Skip to main content
Log in

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

  • Original Article
  • Published:
Sustainability Science Aims and scope Submit manuscript


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.

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

Access this article

Subscribe and save

Springer+ Basic
EUR 32.99 /Month
  • Get 10 units per month
  • Download Article/Chapter or Ebook
  • 1 Unit = 1 Article or 1 Chapter
  • Cancel anytime
Subscribe now

Buy Now

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2

Similar content being viewed by others


Download references


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.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Stefan Partelow.

Additional information

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

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Partelow, S. Coevolving Ostrom’s social–ecological systems (SES) framework and sustainability science: four key co-benefits. Sustain Sci 11, 399–410 (2016).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: