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The social structural foundations of adaptation and transformation in social–ecological systems

Michele L. Barnes, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University; Department of Botany, University of Hawaii at Manoa
Örjan Bodin, Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Sweden
Angela M Guerrero, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Queensland; ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions, The University of Queensland; Luc Hoffmann Institute, WWF International
Ryan R. J. McAllister, CSIRO
Steven M Alexander, Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University; National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, University of Maryland
Garry Robins, Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences, University of Melbourne; Centre for Transformative Innovation, Swinburne University of Technology


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Social networks are frequently cited as vital for facilitating successful adaptation and transformation in linked social–ecological systems to overcome pressing resource management challenges. Yet confusion remains over the precise nature of adaptation vs. transformation and the specific social network structures that facilitate these processes. Here, we adopt a network perspective to theorize a continuum of structural capacities in social–ecological systems that set the stage for effective adaptation and transformation. We begin by drawing on the resilience literature and the multilayered action situation to link processes of change in social–ecological systems to decision making across multiple layers of rules underpinning societal organization. We then present a framework that hypothesizes seven specific social–ecological network configurations that lay the structural foundation necessary for facilitating adaptation and transformation, given the type and magnitude of human action required. A key contribution of the framework is explicit consideration of how social networks relate to ecological structures and the particular environmental problem at hand. Of the seven configurations identified, three are linked to capacities conducive to adaptation and three to transformation, and one is hypothesized to be important for facilitating both processes. We discuss how our theoretical framework can be applied in practice by highlighting existing empirical examples from related environmental governance contexts. Further extension of our hypotheses, particularly as more data become available, can ultimately help guide the design of institutional arrangements to be more effective at dealing with change.

Key words

adaptation; adaptive capacity; social–ecological system; social network; social–ecological network; transformation

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