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The potential of models and modeling for social-ecological systems research: the reference frame ModSES

Maja Schlüter, Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Sweden
Birgit Müller, UFZ - Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research Leipzig-Halle, Leipzig, Germany
Karin Frank, UFZ - Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research Leipzig-Halle, Leipzig, Germany; University of Osnabrück, Institute for Environmental Systems Research, Osnabrück, Germany; German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig, Leipzig, Germany


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Dynamic models have long been a common tool to support management of ecological and economic systems and played a prominent role in the early days of resilience research. Model applications have largely focused on policy assessment, the development of optimal management strategies, or analysis of system stability. However, modeling can serve many other purposes such as understanding system responses that emerge from complex interactions of system components, supporting participatory processes, and analyzing consequences of human behavioral complexity. The diversity of purposes, types, and applications of models offers great potential for social-ecological systems (SESs) research, but has created much confusion because modeling approaches originate from different disciplines, are based on different assumptions, focus on different levels of analysis, and use different analytical methods. This diversity makes it difficult to identify which approach is most suitable for addressing a specific question. Here, our aims are: (1) to introduce the most common types of dynamic models used in SESs research and related fields, and (2) to align these models with SESs research aims to support the selection and communication of the most suitable approach for a given study. To this end, we organize modeling approaches into a reference scheme called “modelling for social-ecological systems research” (ModSES) along two dimensions: the degree of realism and the degree of knowledge integration. These two dimensions capture key challenges of SESs research related to the need to account for context dependence and the intertwined nature of SESs as systems of humans embedded in nature across multiple scales, as well as to acknowledge different problem framings, understandings, interests, and values. We highlight the need to be aware of the potentials, limitations, and conceptual backgrounds underlying the different approaches. Critical engagement with modeling for different aims of SESs research can contribute to developing integrative understanding and action toward enhanced resilience and sustainability.

Key words

adaptation; agent-based models; participatory modeling; structural realistic models; stylized or toy models; system dynamic models; transformation

Copyright © 2019 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087