Theoretical Frameworks for the Analysis of Social–Ecological Systems

Part of the Global Environmental Studies book series (GENVST)


Although the growing field of research on social–ecological systems (SESs) deals with some of the most important questions of our time, the study of SESs lacks an overarching theoretical framework. The development of such a framework is desirable because it would greatly improve our ability to generalize from individual case studies, to distinguish important from less important results, and ultimately to draw on the power of the scientific method to predict the consequence of management and policy interventions and to build greater resilience in SESs. Existing frameworks for the analysis of SESs can be grouped into five categories: (1) hypothesis-oriented frameworks; (2) assessment-oriented frameworks; (3) action-oriented frameworks; (4) problem-oriented frameworks; and (5) theory-oriented or overarching frameworks. Focusing on the fifth category, theory-oriented frameworks, seven assessment criteria are proposed that a satisfactory framework should meet: (1) it should provide a clear way of linking social and ecological systems and be strong in both disciplines; (2) it should be supported by rigorous empirical studies, key theories should meet Popper’s falsifiability criterion, and frameworks should include translation modes that allow theory to be connected to empirical observations, and vice-versa; (3) frameworks should offer insights into causality, ideally being based on first principles, and should offer clear statements of cause and effect; (4) frameworks should deal with the dynamic aspects of SESs and the nature of change through time, as well as with the spatial nature of SES and spatial variation; (5) frameworks should build on previous frameworks and, ideally, should be able explain their weaknesses and/or incorporate their strengths; (6) frameworks for SESs should be able to cope with, and offer connections between, complementary perspectives and different epistemologies; and (7) frameworks should provide direction for the study of SESs by suggesting or guiding new empirical studies that will advance our theoretical understanding of SESs. Illustrative examples are offered from eight existing frameworks that meet some of these criteria, but highlight the fact that no existing framework meets all the criteria well. The development of a stronger theoretical framework remains an important goal for SES theory.


Framework Philosophy Resilience Social–ecological system Sustainability Vulnerability 


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Copyright information

© Springer Japan 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Percy FitzPatrick InstituteUniversity of Cape TownCape TownSouth Africa

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