By Maria Helena Guimarães
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.
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:
- 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.
- Second-tier variables within the resource system include clarity of the system boundaries, and size of the resource system.
- Resource units generated by that system (eg., trees or lobsters). These are considered to be parts of (or drawn out of) the resource system.
- Second-tier variables under resource units include the characterization of the resource unit mobility, economic value, and growth or replacement rates.
- Actors (eg., park managers, anglers). These are individuals who influence and are influenced by the resource system and its units.
- Second-tier variables include the number of actors, their location, and their socioeconomic attributes.
- 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.
- 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.
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.