‘Pluralisms-a-plenty’: engaging with the social world in social-ecological systems research

A reflection on challenges and opportunities of dealing with multiple kinds of pluralisms in doing SES research (e.g. ontologies, epistemologies, theories, methodologies), particularly from an early career scholar perspective. Originally posted here: http://rs.resalliance.org/2015/08/21/pluralisms-a-plenty-engaging-with-the-social-world-in-social-ecological-systems-research/

Guest post by:

  • James Patterson, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Waterloo
  • Jessica Cockburn, PhD Candidate, Rhodes University
  • Vanessa Masterson, PhD Candidate, Stockholm Resilience Centre
  • Simon West, PhD Candidate, Stockholm Resilience Centre
  • Jamila Haider, PhD Candidate, Stockholm Resilience Centre
  • Marta Berbes, PhD, York University

Social-ecological systems (SES) research is increasingly engaging with the socialscience domain. For example, this is reflected in growing SES literature working with political ecology, adaptive governance, and collective action perspectives. Scholars are also increasingly drawing on rich bodies of literature from various social science disciplines that have developed over many decades, yet until recently remained largely unconnected with resilience thinking, such as political science, sociology, and critical theory. Critiques persist about the extent to which resilience thinking suitably engages with social science theories and insights (e.g., Cote and Nightingale 2012, Olsson et al. 2015, see also West et al. 2015). Although much more work is required in this area, research conducted from social science perspectives is increasingly making its way into SES discourse, at least as reflected in some of the main journals of the SES research community. More broadly, SES research has opened opportunities and frontiers for inter- and transdisciplinary research which may previously not have been as apparent (e.g. Stone-Jovicich 2015, Fischer et al. 2015). Further, it appears that the SES and resilience research community is beginning to engage more critically and reflectively with the challenges of working at the interface of the natural and social sciences.

Early career scholars have been key contributors to the increasing sophistication with which resilience thinking engages with social science theories and insights. Early career scholars have embraced, challenged, critiqued, and pushed the boundaries of resilience thinking. They have built on the tremendous opportunity created by early resilience scholars who brought attention to the key need to understand and respond to dynamics and linkages between social and ecological systems. This included the difficult work of fighting against disciplinary boundaries and opening up a well-funded and successful research arena. This was a critical first step in opening up new ways of thinking and practicing problem-based science that have since flourished. Early career scholars have actively taken on the challenges that this initial ‘opening up’ has produced and as a result are contributing in many exciting ways to extending and broadening resilience thinking.

Despite the dynamism and ongoing development of resilience thinking, there have been valid criticisms raised about the extent to which resilience thinking may connect with and be compatible with social science theories and insights. For example, rich traditions of understanding the social world through fundamentally social science concepts and tools such as agency, institutions and institutional change, politics, power, knowledge and culture have largely remained untapped, and to some extent, unacknowledged. Where these concepts are mentioned in SES research, it is at times done fleetingly, and there is a need for SES and resilience scholars to engage more deeply with social theories which can be used to frame such research. This has led to robust critiques of resilience thinking. Sometimes these critiques are levelled at particular heuristics, terms, and concepts but this critique may mis-characterise or simplify the diversity of the broader field of scholarship. However, valid points are also raised about the need for resilience scholars to engage more deeply with wider existing bodies of literature that we have a lot to learn from.

A key way in which resilience thinking could continue to mature is by bringing greater critical reflexivity to our own research choices and the ‘lenses’ through which we interpret the world. The need for reflexivity becomes particularly apparent when we start engaging with the plethora of social science theories, insights and disciplines that are salient to resilience thinking and SES research. A fundamental challenge that engagement with the breadth and diversity of social science raises is that there are many valid ontologies for knowing reality, and many ways of investigating and understanding this reality to produce knowledge (epistemology). This becomes especially salient for research in the social domain. Which aspects of the social world matter to us and which ones don’t? How do we know what we know? How do we investigate complex and sometimes unknowable social phenomena? This point is put eloquently by Dryzek when he states that:

While real problems exist, our interaction with them can only ever be through culturally constructed lens – meaning that we can never know nature, except through the interpretive mechanism of culture, which means all perspectives are partial and contestable (Dryzek, 1997: 10).

These issues are especially confounding when working at the interface of the ‘social’ and ‘ecological’ worlds as we do in resilience and SES research. As a result, we need to recognise fundamental challenges regarding ontology, epistemology, theory, and methodology. Ontological commitments involve choices about what we see as ‘existing’ in the world (e.g., people, social actors, values, cultures, producers, consumers, motivations, texts, discourses, morality, rules, social relations, feedbacks) (following Mason 2002). Epistemological commitments are about what knowledge counts in our work and how this can be demonstrated (e.g., whether or not it is possible to discover objective ‘truth’). Theoretical lenses are important because they frame how we see and interpret the situation we’re looking at (e.g., a critique of resilience thinking has been the arguably inappropriate application of some ecological concepts to social systems). Methodological choices are important because they are our way of exploring and constructing knowledge about a situation, and different approaches in the same situation can lead to different insights. Navigating these multiple pluralisms requires particular skills and competencies, which ought to be considered in the education and training of emerging scholars in SES and resilience research and practice.

