Using Ostrom’s social-ecological systems framework to set context for transdisciplinary research: A case study

By Maria Helena Guimarães

Maria Helena Guimarães (biography)

How can Elinor Ostrom’s social-ecological systems framework help transdisciplinary research? I propose that this framework can provide an understanding of the system in which the transdisciplinary research problem is being co-defined.

Understanding the system is a first step and is necessary for adequate problem framing, engagement of participants, connecting knowledge and structuring the collaboration between researchers and non-academics. It leads to a holistic understanding of the problem or question to be dealt with. It allows the problem framing to start with a fair representation of the issues, values and interests that can influence the research outcomes. It also identifies critical gaps as our case study below illustrates.

The social-scological systems framework (Ostrom, 2007; 2009; McGinnis and Ostrom, 2004) is a nested and multi-tier diagnostic approach as shown in the figure below.

Social-ecological systems framework with first-tier components (Source: McGinnis and Ostrom 2014)

Each first-tier component is a core subsystem, which is made up of multiple second-level variables. At the top level of the framework, attention is drawn to four components:

  1. Resource system (eg., a protected area or a coastal fishery). This is a specific territory or area that can include several resource units. A resource system generates resource units that may be consumed in many forms.
    1. Second-tier variables within the resource system include clarity of the system boundaries, and size of the resource system.
  2. Resource units generated by that system (eg., trees or lobsters). These are considered to be parts of (or drawn out of) the resource system.
    1. Second-tier variables under resource units include the characterization of the resource unit mobility, economic value, and growth or replacement rates.
  3. Actors (eg., park managers, anglers). These are individuals who influence and are influenced by the resource system and its units.
    1. Second-tier variables include the number of actors, their location, and their socioeconomic attributes.
  4. Governance system (eg., the government and other organizations that manage the park, the specific rules related to the use of the park, and how these rules are made). This includes the organizations and rules that govern the resource system.
    1. Second-tier variables include the characterization of government and non-governmental institutions, and the identification of rules.

The first-tier levels of the framework are connected by the action situation (eg., decline of a lobster population). Action situations are where inputs are transformed by the actions of multiple actors into outcomes. Each governance system has authority over some defined sets of actors, and effectively determines the nature of the actors and the options available to them. The entire range of relevant governance systems and resource systems set the conditions under which action situations take place.

The second tier of the social-ecological systems framework describes 56 variables that can contribute to a holistic understanding of a specific question.

There are many ways in which the framework can be applied to inform transdisciplinary research.

In a recent study of sustainable development of an agro-silvo-pastoral system (the montado) in the Alentejo region of Portugal (Guimarães et al, 2018), we reviewed the literature about how the social-ecological systems framework had been used in natural resources management in order to select the best variables to characterize our case.

Of the 56 second-tier variables described in McGinnis and Ostrom (2014), we selected and characterized 30 variables for our case study. Most were identified in the literature review and another three were added to acknowledge the specificities of the case-study: location, interaction between resource units and network structure.

After defining the variables, we undertook a second literature review to characterize the variables in our case study. The variable status in this characterization was compared with the results of the first literature review and used to reflect on the impact on transdisciplinarity.

As a consequence, we contextualised our case study as shown in the following three tables.

Table 1: The resource systems and resource units components and their related variables (Source: Guimarães et al., 2018)

Table 2: The governance systems component and its related variables (Source: Guimarães et al., 2018)

Table 3: The actors and interaction components and their related variables (Source: Guimarães et al., 2018)

Implications for our transdisciplinary research process

  • We were unable to identify the landowners and managers, which hindered our ability to include all relevant stakeholders. We need to overcome this with a regional study to identify landowners and managers and to understand how management, at the operational-choice level, is occurring.
  • The montado is not a homogenous land use system. There are different types of montado and corresponding business models. A transdisciplinary research process would benefit from a clear characterization and typology of the different types of montado, so that the process could be tailored to each type.
  • Visual identification of decline in the montado occurs only when the ecological conditions are extremely degraded. As a consequence, not all actors perceived the same system threats and therefore differed in their willingness to engage in our transdisciplinary research process.
  • In the montado the current property regimes (ie., mostly private) and the lack of connection observed between different landowners in relation to each other’s expectations is a big challenge. However, this could also be an opportunity for a transdisciplinary research process, because it provides a meeting point between different actors and can serve as an attractor to participation.
  • Spatial analysis needs to focus on identifying those parts of the montado where severe decline has occurred, so that those areas can be given prioritized attention. Working at a regional scale necessarily means dealing with a very large resource system and this in turn makes collective actions harder.

