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Exploring the implications of critical complexity for the study of social-ecological systems.

Michelle Audouin, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research
Rika Preiser, Centre for Studies in Complexity, Stellenbosch University
Shanna Nienaber, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research
Linda Downsborough, Monash University
Johann Lanz
Sydney Mavengahama, Department of Agriculture, University of Zululand


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The complexity of social-ecological systems is well recognized (Berkes et al. 2003, Norberg and Cumming 2008). However, in the study of such systems, it is often the uncertainty that results from nonlinear interactions that forms the focus of discussion. Here, the normative implications of complexity for our knowledge of such systems are emphasised, by drawing largely on the work of Cilliers (1998, 2005a), who introduced the term "critical complexity." This perspective on complexity is distinct in bringing the value-based choices that frame our knowledge generation strategies to the fore. It is from this view that we investigate the implications of complexity for social-ecological systems research. Based on these implications, we propose a set of five key questions to guide the incorporation of insights from critical complexity into such research. We end with a brief application of the questions proposed to the National Freshwater Ecosystem Priority Areas (NFEPA) project in South Africa, to illustrate their potential use in the context of resource management.

Key words

critical complexity; freshwater conservation; knowledge types; social-ecological systems

Copyright © 2013 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