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Improving network approaches to the study of complex social–ecological interdependencies


Achieving effective, sustainable environmental governance requires a better understanding of the causes and consequences of the complex patterns of interdependencies connecting people and ecosystems within and across scales. Network approaches for conceptualizing and analysing these interdependencies offer one promising solution. Here, we present two advances we argue are needed to further this area of research: (i) a typology of causal assumptions explicating the causal aims of any given network-centric study of social–ecological interdependencies; (ii) unifying research design considerations that facilitate conceptualizing exactly what is interdependent, through what types of relationships and in relation to what kinds of environmental problems. The latter builds on the appreciation that many environmental problems draw from a set of core challenges that re-occur across contexts. We demonstrate how these advances combine into a comparative heuristic that facilitates leveraging case-specific findings of social–ecological interdependencies to generalizable, yet context-sensitive, theories based on explicit assumptions of causal relationships.

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J.S.S. was funded by an appointment to the Research Participation Program for the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Office of Research and Development, administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education through an interagency agreement between the US Department of Energy and EPA. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the US EPA or any other named funding body. A.M.G. was supported by the Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions. T.H.M., G.S.C. and M.L.B. were supported by the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies. Ö.B. acknowledges support from Formas and the Swedish Research Council. M. Lubell is acknowledged for providing comments on an earlier version.

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Ö.B. designed and performed the research, led the collaborative work and the writing of the paper. All other authors contributed to the research, the analyses and the writing based on their specific expertise, and are listed alphabetically in the author list following Ö.B.

Correspondence to Ö. Bodin.

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Supplementary Methods, Table 1, Results and refs. 1–13.

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Further reading

Fig. 1: Describing social–ecological systems as social–ecological networks.
Fig. 2: A heuristic for facilitating comparable social–ecological network studies.
Fig. 3: Social–ecological alignment in social–ecological networks.