Babel, or the ecological stability discussions: an inventory and analysis of terminology and a guide for avoiding confusion


 We present an inventory and analysis of discussions of ecological stability, considering 163 definitions of 70 different stability concepts. Our aim is to derive a strategy that can help to dispel the existing ”confusion of tongues” on the subject of ”stability” and prevent its future recurrence. The strategy consists of three questions that should be kept in mind when communicating about stability properties. These three questions should overcome the three main sources of confusion in terminology. Firstly, which stability properties are being addressed in the stability statement? Our analysis shows that the general term ”stability” is so ambiguous as to be useless.It can be replaced by the stability properties ”staying essentially unchanged” (constancy), ”returning to the reference state (or dynamic) after a temporary disturbance” (resilience), and ”persistence through time of an ecological system” (persistence). Second, to what ecological situation does the statement refer? An ecological situation is defined by a set of features that, taken as a whole, determine the domain of validity of a stability statement. The six most important features form the ”ecological checklist”, which serves to classify ecological situations and thereby provides a system of coordinates for communication. The six points are: variable of interest, level of description, reference state, disturbance, spatial scale and temporal scale. Thirdly, is the statement anchored in the situation in question, or is there unacceptable generalisation by inferring ”stability” of the whole system from a certain stability property in a certain ecological ecological situation? This question separates the scientifically valuable content of a statement from the desire for general statements which is often projected through stability statements.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Author information



Additional information

Received: 4 June 1996 / Accepted: 5 November 1996

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Grimm, V., Wissel, C. Babel, or the ecological stability discussions: an inventory and analysis of terminology and a guide for avoiding confusion. Oecologia 109, 323–334 (1997).

Download citation

  • Key words Terminology
  • (Ecological) stability
  • Resilience
  • Persistence
  • Generality