Environment, Development and Sustainability

, Volume 17, Issue 6, pp 1527–1544 | Cite as

Adaptation to climate change as social–ecological trap: a case study of fishing and aquaculture in the Tam Giang Lagoon, Vietnam

  • Wiebren J. Boonstra
  • Tong Thi Hai Hanh
Case Study


The ways in which people respond to climate change are frequently analyzed and explained with the term “adaptation.” Conventionally, adaptation is understood as adjustments in behavior either to mitigate harm or to exploit opportunities emerging from climate change. The idea features prominently in scientific analyses as well as in policy programs. Despite its growing popularity over the years, the concept has also received critique. Social scientists in particular take issue with the implicit assumptions about human behavior and “fitness advantages” (or optimal behavior) that come with the term. Clearly, not all human and animal behavioral responses are “optimal” or display “fitness advantages.” To the contrary, sub-optimal and maladaptive behavior is rather widespread. Explaining the possibility of maladaptive or sub-optimal behavior led scholars to introduce the idea of “traps.” Trap situations refer to a mismatch between behavior and the social and/or ecological conditions in which this behavior takes place. This paper reviews the analytical value of traps for the study of human responses to climate change. It first lays out the theoretical assumptions underpinning the concept. A case study of the Tam Giang Lagoon, in central Vietnam, is used to evaluate how well the trap concept captures the sub-optimality and variety of human responses to climate change.


Adaptation Tam Giang Aquaculture Fisheries Flooding Social–ecological traps 



We would like to thank Sofie Joosse, Andrew Merrie, and Marc Metian for their valuable comments on earlier versions of this paper. Thanks also to Hoang The Nhiem for the permission to use his photograph, and to Derek Armitage and co-authors for allowing a reprint of the map of the lagoon.

This paper is using empirical material from Tong Thi Hai Hanh’s MSc thesis that she completed within the RDViet MSc program. This study program was jointly organized by the Swedish University for Agricultural Sciences and the Hue University of Agriculture and Forestry, and financially sponsored by the Swedish Development Agency (SIDA).

Wiebren Boonstra is supported by the Swedish Research Council FORMAS through a Young Research Leaders Grant 2013-1293 and project grant 2009-252. This research is also supported by Mistra (the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research), through a core grant to the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Stockholm Resilience CentreStockholm UniversityStockholmSweden
  2. 2.Department of Earth Sciences, Program for Air, Water and Landscape SciencesUppsala UniversityUppsalaSweden

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