We found Ostrom’s social-ecological systems framework to be an effective and useful way to understand context in our study. What methods have you used? Have you used Ostrom’s social-ecological systems framework in some other way?

To find out more:
Guimarães M. H., Guiomar N., Surová D., Godinho S., Pinto-Correia, Sandberg A., Ravera F. and Varanda M. (2018). Structuring wicked problems in transdisciplinary research using the Social–Ecological systems framework: An application to the montado system, Alentejo, Portugal. Journal of Cleaner Production, 191: 417-428

Ostrom E. (2007). A diagnostic approach for going beyond panaceas. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), 104, 39: 15181-15187

Ostrom, E. (2009). A general framework for analyzing sustainability of social-ecological systems. Science, 325: 419–422. Online (DOI): 10.1126/science.1172133

McGinnis, M. D., Ostrom, E. (2014). Social-ecological system framework: Initial changes and continuing challenges. Ecology and Society, 19, 2: 30. Online (DOI): 10.5751/ES-06387-190230

Biography: Maria Helena Guimarães PhD is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Mediterranean Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (ICAAM), in Évora University, Portugal. In her research group, she coordinates the line of research dedicated to transdisciplinary processes and co-construction of knowledge. Her research interest is the practical application of knowledge co-construction and the use of systems thinking for the sustainable management of natural resources.

8 thoughts on “Using Ostrom’s social-ecological systems framework to set context for transdisciplinary research: A case study”

  1. Dear Maria Helena,
    Congratulations for your post and thanks for sharing your findings. The issue you focus is crucial to the improvement of governance arrangements. I wonder if we could extend you analytical scheme to other contexts and I dare to raise a couple of concerns that in my view could add more accuracy to the framework.
    The first consideration regards bridging the local governance scheme to a multi-level arena. In other words, how a specific social-ecological system interacts with other ones. And how such interactions are managed?
    The second point is somehow related to the previous one, but brings to the discussion another set of qualitative considerations, which are complex and, although perceptible, are difficult to measure. Who are the individuals behind each actor’s (stakeholder’s) category? Up to what extent they (these individuals) represent the institutions or social groups they are meant to? Are there specific idiosyncrasies (such as religious or cultural divides) within a same group? How sustainable (in terms of continuity) a policy is? How legitimate the governance scheme is, not only by the stakeholders directly involved, but also by “outsiders”?
    These remarks are based on my experience in cases in the periphery of the periphery. It’s surely not the same case as for the montado. The questions I raise may be already implicit in some of the variables you mention and probably are not so relevant to your case study. But considering some cases in which very fragile institutions and weak social capital tend to undermine other more tangible aspects, I suggest you consider including an overall approach, previous to the 3 tables presented, with a set of variables framed under an “institutional sustainability” umbrella. After all, we know that between an ideal-type governance scheme and the real world there is a distance.
    All the best,
    Marcel Bursztyn

    Ferraro Jr, L. A.; Bursztyn, M.; Drummond, J. 2017. Sustainability of the Remaining Agricultural Commons in the Brazilian Northeast: challenges beyond management. ERDE, v. 148, p. 150-166.
    Oviedo, A.; Bursztyn, M. 2016. The Fortune of the Commons: Participatory Evaluation of Small-Scale Fisheries in the Brazilian Amazon. Environmental Management, v. 57, p. 1009-1023.
    McNeill, D.; Bursztyn, M.; Novira, N.; Purushothaman, S.; Verburg, R. 2014. Taking account of governance: The challenge for land-use planning models. Land Use Policy, v. 37, p. 6-13.

