How scientists connect people and ecosystems, and why it matters

Post by Adena Rissman

Humans and ecosystems interact in ways that could lead to sustainability—or to ruin—for both. Understanding these interactions, called the study of social-ecological systems, is a rapidly growing research area.

Socio-ecological systems research promises to contribute to solutions for sustainability by breaking down the disciplinary barriers in scientific research, where ecologists, economists, anthropologists and historians otherwise often work in different silos. The knowledge exchange that can come of bridging the disciplines could enhance the human capacity to work with ecosystems toward sustainability.


Socio-ecological systems research examines the interactions between social factors and ecological conditions. Photo Credit: UW-Madison Water Sustainability and Climate Project

For example, a hypothetical study might connect social variables of agriculture, such as the attitudes and behavior of farmers or the price of crops, with associated ecological variables, such as levels of nutrient runoff, rainfall or soil chemistry. Such a connection could help shed light on barriers or opportunities to achieving sustainable agriculture.

But how well is this research succeeding in building these bridges?

Colleagues and I set out to answer this question in a recent paper published in Conservation Letters. Our findings revealed room for improvement.

Just two-thirds of the 120 papers we reviewed really connected social and ecological data. We also found that the literature is more heavily social than ecological.

Why does this matter for conservation and sustainability?

The type of data shapes the types of recommendations that researchers make.

Most of the papers were making recommendations for policy or management to improve the sustainability of social-ecological systems. But here’s the thing: papers that included both ecological and social variables were more likely to make a recommendation that clearly connected social and ecological dynamics, a connection crucial for the efficacy of conservation and sustainability efforts.

For instance, social scientists can make the claim that governments need greater capacity, but it’s not until social and ecological scientists work together that they can show how such a social change is likely to influence an ecological change. This more complex and holistic view of the world requires many ways of knowing and offers a different sort of insight than work that is only social or only ecological.

Methods matter too.

When researchers in our study were truly connecting the social and ecological realms, they did so with one of six main approaches, highlighting ways scientists could integrate their ways of knowing.

The most common approach for connecting social and ecological variables about a given problem was creating a rich description, which entails narrating a story about the connections between people and the environment and impacts on each other through history and into the present. Most of these papers were case studies about particular places.

Another common method was to draw causal loop diagrams, which graphically display how people think about the relationships between people and the environment. For instance, an illustration could show how large rain events increase runoff, which increases algal blooms, which reduces the number of kids swimming at the beach.

A third approach was calculating socio-ecological system indicators using social and ecological variables. One example is the Phosphorus Index, which calculates how much phosphorus is lost from cropland based on information about soil conditions, rainfall and farmer choices about crop type, tillage, manure and fertilizer applications.

Some papers quantified something about society and something about ecosystems, and then told a narrative or visual story about how they were connected. This would be like if we showed a chart of rain events, algal blooms and kids swimming and connected them in a story.

A less common method was the use of complex mathematical models, in which causal connections are given mathematical qualities such as probabilities. This is the kind of modeling our WSC team is doing.

Another less common method of connecting social and ecological variables was employing statistical approaches, such as regression.

A challenge of doing this research was the very act of labeling papers as “social,” “ecological,” or “both,” when some of the papers’ authors were writing to break down the categories. Some claim these categories are inseparable, like the ecosystem of organisms that make up the human body.

Indeed, this tension pervades the social-ecological systems field and begs the question whether researchers can have both the mind-opening integration of social and ecological knowledge and the analytical categorization that supports empirical scholarship. The diversity of innovative research approaches may help us move toward both greater analytical rigor and a synthesis of complex relationships that can’t always be measured quantitatively.

By providing a synthesis of this evolving field, we hope to help researchers, funders, policymakers and managers learn about the advantages and limits of different types of scientific evidence. Our study shows that the diverse social-ecological systems field still has progress to make in connecting social factors like human behavior to ecosystem conditions, but researchers are developing many innovative approaches to learn from.

Rissman is a principal investigator on the UW-Madison Water Sustainability and Climate project and an associate professor in the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology. She studies the relationships between society and the environment in the management, conservation, and sustainable use of ecosystems.


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