problems of overuse or destruction of resources. Unlike Lorenzetti, Ostrom does not suggest that the distinction between good governance and bad governance can be made easily. Even if “good cop ⇒ good crop” and “bad cop ⇒ bad crop,” the question remains as to what practices make a cop good and what practices can prevent a good crop today from jeopardizing a good crop in the future.

In two recent articles, Ostrom (2007, 2009) explains why it is necessary to develop cumulative capacities to diagnose the problems and potentialities of the complex social-ecological systems (SESs) in which all resources used by humans are embedded (Berkes and Folke 1998, Liu et al. 2007). Ostrom argues that to understand why some resource systems are sustainable while others collapse, the relations among multiple elements and levels of these complex systems at different spatial and temporal scales need to be identified and studied. An important barrier for such inquiry is the tendency of scientific research to focus on specific aspects or subsystems. Depending on their disciplinary background, scientists will use different concepts, theories, and models. Ostrom (2009) shows that combining findings obtained in studies of different SESs at different scales across the world using a common framework can reveal variables that affect the likelihood of self-organization in efforts to achieve a sustainable SES. She argues that such a framework will eventually allow accumulation of knowledge through systematic comparison of data obtained in a wide variety of studies on the sustainability of resource systems, and that further development of this framework is crucial for our capacity to diagnose these systems and devise strategies for sustainability.

Development of such a framework poses a big challenge. Ultimately, it would constitute a “universal language” (Carnap 1934) for SES research, and philosophers of science (Fodor 1974, Putnam 1975) have made convincing arguments against the possibility of defining such a language. However, even if we lower our sights and aim for a framework that is intersubjectively understandable for SES researchers, this will require a tremendous collaborative effort (Beers and Bots 2009). Shared understanding will occur only in an iterative process of debate and refinement. Moreover, multiple perspectives are needed to understand the complex dynamics of SESs. The framework should thus not be biased by particular theories but allow representation and comparison of observations from all studies, even when, or should we say especially when, conducted from different perspectives. However, even very general theories like panarchy theory (Gunderson and Holling 2002) entail a particular conceptualization of complex adaptive systems (Holland 1995) and assumptions about how systems behave over time. Whether these can be accommodated in a single coherent and consistent conceptual framework is an open question.


The articles in this special feature address this question by exploring in various ways how the framework proposed by Ostrom (2007, 2009) can be applied and how it can be developed further. In the opening article, Michael D. McGinnis and Elinor Ostrom (2014) present the SES framework and discuss recent changes as well as remaining challenges, particularly with respect to the representation of the attributes of the governance system. They also pick up the issue of application of the framework to policy settings beyond natural resource management, which was a common theme throughout the activities of the informal SES Club that led to this special issue. In concluding, they highlight the purpose of the SES framework as a foundation for organizing knowledge relevant for diagnosing the determinants of sustainability of specific SESs.

Claudia R. Binder, Jochen Hinkel, Pieter W. G. Bots, and Claudia Pahl-Wostl (2013) position the SES framework by systematically comparing it with nine other prominent frameworks used for analyzing SESs. They highlight three characteristics of frameworks for the study of social-ecological interactions, namely, their conceptualization of the relationship between the social and ecological subsystems, their perspective on the ecological system, and whether it is an action- or rather analysis-oriented framework. The SES framework is classified as an integrative framework that considers two-way interactions between social and ecological systems, has an anthropocentric perspective, and is analysis oriented.

The aim of the three subsequent articles is to explore the structure and formalism of the SES framework and implications for its further development, application to case studies, and the development of dynamic models of SESs. Jochen Hinkel, Pieter W. G. Bots, and Maja Schlüter (2014) examine the framework with respect to the formal relationships between the many variables and concepts involved. They propose seven basic formal components of a framework for SESs, identify criteria for organizing concepts into tiers, and define metrics for SES outcomes. Process relationships are introduced to represent the dynamics of SESs. Increased formalization can help with resolving ambiguities as well as the further refinement and application of the SES framework.

Building on the formalization proposed by Hinkel et al. (2014), Maja Schlüter, Jochen Hinkel, Pieter W. G. Bots, and Robert Arlinghaus (2014) explore how the SES framework can facilitate a rigorous and systematic analysis of dynamic interactions within an SES. By outlining the process of constructing a dynamic model of resource management decision making in recreational fisheries, they show how the framework guides the “unpacking” of an SES down to the level needed to answer a given research question. They highlight the benefits of a framework-based model development process, particularly with respect to making explicit choices on model variables and relationships.

