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.
Access optionsAccess options
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $8.67 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Centeno, M. A., Nag, M., Patterson, T. S., Shaver, A. & Windawi, A. J. The emergence of global systemic risk. Annu. Rev. Sociol. 41, 65–85 (2015).
Lambin, E. F. & Meyfroidt, P. Global land use change, economic globalization, and the looming land scarcity. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 108, 3465–3472 (2011).
May, R. M., Levin, S. A. & Sugihara, G. Ecology for bankers. Nature 451, 893–895 (2008).
Yu, Y., Feng, K. & Hubacek, K. Tele-connecting local consumption to global land use. Glob. Environ. Change 23, 1178–1186 (2013).
DeFries, R. & Nagendra, H. Ecosystem management as a wicked problem. Science 356, 265–270 (2017).
Ostrom, E. A general framework for analyzing sustainability of social-ecological systems. Science 325, 419–422 (2009).
Berkes, F., Folke, C. & Colding, J. Navigating Social-Ecological Systems: Building Resilience for Complexity and Change (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2003).
Pelosi, C., Goulard, M. & Balent, G. The spatial scale mismatch between ecological processes and agricultural management: do difficulties come from underlying theoretical frameworks? Agric. Ecosyst. Environ. 139, 455–462 (2010).
Stafford, S. G. et al. Now is the time for action: transitions and tipping points in complex environmental systems. Environ. Sci. Policy Sustain. Dev. 52, 38–45 (2009).
Moreno, J. L. & Jennings, H. H. Statistics of social configurations. Sociometry 1, 342–374 (1938).
Paine, R. T. Food webs: linkage, interaction strength and community infrastructure. J. Anim. Ecol. 49, 666–685 (1980).
Bascompte, J., Jordano, P., Melián, C. J. & Olesen, J. M. The nested assembly of plant–animal mutualistic networks. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 100, 9383–9387 (2003).
Cantwell, M. D. & Forman, R. T. T. Landscape graphs: ecological modeling with graph-theory to detect configurations common to diverse landscapes. Landsc. Ecol. 8, 239–255 (1993).
Janssen, M. A. et al. Toward a network perspective of the study of resilience in social-ecological systems. Ecol. Soc. 11, 15 (2006).
Dee, L. E. et al. Operationalizing network theory for ecosystem service assessments. Trends Ecol. Evol. 32, 118–130 (2017).
Bodin, Ö. & Tengö, M. Disentangling intangible social–ecological systems. Glob. Environ. Change 22, 430–439 (2012).
Bodin, Ö., Crona, B., Thyresson, M., Golz, A.-L. & Tengö, M. Conservation success as a function of good alignment of social and ecological structures and processes. Conserv. Biol. 28, 1371–1379 (2014).
Barnes, M. L. et al. Social-ecological alignment and ecological conditions in coral reefs. Nat. Commun. 10, 2039 (2019).
Brandes, U., Robins, G., McCraine, A. & Wasserman, S. What is network science?. Netw. Sci. 1, 1–15 (2013).
Biesbroek, R., Dupuis, J. & Wellstead, A. Explaining through causal mechanisms: resilience and governance of social–ecological systems. Curr. Opin. Environ. Sustain. 28, 64–70 (2017).
Magliocca, N. R. et al. Closing global knowledge gaps: producing generalized knowledge from case studies of social-ecological systems. Glob. Environ. Change 50, 1–14 (2018).
Ferraro, P. J., Sanchirico, J. N. & Smith, M. D. Causal inference in coupled human and natural systems. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 116, 5311–5318 (2019).
Merton, R. K. Social Theory and Social Structure (Free Press, 1968).
McRae, B. H. & Beier, P. Circuit theory predicts Gene flow in plant and animal populations. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 104, 19885–19890 (2007).
Qiu, J. et al. Evidence-based causal chains for linking health, development, and conservation actions. Bioscience 68, 182–193 (2018).
Young, O. R. et al. A portfolio approach to analyzing complex human-environment interactions: institutions and land change. Ecol. Soc. 11, 31 (2006).
Munafò, M. R. & Davey Smith, G. Robust research needs many lines of evidence. Nature 553, 399–401 (2018).
Janssen, M. A., Holahan, R., Lee, A. & Ostrom, E. Lab Experiments for the study of social-ecological systems. Science 328, 613–617 (2010).
Axelrod, R. The Complexity of Cooperation (Princeton Univ. Press, 1997).
Matous, P. & Wang, P. External exposure, boundary-spanning, and opinion leadership in remote communities: a network experiment. Soc. Netw. 56, 10–22 (2019).
Olsson, L. & Jerneck, A. Social fields and natural systems: integrating knowledge about society and nature. Ecol. Soc. 23, art26 (2018).
Groce, J. E., Farrelly, M. A., Jorgensen, B. S. & Cook, C. N. Using social-network research to improve outcomes in natural resource management. Conserv. Biol. 33, 53–65 (2018).
Ekstrom, J. A. & Young, O. R. Evaluating functional fit between a set of institutions and an ecosystem. Ecol. Soc. 14, 16 (2009).
Lubell, M. Governing institutional complexity: the ecology of games framework. Policy Stud. J. 41, 537–559 (2013).
