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Diversity, flexibility, and the resilience effect: lessons from a social-ecological case study of diversified farming in the northern Great Plains, USA

Liz Carlisle, PhD Candidate, Dept. of Geography, University of California–Berkeley


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Social-ecological systems are considered resilient when they are capable of recovering from externally forced shocks. Thus, whether a given system is identified as resilient depends on a number of contested definitions: what constitutes a shock, what constitutes a discrete system, and what constitutes acceptable performance. Here, I present a case study in which outcomes apparent to both the researcher and the study subjects demonstrated resilience in effect: a group of farmers in the northern Great Plains in the north-central United States realized economically sufficient production during a low rainfall year when many others in the region did not. However, the researcher's attempt to model this case as a resilient system was continually challenged by qualitative findings, suggesting that these farmers did not experience the officially decreed "drought" year as a shock. Moreover, the social and ecological processes that produced a "resilience effect" functioned as open systems, and were not readily bounded, even in analytical terms. This is not to suggest that resilience is not an operationalizable concept. Rather, the series of processes which produce a resilience effect may be best understood within a broad framework attentive to diversity, flexibility, and relationships at multiple scales—instead of quantitative models focused on discrete moments of disturbance and adaptation.

Key words

diversified farming system; diversity; drought; resilience; northern Great Plains, USA; scale; slow variables; social-ecological systems; sustainable agriculture; values-based supply chain

Copyright © 2014 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