Discussion about the application of the framework to case studies in the SES Club and beyond highlighted various challenges of operationalizing the variables of the SES framework in specific case studies. To address these challenges and facilitate diagnosis of case studies, Jochen Hinkel, Michael E. Cox, Maja Schlüter, Claudia R. Binder, and Thomas Falk (2015) propose a procedure that facilitates a systematic specification of types of actors and resource systems and interactions and outcomes that are relevant for a given analytical or diagnostic question. They develop and test the procedure by systematically applying it to four different case studies.

The three articles that follow report on applications of the SES framework in empirical studies of various types of SESs. Camilla Risvoll, Gunn Elin Fedreheim, Audun Sandberg, and Shauna BurnSilver (2014) use the SES framework to identify those aspects of the governance of Norwegian national parks that may serve as sources of resilience and adaptive capacity for the natural system and the pastoral people that rely on using these areas. Ivo Baur and Claudia R. Binder (2013) proceed to investigate changes in the governance system of common property meadows in the Swiss Alps, notably changes in the operational rules that structure the focal interactions between the social and the ecological systems, which have maintained constant harvesting levels and investment activities in the past century. Finally, Harini Nagendra and Elinor Ostrom (2014) use the SES framework to investigate why some lakes in urbanized areas in Bangalore have made a successful transition while other lakes have deteriorated following urbanization.

The last article in the special issue presents a methodological innovation for SES case study comparison. Based on the SES framework and a review of the literature on the governance of common pool resource (CPR) systems, Ulrich J. Frey and Hannes Rusch (2013) propose a synthesis of 24 factors that influence whether a given CPR system achieves ecological long-term sustainability. They then proceed to test the viability of this synthesis by applying neural networks to a database holding data on 263 CPR management case studies.


The articles in this special issue raise several issues and challenges for the future development and application of the SES framework for the diagnosis of the sustainability of SESs. First, there is a need to further develop the framework with respect to resolving ambiguities and restructuring some of the second-tier variables, particularly for the governance system (McGinnis and Ostrom 2014). The formalization introduced by Hinkel et al. (2014) is a first step toward resolving ambiguities. Application of the framework for comparison across cases and the communication of results will benefit from a more systematic and transparent interpretation of the first-tier variables such as resource unit and resource system (Hinkel et al. 2015). However, more formalization comes at a cost.

Several ideas have been raised for an expansion of the framework to address issues that cannot be captured well by the framework in its current form, such as capturing the dynamics of SESs or facilitating an analysis of the ecological dimension at levels of detail similar to institutional processes. For the former, Hinkel et al. (2014, 2015) and Schlüter et al. (2014) propose introducing process relationships that capture dynamics that are common across many cases, such as harvesting. The dynamics of SESs also include the dynamics of rules, for instance how changes in SESs affect changes in the governance system and vice versa as investigated for the case of Swiss pastures by Baur and Binder (2013). Further integration of ecological concepts could allow for analyses that go into equal depth for the social and ecological subsystems (Baur and Binder 2013).

A common theme across several articles is the challenge of doing justice to the complexities of real-world cases in which there is rarely only one group of rather homogenous actors that self-organize around the use of a shared CPR. Instead, multiple actors are engaged in multiple activities that depend on or affect multiple resource systems and resource units. McGinnis and Ostrom (2014) introduce multiple first-tier variables and action situations into the framework as a first step to address such complexities. They highlight the study of dynamic linkages among concurrent action situations as an important avenue for future research and refinement of the framework. Finally, Binder et al. (2013) stress the need for the development of a database for SESs to collect and share relevant data on the social and ecological systems as an important next step to support case comparisons. Several activities along those lines are currently under development by members of the group; for example, see the SES meta-analysis database project (Cox 2014).

This brief summary of the unresolved issues and ensuing challenges for further development of the SES framework shows that the quest on which we have embarked is still ongoing (see Appendix 1 for Elinor Ostrom’s account of the process). Ultimately, framework refinement, development, and testing need to be a community effort and debate that involves multiple scholars who study various SESs. We hope that this special issue will invite others to apply, test, and refine the framework.


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.


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Address of Correspondent:
Maja Schlüter
Kräftriket 2B, 106 91 Stockholm
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Figure1  | Appendix1