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Scale Mismatches in Social-Ecological Systems: Causes, Consequences, and Solutions

Graeme S Cumming, University of Florida
David H. M. Cumming, University of Zimbabwe
Charles L Redman, Arizona State University


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Scale is a concept that transcends disciplinary boundaries. In ecology and geography, scale is usually defined in terms of spatial and temporal dimensions. Sociological scale also incorporates space and time, but adds ideas about representation and organization. Although spatial and temporal location determine the context for social and ecological dynamics, social-ecological interactions can create dynamic feedback loops in which humans both influence and are influenced by ecosystem processes. We hypothesize that many of the problems encountered by societies in managing natural resources arise because of a mismatch between the scale of management and the scale(s) of the ecological processes being managed. We use examples from southern Africa and the southern United States to address four main questions: (1) What is a “scale mismatch?” (2) How are scale mismatches generated? (3) What are the consequences of scale mismatches? (4) How can scale mismatches be resolved? Scale mismatches occur when the scale of environmental variation and the scale of social organization in which the responsibility for management resides are aligned in such a way that one or more functions of the social-ecological system are disrupted, inefficiencies occur, and/or important components of the system are lost. They are generated by a wide range of social, ecological, and linked social-ecological processes. Mismatches between the scales of ecological processes and the institutions that are responsible for managing them can contribute to a decrease in social-ecological resilience, including the mismanagement of natural resources and a decrease in human well-being. Solutions to scale mismatches usually require institutional changes at more than one hierarchical level. Long-term solutions to scale mismatch problems will depend on social learning and the development of flexible institutions that can adjust and reorganize in response to changes in ecosystems. Further research is needed to improve our ability to diagnose, understand, and resolve scale mismatches in linked social-ecological systems.

Key words

scale; scale mismatch; conservation; management; ecosystem function; sociological scale; southern Africa

Copyright © 2006 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article  is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes 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