    • Dear Marcel,
      Thank you for your comments.
      I think that in McGinnis and Ostrom (2014) you will find some discussion regarding the interaction between different social-ecological systems, since the framework currently talks about multiple and simultaneous actions situations.
      McGinnis, M. D., Ostrom, E. (2014). Social-ecological system framework: Initial changes and continuing challenges. Ecology and Society, 19, 2: 30. Online (DOI): 10.5751/ES-06387-190230
      Thank you for the questions you raised. Institutional arrangements is the heart of the work developed by the Ostrom’s; there is plenty of insights from political science very useful for transdisciplinarity.
      All the best

  2. Dear María Helena,
    Thanks for sharing your experience and lessons. Continuing with Vanesa’s reflection, we at Politics & Ideas are very interested in seeing how other colleagues reflect and learn from the implementation of different frameworks, as we are doing the same with ours.

    I share Russell and Vanessa’s impressions on the importance, and also the challenges, of understanding how culture and less tangible issues regarding interactions between stakeholders can be better incorporated into frameworks.

    That said, I’d like to add a couple of thoughts:

    – While the framework gives a relevant space to look at actors, I have not found any specific reference to their capacity to influence the system and decision making at the park. While you can track this by looking at the several second-tier variables, it could be interesting looking at what skills, knowledge, strategies and information do they have to influence the other components.

    – I find your first implication very relevant to our own experience applying. In our case, we were not able to involve all relevant stakeholders in the analysis of the situation (i.e.: use of evidence in a certain public agency and policy sector), due to resistance or preferences of our partner agency (as Vanesa said). At the end of the analysis we realized that we had some gaps in terms of perspectives which would have strengthened our analysis. Your strategy of conducting a regional study sounds a good compliment, but even if we have done a thorough scan and a participatory stakeholders map, we still felt the need of a deeper involvement of some actors in the discussions, especially of those who are in a position to enable or hinder recommended actions emerging of the project.

    – As a matter of fact, applying the framework in different contexts could be a radically different experience that throws complimentary lessons. In the case of our framework, we piloted it in two diverse contexts in Latin America and Africa, different organizations and policy areas, different public sector’s cultures, and especially different political conjunctures. These combos made one experience very diverse from the other, and gave us a broader arc of lessons that we are currently revisiting to adjust our approach in future endeavors that would require the use of the framework.

    I look forward to reading more lessons from the continuity of your work in Alentejo as well as other future projects.


    • Dear Leandro,

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

      In regards to the “skills, knowledge, strategies and information.” Please have a closer look at the article, you will find some insights.

      For me, involving stakeholders is an on-going process and not static. Understanding that one perspective is missing is already a great outcome of any reflection process. It opens the opportunity to understand the missing perspective and add it to the on-going puzzle construction.

      Looking forward to read about the application of the framework in the contexts you referred.
      All the best

  3. Dear Vanessa,

    Thank you for your comment. The selection of the variables was done by a first literature review regarding the application of the Social-Ecological Systems framework in other natural resource management problematics. From this review, we understood that we should look at 27 variables and their status in our case study. Since we already work with this case study for some time, we add 3 other variables. Theses variables are important in our cases study, although we couldn´t find any previous study focused on them. Yet, they are described in the SES framework.

    We didn´t aim at engaging stakeholders in the process of selecting the variable, although I also see the potential of using this framework in a multi-stakeholder environment. Our goals was to have an internal reflection and be better prepared for the transdisciplinary (interactive) arena.

    I agree with you, trying to characterize all variables can be a great endeavor. It was challenge trying to summarize our findings in an article format; our first version was much bigger. However, we did not collect new data, so we based the characterization on the available information. This way we also had change to understand where are the knowledge gaps and their impact on acquiring a holistic view of the system.
    I fully support your call for mechanisms that enable the inner worlds of individuals and collective to be brought into the table. Some of the most interesting mechanism I came across recently was Dragon Dreaming (, Theory U ( and Design Thinking.

