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Coevolving Ostrom’s social–ecological systems (SES) framework and sustainability science: four key co-benefits

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Abstract

Research on social–ecological systems (SES) is scattered across many disciplines and perspectives. As a result, much of the knowledge generated between different communities is not comparable, mutually aggregate or easily communicated to nonspecialists despite common goals to use academic knowledge for advancing sustainability. This article proposes a conceptual pathway to address this challenge through outlining how the SES research contributions of sustainability science and researchers using Elinor Ostrom’s diagnostic SES framework (SESF) can integrate and co-benefit from explicitly interlinking their development. From a review of the literature, I outline four key co-benefits from their potential to interlink in the following themes: (1) coevolving SES knowledge types, (2) guiding primary research and assessing sustainability, (3) building a boundary object for transdisciplinary sustainability science, and (4) facilitating comparative analysis. The origins of the SESF include seminal empirical work on common property theory, self-organization, and coupled SES interactions. The SESF now serves as a template for diagnosing sustainability challenges and theorizing explanatory relationships on SES components, interactions, and outcomes within and across case studies. Simultaneously, sustainability science has proposed transdisciplinary research agendas, sustainability knowledge types, knowledge coproduction, and sustainability assessment tools to advance transformative change processes. Key challenges for achieving co-beneficial developments in both communities are discussed in relation to each of the four themes. Evident pathways for advancing SES research are also presented along with a guideline for designing SES research within this co-aligned vision.

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Acknowledgments

This research was funded by the Leibniz Center for Tropical Marine Ecology (ZMT) and supported by GLOMAR—Bremen International Graduate School for Marine Sciences. I would like to thank Achim Schlüter, Barry Ness, Klara Winkler, Chris Luederitz and two reviewers for helpful comments on previous versions of this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Stefan Partelow.

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Handled by Osamu Saito, UNU-Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (IAS), Japan.

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Partelow, S. Coevolving Ostrom’s social–ecological systems (SES) framework and sustainability science: four key co-benefits. Sustain Sci 11, 399–410 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-015-0351-3

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-015-0351-3

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