Sustainability Science

, Volume 11, Issue 6, pp 891–901 | Cite as

Subjectivity and social-ecological systems: a rigidity trap (and sense of place as a way out)

  • Richard C. StedmanEmail author
Special Feature: Original Article Traps! Expanding Thinking on Persistent Maladaptive States in Pursuit of Resilience
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Special Feature: Traps! Expanding Thinking on Persistent Maladaptive States in Pursuit of Resilience


The fundamental point of this paper is that constructs such as system identity stability and changes (tips, transitions, transformations from one identity to another), are subjectively perceived, and acted upon by the social actors that occupy these systems. However, social-ecological systems (SES) research has not yet adequately engaged this subjectivity. I argue, here, that this relative lack of recognition of subjectivity has become a “rigidity trap” for SES scholars. Subjectivity is messy and difficult, and does not fit particularly well within the systems perspectives that characterize resilience work. As such, this lack of engagement has led to self-reinforcing perspectives that emphasize some elements and de-emphasize others, creating a systematic neglect of some principles that might productively challenge existing notions and expand our thinking. Sense of place theory, which emphasizes the creation of meaning as systematically distributed throughout society, is offered as a mechanism for helping SES researchers more fully engage subjectivity.


Transformational Leadership System Identity Place Attachment Dominant Meaning Shoreline Development 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



The ideas presented in this manuscript were developed through collaborations sponsored in part by the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University and the Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The in-person retreats that led to this and other manuscripts in this special issue of Sustainability Science were generously and graciously hosted by Thomas Elmqvist and Åsa Norrman (Karklo, Sweden) and Keith and Moira Tidball (Canoga Creek, New York, USA).


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Copyright information

© Springer Japan 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Human Dimensions Research Unit, Department of Natural ResourcesCornell UniversityIthacaUSA

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