Urban Ecosystems

, Volume 16, Issue 1, pp 53-77

First online:

Social ecological complex adaptive systems: a framework for research on payments for ecosystem services

  • Wayde C. MorseAffiliated withSchool of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences Email author 
  • , William J. McLaughlinAffiliated withDepartment of Conservation Social Sciences, University of Idaho
  • , J. D. WulfhorstAffiliated withDepartment of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology, University of Idaho
  • , Celia HarveyAffiliated withConservation International

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The environment is both a setting for and a product of human interactions. Understanding the dynamic nature of human-environment interactions is critical for mitigating the impacts of human induced environmental change and understanding how the environment shapes social systems. Current research has focused on the reduced ability of many natural systems to provide ecosystem services and the subsequent impact on human well-being. Furthermore, there has been a proliferation of cases analyzing the impacts of payment programs designed to enhance ecosystem services. However, analyses that link environmental policies through to their ecological results are not common and methods to do so are not thoroughly developed. To better analyze these interactions, a theory or framework is necessary. This article presents a framework of social ecological complex adaptive systems (SECAS). The framework links structuration theory from social science with the theories of complex adaptive systems from ecology to provide an enhanced understanding of the human drivers and responses to environmental change. The framework is presented as a recursive process where social and ecological systems are both the medium for and product of social action and ecological disturbance. A case study of Costa Rica’s ecosystem service payment program is presented as a demonstration of empirical applicability. This framework is proposed as a method to evaluate payments for ecosystem services, conservation policies, urban ecosystems, and for land use change in general.


Social ecological systems Structuration Ecosystem services Theory