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socio-ecological systems


Socio-ecological systems are co-evolving systems that include interdependent social and ecological sub-systems. The concept of socio-ecological systems incorporates an integrated focus on the various linkages between the both sides of the human-nature-interactions. Given the dynamics between these linkages, socio-ecological systems are moving targets with multiple futures that are inevitable unpredictable and uncertain. They express dynamic interactions between co-evolving domains such as institutions, ecological functions, technologies, values or policies that emerge at different temporal, spatial and social scales.

Research on socio-ecological systems emphasises that ecological as well as socio-economical systems can be described as complex adaptive systems (CAS), sharing all the properties of micro-level processes such as self-organising, selection and co-evolution and producing large macroscopic patterns which emerge out of local, small-scale interactions. In general, CAS can be described as systems characterised by complex behaviour that emerges as a result of interactions among system components or agents and among system components or agents and the environment. Through continuous interacting with and learning from its environment, a CAS modifies its behaviour and rules to adapt to changes in its environment.

Referring to sustainable development, socio-ecological resilience is a major research field and from special interest for natural resource management. Socio-ecological resilience can be defined as potentially absorbing disturbances before the socio-ecological system under question changes its structure and key-variables through changing the patterns and processes that control the behaviour of the system. In a broader sense, it can also be characterised as a capacity that support a continued stable development by incorporating change and disturbance.
A crucial point on this research area is the issue of adaptive capacity, which, in the general sense, is the design and potential of socio-ecological elements such as institutions or management policies to change and adapt in response to altered conditions and unpredictable effects of (co)evolutionary dynamics. Given that there is neither a linear path towards any social vision, nor a possibility to eliminate surprise and uncertainty, we must ask for the elements and functions that maintain adaptive capacity of socio-ecological systems, which involves identification of critical thresholds, and the nature of connections between the different interacting sub-systems.


Selected areas of the research agenda

  • Complexe adaptive systems (CAS)
  • Co-evolutionary dynamics
  • Socio-ecological resilience
  • Adaptive capacity


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Last modified 8 October, 2004 - www.humanecology.at