The social structural foundations of adaptation and transformation in social–ecological systems

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Nov 21, 2017
Michele L. Barnes, Örjan Bodin, Angela M. Guerrero, Ryan R. J. McAllister , Steven M. Alexander, and Garry Robins



Social networks are frequently cited as vital for facilitating successful adaptation and transformation in linked social–ecological systems to overcome pressing resource management challenges. Yet confusion remains over the precise nature of adaptation vs. transformation and the specific social network structures that facilitate these processes. Here, we adopt a network perspective to theorize a continuum of structural capacities in social–ecological systems that set the stage for effective adaptation and transformation. We begin by drawing on the resilience literature and the multilayered action situation to link processes of change in social–ecological systems to decision making across multiple layers of rules underpinning societal organization. We then present a framework that hypothesizes seven specific social–ecological network configurations that lay the structural foundation necessary for facilitating adaptation and transformation, given the type and magnitude of human action required. A key contribution of the framework is explicit consideration of how social networks relate to ecological structures and the particular environmental problem at hand. Of the seven configurations identified, three are linked to capacities conducive to adaptation and three to transformation, and one is hypothesized to be important for facilitating both processes. We discuss how our theoretical framework can be applied in practice by highlighting existing empirical examples from related environmental governance contexts. Further extension of our hypotheses, particularly as more data become available, can ultimately help guide the design of institutional arrangements to be more effective at dealing with change.

Read the full paper in Ecology and Society.


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