    However, I haven´t been able to try them so far. I work since 2009 as facilitator in transdisciplinary projects focus on natural resources management. I work with several types of people and I give priority to the creation of comfortable dialogue spaces. In my latest project, I have been working in interaction with stakeholders since 2016. What I conclude so far is that the cultural context and the values need a lot of attention. If you (as a facilitator) are not able to find the appropriate manner to get participants interest and at the same time push them to go further, they just don´t trust you and leave the transdisciplinary process.

    This is to say that although I could promote multistakeholder interactions to deal with the inner worlds (that are so important); I know that this needs to be done in a much implicit manner (than the approaches I listed), taking into consideration that cultural context and values I am dealing with. Therefore, I use very simple activities along the workshops we develop such as,
    – From time to time I ask questions about motivations, feelings
    – I use icebreaking activities with pictures that participants select and later explain to the group
    – We go to the field together, so we don´t work always in-door.
    – We organize lunches and other collective activities.

    Finally, my experience so far is that transdisciplinarity needs to be a long term endeavor and in this process you are able to impact social structures, create new linkages and perhaps in this process create the level of trust and openness necessary to deal with inner worlds.
    Thanks again for your interest and I will look in detail to you blog post as soon as possible!

  4. Thanks, Elena, for sharing your on the ground experience in applying Ostrom´s framework. Several variables are common to the context framework we have developed under P&I with INASP: And also: the blog post at

    It find it insightful to think about selecting some variables when we are using frameworks that attempt to be as systemic as possible, but would imply such an extensive and intensive research on the ground that we end up not being able to really take in all of these variables, even more when we aim at explroing them from multiple perspectives. Our pilots in applying our framework have revealed to us how challenging it is to be integral and systemic when we have limited resources to do a project.

    How did you concretely make your own selection? How did you use literature review to do so? In our case we have asked the governmente agency to select their core dimensions at this stage, for example. However, one risk for doing that is that the agency leaves out critical issues due to fear or resistance to address them.

    This relates to some of Russell´s points in his comment. Frequently, we as human beings, tend to avoid the implicit, invisible and contentious aspects that influence how a problem is defined and approached. Sometimes values underlying debate and decisions can be clearly identified and even contained under accepted concepts, but many times they are not even acknowledged by stakeholders or tensions between values are not recognized candidly. How do we open up spaces to hold these kind of discoveries?

    I have recently written in a blog post about our need to take a more integral approach to our projects (see post link below) and I am exploring and trying out very concrete mechanisms to enable that the inner worlds of individuals and collective that are not externally visible nor tangible are brought into the table. The time has come for alternative approaches to research and action. The Presencing institute at MIT, for instance, has developed a methodology and several tools that make this possible. I am also reading right now “A new republic of the heart” by Terry Patten which is offering me significant food for thought.

    Any others developing concrete tools and mechanisms to better capture those implicit and invisible aspects such as values, feelings, states of minds, meanings, etc.?

    My blog post on an integral approach: [Moderator update – In October 2021, this link no longer available: politicsandideas[dot]org]

  5. Dear Russell,

    Thank you so much for your comment and “food for thoughts”. The blog is really a great tool.

    I fully agree with your points. Yet, systems approaches just preclude richer and varied models if we allow it. I see the value of Ostrom’s framework in the list of variables she and her team courageously put together and, by the comparative analysis it allows. However understanding the system, in which transdisciplinarity will be put in place, does not stop here. Complementary approaches that are able to deal with the issues you refer are certainly needed.

    In our specific case study, we have been developing face-to-face interactions with several actors, on a regular base, since 2016. We still haven´t written in international journals about this on-going co-creation effort but if you want to try Portuguese, have a look at the blog: We are dealing constantly with multiple views, values, cultural contexts, gender issues and sometimes in conflicting episodes.

    The application of Ostrom’s framework allowed us to understand (among other things) how little do we know about the social processes that define the montado system today.

    We didn´t have a chance to show in the article, but only 30% the literature we reviewed focuses on the social processes occurring and impacting the montado system. We are definitely lacking social perspectives over the sustainability issue of the montado. I still think that if more literature existed we could provide a richer description of the processes, while applying Ostrom’s framework. However, this is just a hypothesis.