More broadly, the choices we make if looking at either the social or ecological world will probably be very different. That is, if one were working with an exclusively natural science research question, or a particular social science research question, the discipline and tradition within which one would find oneself would strongly shape epistemological commitments and methodological choices. However, in working at the interface of the social and ecological worlds, and recognising their intrinsic interconnectedness, we need to be especially conscious of these choices because we can be pulled in different directions. In SES research, we are no longer working on a solely natural research object, or a solely social research object, but on a new cross-cutting research object. This requires not only new and innovative approaches, but also that researchers are reflective and critical in our choice of tools and approaches. Without being deeply aware and reflective on the choices and commitments we make on these topics we risk falling into the trap of taking particular interpretations for granted, and ‘reifying’ a fixed view of how social-ecological systems operate which can constrain new possibilities for inquiry and insight (following Ison 2010).

So what should be done?

As an important first step in exploring these new frontiers, we need to be conscious of such challenges and critically aware of our choices. We also need to critically examine which ways of knowing, exploring and testing are suitable for asking and answering different kinds of questions in SES research. Resilience thinking owes a lot of its foundations to (post) positivist natural science and economics and the innovative thinking of these pioneers, who did not need to engage with the diversity of ontologies and epistemologies of social science. Perhaps now is the time for a systematic exploration of these ontologies and epistemologies and their compatibility with resilience approaches. Which ontologies, epistemologies, theories, and methodologies are compatible with notions of complex adaptive systems, resilience, and SESs?

Consequently, we need to be especially mindful of the various commitments and choices we make when a plurality of options is on the table: ontologically, epistemologically, theoretically, and methodologically. Recent publications exploring the interface of social and ecological research in SESs call for pluralism in methodologies (e.g. Olsson et al 2015, Fischer et al. 2015). However, we must also guard against cooking up “a tasteless soup of pluralisms”, and of combining theories and methodologies which may have underlying ontologies and epistemologies that are incompatible with one another. This means engaging meaningfully with the ontological and epistemological underpinnings of our work, to ensure that we combine multiple ways of knowing and doing in coherent ways. Particularly for scholars who are traditionally trained in the natural sciences, engaging deeply with the meta-philosophies underlying our research choices is a new endeavour, and one which may be overwhelming at times.  A counter challenge for critical social scientists on the other hand is to have more qualitative methods and knowledge systems validated by the broader SES research community.

The commitments and choices we make about ontologies, epistemologies, theories, and methodologies in our research shape how we see and work with social-ecological problems. They are not a ‘given’ (i.e., something that we can take for granted), nor are they objective and value-free scientific endeavours, but choices that need to be made consciously and reflexively (i.e., they may change over time as our own understanding changes). This adds a whole new set of challenges when engaging with the social world. But they are challenges that cannot be avoided and are indeed crucial for deepening the social dimensions of resilience thinking, and engaging in an ethical and honest way (to avoid ‘scientific imperialism’ (Olsson et al 2015)).

Resilience thinking and SES research is an enormous and ongoing collaborative endeavour. After all, it is a bold agenda to trigger a paradigm shift in society from a place of thinking linearly and about social and ecological domains as separate entities, to deeply recognising and engaging with dynamics, change, and linkages between social and ecological domains! However, if we are to collectively continue to work towards such a paradigm shift then we need to take on the challenge of engaging with the social world head-on. This will require critical reflexivity in our own research practice and deep reflection on issues of ontology, epistemology, theory, and methodology in our own work. Despite recent critique (Olsson et al. 2015) resilience thinking and social science are not irreconcilable, and we see current points of tension as research frontiers to be tackled rather than fundamental barriers. The ground is fertile and early career scholars are taking up the challenge.


  • Cote, M., Nightingale, A.J., 2011. Resilience thinking meets social theory: Situating change in socio-ecological systems (SES) research. Progress in Human Geography 36, 475–489.
  • Dryzek, J. 1997. The politics of the Earth: Environmental discourses. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Fischer, J., Gardner, T.A., Bennett, E.M., Balvanera, P., Biggs, R., Carpenter, S., Daw, T., Folke, C., Hill, R., Hughes, T.P., Luthe, T., Maass, M., Meacham, M., Norström, A.V., Peterson, G., Queiroz, C., Seppelt, R., Spierenburg, M., Tenhunen, J., 2015. Advancing sustainability through mainstreaming a social–ecological systems perspective. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 14, 144-149.
  • Ison, R.L., 2010. Systems practice: how to act in a climate-change world. Springer, London.
  • Mason, J., 2002. Qualitative Researching, 2nd ed. SAGE Publications Ltd, London, U.K.
  • Olsson, L., Jerneck, A., Thoren, H., Persson, J., O’Byrne, D. 2015. Why resilience is unappealing to social science: Theoretical and empirical investigations of the scientific use of resilience. Science Advances 1(4): 1-11. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1400217
  • Stone-Jovicich, S. 2015. Probing the interfaces between the social sciences and social-ecological resilience: insights from integrative and hybrid perspectives in the social sciences. Ecology and Society 20(2): 25. http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-07347-200225
  • West, S., Galafassi, D., Haider, J., Marin, A., Merrie, A., Ospina-Medina, D., Schill, C. 2015 “Critically reflecting on social-ecological systems research”, Resilience Science blog URL: http://rs.resalliance.org/2015/02/11/critically-reflecting-on-social-ecological-systems-research/

4 thoughts on “‘Pluralisms-a-plenty’: engaging with the social world in social-ecological systems research

  1. Pingback: Milestones in sustainability related research and useful readings | Ideas for Sustainability

  2. Pingback: Milestones in sustainability related research and useful readings



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