How social-ecological research works

Special issue in the journal Ecology & Society on the sustainable stewardship of social-ecological systems

Published by the Stockholm Resilience Centre

There are plenty of examples how sustainability science and practice is increasingly applying a social-ecological lens where the environment, economy and society are dynamically interlinked. Nevertheless, the conservation and development challenges of the 21st century remain huge.

Screen Shot 2017-05-08 at 00.29.32In a special issue recently published by the journal Ecology & Society, researchers call for more efforts to boost social-ecological research.

“There is a real danger that the challenges we see today will outpace our efforts to transform towards sustainable stewardship of social-ecological systems. It is therefore critical to provide motivation and stimuli for social-ecological research and practice in areas where progress is most urgently needed,” says Albert Norström, Executive Director of the international research network Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS), a project jointly sponsored by ICSU and UNESCO which integrates research on the stewardship of social–ecological systems, the services they generate, and the relationships among natural capital, human wellbeing, livelihoods, inequality and poverty.

The special issue features papers produced by more than 150 researchers and practitioners from the PECS network, which supports deliberate transitions and transformations towards global sustainability. The issue includes 15 studies that provide an initial overview of the research being carried out among PECS projects and working groups.

Place-based, social-ecological research

One key feature of many PECS projects is a focus on understanding how multiple ecosystem services are co-produced by social and ecological factors. The question then is how better management and governance of ecosystem services can improve social-ecological resilience and human wellbeing.

One of the studies presented in the special issue, which is written by centre researchers Megan Meacham, Garry Peterson, Cibele Queiroz and Albert Norström, explores how different social and ecological factors explain the availability and distribution of ecosystem services in the Norrström drainage basin in Sweden. The authors develop four different models of human impact to predict how bundles of ecosystem service develop in the region. Meacham and her colleagues suggest that ecosystem service assessments could be improved by better integrating a variety of social, geographical, and ecological theories. Read the article here.


A special issue recently published by the journal Ecology & Society, features papers produced by more than 150 researchers and practitioners from the the international research network Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS).

Another paper in the special issues discusses significant knowledge gaps in how ecosystems actually contribute to different people’s well- being and to alleviation of poverty. Together with several other authors, centre researchers Tim Daw, Beatrice Crona and Björn Schulte-Herbrüggen introduce the concept of “ecosystem service elasticity” to describe the sensitivity of human well-being to changes in ecosystem services. They emphasize how people access ecosystem service benefits in different ways and demonstrate how these benefits match their needs or aspirations. The authors apply this framework to case studies of individual coastal ecosystem services in East Africa but it has potential to be used as general practical guidelines for pursuing environmental management for human well-being and poverty alleviation. Read the article here

Another key challenge is to understand sustainability issues in the context of rapidly suburbanizing areas. Centre researcher Garry Peterson has co-authored a paper on the agricultural Montérégie landscape just east of Montreal, Québec, Canada. Together with Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne, they look at how ecosystem services are produced, used and managed by different people in different parts of the region, and how affects ecosystem service assessments. By mapping services at three different spatial scales, they reveal how different perspectives create four types of scale mismatches in their landscape: two between production and benefit distribution, and two between ecosystem management and production. Read the article here

Comparisons across cases and social-ecological systems

A unique element of PECS is that it allows for comparisons across scales and social-ecological systems. This special issue provides examples of some of the initial key comparisons and syntheses that have been generated across PECS case-studies and projects.

In a paper led by Patricia Balvanera, which includes centre researchers Tim Daw, Albert Norström, Garry Peterson and Maike Hamann, 25 PECS affiliated projects spanning across 25 countries help identify what key features contribute to successful research design and implementation of place-based social-ecological sustainability research. The authors suggest five sets of recommendations regarding strategies to foster the success of place-based social-ecological sustainability research. This includes the importance of learning from failures and merging international as well as locally relevant perspectives. Read the article here

Other papers focus on the application of a specific methodology. One of the papers is led by Elisa Oteros-Rozas. It reviews 23 cases of participatory scenario planning in a wide range of case-studies affiliated to PECS. They find that scenario planning has improved dialogue and raised stakeholders’ awareness for long-term planning and factors that drives change. The authors see this paper as a starting point to build an international community of practice that can share methods, issues and insights in order to improve the practice of participatory scenario planning, for example within the IPBES’s assessments of ecosystem services and biodiversity. Read the article here


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