    Since Ostrom’s framework is a continuation of the work developed with the Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) framework it also tackles the decision context. Although providing more details on the rules rather than on the values. However, by challenging the neoclassic homo economicus understanding of decision Ostrom is (perhaps not explicitly enough) highlighting the importance of knowledge (communication) and values in our individual and collective decisions. Actually in the article, we start the discussion about the particular values that are being ignored or marginalized in the decision making process.

    Further, our research group is increasingly interested in understanding how you to deal with values as we also see that values are a major limiting factor of the changes that are needed to secure the montado sustainability.

    In parallel we are working at the policy making level and trying to implement agri-enviromental schemes based on results to understand their capacity to be leverage actions that can contribute to the changes needed. Actually, we are about to leave for a field visit to the Burren Program in Ireland to see how they have been able to put such strategy in place ( We are a group of 20 people: researchers, landowners, land managers, users, governmental and non-governmental institutions and policy makers. This is being developed in collaboration with HVN-Link project ( I will remember the vrk model when I ask questions there!

    It’s an exciting moment for us and hopefully for the sustainability of the montado system. Thank you again for your input and congratulation for the work you have been developing.

    All the best

  6. Hi Helena,
    Thanks for the great write up and example of the use of the Ostrom framework to understand context. The Ostrom framework does an excellent job of enabling a systematic description of a Social-ecological system, however I wanted to note some of important limits and the value of complementary approaches. That is that the Ostrom framework is designed for a specific purpose: to permit analysis across systems. It therefore focuses on identifying universal components – users, governance structures, resources, and the links among them, so researchers can identify similarities and differences across systems. This is useful for orientating ourselves to a new social-ecological system. However I think we need to guard against three possible issues: 1) ignoring multiple views that can be used to gain insight into a complex system, 2) ignoring the less palpable features of the system, and 3) ignoring the user and uses of the analysis in framing our view of the system.

    The first risk is that the framework discourages including multiple perspectives on the systems that do not fit within the framework and the box and arrows system framing in particular. Castree (2016) argues that this kind of “scientized” view is not the only useful way to look at these complex systems. We should be making space for other points of view.

    Related to this it tends to favour that we include the indisputable and observable rather than the implicit or contentious. Concepts such as values, politics, and culture are acknowledged, but are harder to talk about without being explicit about what theoretical framework we are drawing on. Similarly societal level constructs that do not fit the level of the analysis tend to be ignored. In the above analysis values, politics, media and income and wealth distribution, gender issues are missing. While we can perhaps fit them in, the framework does not help reveal them, and we have trouble classifying these issues in the tables.

    In complex systems we need not only knowledge about the system but knowledge that is tailored to the needs of people in different places within the system. While the Ostrom framework provides a detailed description of the context within which focal decisions are made, it does not specify the context that the knowledge generated by the analysis is intend to be useful for. As a result we get a mixed bag such as insights about the nature of governance structures, the impact of outside actors, or the importance of observability of rule breaches. It presents a coherent whole for a researcher wanting to compare systems, but does not provide a description that helps an actor situated within the system to evaluate their options. It is unclear what a person can do with these insights, or where and how they can engage in the system to use them.

    Here is where I plug a different view of context, which focuses on the decision context, and how the people within the decision arena construct their view of the world and how they can reflect on it and influence it. In an earlier blog post we argue that describing a decision context as interacting systems and sets of values, rules and knowledge is a useful starting point because they define agency – the ability for reasoned choice – but also reveal this as a creative process that draws on a range of cognitive and social processes that can be understood from diverse perspectives.

    To use Castree’s term, the underlying issues is the “epistemic realism and ontological monism” of systems approaches that can preclude richer and varied models of our growing pressures and issues.

    Russell Gorddard

    Castree, N. (2016). Broaden research on the human dimensions of climate change.Nature Climate Change,6(8), 731.

    Posts on Values Rules and Knowledge:

    Katie Moon and Deborah Blackman on ontology & epistemology


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