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Integrating social science into empirical models of coupled human and natural systems

Jeffrey D Kline, USDA Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station
Eric M White, USDA Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station
A Paige Fischer, University of Michigan
Michelle M Steen-Adams, USDA Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station; University of New England
Susan Charnley, USDA Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station
Christine S Olsen, Oregon State University
Thomas A Spies, USDA Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station
John D Bailey, Oregon State University


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Coupled human and natural systems (CHANS) research highlights reciprocal interactions (or feedbacks) between biophysical and socioeconomic variables to explain system dynamics and resilience. Empirical models often are used to test hypotheses and apply theory that represent human behavior. Parameterizing reciprocal interactions presents two challenges for social scientists: (1) how to represent human behavior as influenced by biophysical factors and integrate this into CHANS empirical models; (2) how to organize and function as a multidisciplinary social science team to accomplish that task. We reflect on these challenges regarding our CHANS research that investigated human adaptation to fire-prone landscapes. Our project sought to characterize the forest management activities of land managers and landowners (or “actors”) and their influence on wildfire behavior and landscape outcomes by focusing on biophysical and socioeconomic feedbacks in central Oregon (USA). We used an agent-based model (ABM) to compile biophysical and social information pertaining to actor behavior, and to project future landscape conditions under alternative management scenarios. Project social scientists were tasked with identifying actors’ forest management activities and biophysical and socioeconomic factors that influence them, and with developing decision rules for incorporation into the ABM to represent actor behavior. We (1) briefly summarize what we learned about actor behavior on this fire-prone landscape and how we represented it in an ABM, and (2) more significantly, report our observations about how we organized and functioned as a diverse team of social scientists to fulfill these CHANS research tasks. We highlight several challenges we experienced, involving quantitative versus qualitative data and methods, distilling complex behavior into empirical models, varying sensitivity of biophysical models to social factors, synchronization of research tasks, and the need to substitute spatial for temporal variation in social data and models, among others. We offer recommendations that other research teams might consider when collaborating with social scientists in CHANS research.

Key words

CHANS; coupled human and natural systems; integrated social and ecological models; interdisciplinary research; wildfire

Copyright © 2017 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