Raudsepp-Hearne, C., Peterson, G. D. & Bennett, E. M. Ecosystem service bundles for analyzing tradeoffs in diverse landscapes. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 107, 5242–5247 (2010).
Morrison, T. H. Evolving polycentric governance of the Great Barrier Reef. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 114, E3013–E3021 (2017).
Fischer, M. Coalition structures and policy change in a consensus democracy. Policy Stud. J. 42, 344–366 (2014).
Ostrom, E. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990).
Lubell, M., Jasny, L. & Hastings, A. Network governance for invasive species management. Conserv. Lett. 10, 699–707 (2016).
Bodin, Ö. Collaborative environmental governance: achieving collective action in social-ecological systems. Science 357, eaan1114 (2017).
Barnes, M. L. et al. The social structural foundations of adaptation and transformation in social–ecological systems. Ecol. Soc. 22, 16 (2017).
Bodin, Ö. & Crona, B. I. The role of social networks in natural resource governance: what relational patterns make a difference? Glob. Environ. Change 19, 366–374 (2009).
Levy, M. A. & Lubell, M. N. Innovation, cooperation, and the structure of three regional sustainable agriculture networks in California. Reg. Environ. Change 18, 1235–1246 (2017).
Mcallister, R. R. J., Robinson, C. J., Maclean, K., Perry, S. & Liu, S. Balancing collaboration with coordination: contesting eradication in the Australian plant pest and disease biosecurity system. Int. J. Commons 11, 330–354 (2017).
Koontz, T. M. & Newig, J. From planning to implementation: top-down and bottom-up approaches for collaborative watershed management. Policy Stud. J. 42, 416–442 (2014).
Meyfroidt, P. et al. Middle-range theories of land system change. Glob. Environ. Change 53, 52–67 (2018).
Folke, C., Pritchard, L., Berkes, F., Colding, J. & Svedin, U. The problem of fit between ecosystems and institutions: ten years later. Ecol. Soc. 12, 30 (2007).
Epstein, G. et al. Institutional fit and the sustainability of social–ecological systems. Curr. Opin. Environ. Sustain. 14, 34–40 (2015).
Alexander, S. M., Armitage, D., Carrington, P. J. & Bodin, Ö. Examining horizontal and vertical social ties to achieve social-ecological fit in an emerging marine reserve network. Aquat. Conserv. Mar. Freshw. Ecosyst. 27, 1209–1223 (2017).
Chadès, I. et al. General rules for managing and surveying networks of pests, diseases, and endangered species. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 108, 8323–8328 (2011).
McAllister, R. R. J. et al. From local to central: a network analysis of who manages plant pest and disease outbreaks across scales. Ecol. Soc. 20, 67 (2015).
Matti, S. & Sandström, A. The rationale determining advocacy coalitions: examining coordination networks and corresponding beliefs. Policy Stud. J. 39, 385–410 (2011).
Ingold, K. et al. Misfit between physical affectedness and regulatory embeddedness: the case of drinking water supply along the Rhine River. Glob. Environ. Change 48, 136–150 (2018).
Treml, E., Fidelman, P. I. J., Kininmonth, S., Ekstrom, J. & Bodin, Ö. Analyzing the (mis)fit between the institutional and ecological networks of the Indo-West Pacific. Glob. Environ. Change 31, 263–271 (2015).
Pittman, J. & Armitage, D. How does network governance affect social-ecological fit across the land-sea interface? An empirical assessment from the Lesser Antilles. Ecol. Soc. 22, art5 (2017).
Bodin, Ö. et al. Theorizing benefits and constraints in collaborative environmental governance: a transdisciplinary social-ecological network approach for empirical investigations. Ecol. Soc. 21, 40 (2016).
Guerrero, A. M., Bodin, Ö., McAllister, R. R. J. & Wilson, K. A. Achieving social-ecological fit through bottom-up collaborative governance: an empirical investigation. Ecol. Soc. 20, 41 (2015).
Angst, M. Networks of Swiss water governance issues. studying fit between media attention and organizational activity. Soc. Nat. Resour. https://doi.org/10.1080/08941920.2018.1535102 (2019).
Robins, G. Doing Social Network Research: Network-based Research Design for Social Scientists (Sage, 2015).
Berardo, R. & Scholz, J. T. Self-organizing policy networks: risk, partner selection, and cooperation in estuaries. Am. J. Pol. Sci. 54, 632–649 (2010).
Bergsten, A., Galafassi, D. & Bodin, Ö. The problem of spatial fit in social-ecological systems: detecting mismatches between ecological connectivity and land management in an urban region. Ecol. Soc. 19, 6 (2014).
Sayles, J. S. & Baggio, J. A. Social–ecological network analysis of scale mismatches in estuary watershed restoration. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 114, E1776–E1785 (2017).
Bodin, Ö. & Nohrstedt, D. Formation and performance of collaborative disaster management networks: evidence from a Swedish wildfire response. Glob. Environ. Change 41, 183–194 (2016).
Christensen, N. L. et al. The report of the Ecological Society of America Committee on the scientific basis for ecosystem management. Ecol. Appl. 6, 665–691 (1996).
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.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Supplementary Methods, Table 1, Results and refs. 1–13.
About this article
Science Bulletin (2019)