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Towards middle-range theories of the co-evolutionary dynamics of multi-level social-ecological systems

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - MUSES (Towards middle-range theories of the co-evolutionary dynamics of multi-level social-ecological systems)

Reporting period: 2018-08-01 to 2020-01-31

Sustainability science and social-ecological systems (SES) research as a subfield thereof is a young research field. In the last two decades a rich empirical knowledge based has been accumulated on the complex interactions of actors, networks and ecosystems that shape the resilience, transformation or adaptive governance of SES. Theoretical developments have, however, lagged behind and studies often rely on theories from contributing disciplines that are limited in their ability to account for the complex and interdependent nature of the problems of interest. Theories in sustainability science cannot be grand theories but rather contextualized generalizations, or middle-range theories. These are theories that apply to selected aspects of a phenomenon and delimited set of cases. A better understanding of how the complex and interdependent nature of SES plays out over time in different contexts can help find entry points for governance and identify ways to navigate SES towards more sustainable trajectories.
The objectives of the MuSES project are threefold. First, we want to critically assess the philosophical foundations of SES research and in particularly the potential of process perspectives to better account for the continuously changing nature of SES and help overcome the dichotomy between social and ecological that is inherent in many of common scientific approaches and methods. A shift towards a process perspective, often also called a shift from nouns to verbs, focuses attention on processes, not objects, as the fundamental elements of reality. A related objective is to develop an understanding of the different epistemologies underlying model-based research in SES and the Earth System modelling communities and build tools to bridge them. Second, the project aims to address cross-scale interactions as one critical element of complex adaptive SES. We focus on food production systems, particularly small-scale fisheries and small holder agriculture in developing countries, and the role of relations between producers and traders as critical links connecting biophysical and social dynamics across scales. We combine empirical with dynamic modelling studies to identify how these relationships affect outcomes under different conditions. These insights feed into our third objective, namely a synthesis of insights from case studies, theoretical modelling and the literature to develop middle-range theories of change in SES, particularly how SES may adapt to change or transform towards sustainable outcomes.
The work performed in the first half of the project includes an analysis of the writings of key process philosophers and its application to the analysis of SES. We identified the concepts of event and intra-actions as useful for overcoming the dichotomy between social and ecological and understanding outcomes in SES as co-produced by continuously ongoing ecological and social processes. We have written four papers to present a process perspective to the SES community and demonstrate why and how it may help overcome some of the outstanding challenges of sustainability research, namely integrating the social and ecological, addressing complexity and scale and combining different knowledge systems. Furthermore, we have developed a toolkit to help interdisciplinary teams to make explicit differences in ontologies and epistemologies which may create obstacles for interdisciplinary collaboration. These obstacles may be particularly prominent between people working at different scales, such as local/regional and global.
Work performed in the core component of the project includes the development of a mathematical modelling framework for multi-level modeling of SES and its application to a stylized common pool resources management context where communities are biophysically and socially linked across several scales. Results show that even weak social connectivity can significantly increase long-time cooperativity and thus resource use sustainability. Our theoretical work on cross-scale interactions in fisheries and poverty traps revealed that price differences across multiple markets can lead to sequential exploitation and that fractal poverty traps emerge under certain conditions and may need interventions at a single or multiple levels. On the empirical side our work on social-ecological networks of fishers and traders in Baja California, Mexico revealed the importance of spatial diversification as an adaptation strategy to environmental or social variability that differs between locations and years. We also studied the impact of oceanographic change on changes in inequality between fishers' and traders' income using a bioeconomic model.
Finally, we have laid the conceptual and methodological foundations for developing contextualized generalizations or middle-range theories of change in SES. Conceptually, we synthesized our previous work of studying large scale change in SES from a complexity perspective and built on Ostrom’s Institutional Analysis and Development framework and complexity theory to develop an analytical framework for explaining the emergence of social-ecological phenomena such as regime shifts, traps or transformations. The framework proposes social-ecological action situations and their emergent outcomes that link them with other action situations as an analytical device to develop hypotheses about configurations of action situations that may have brought about a phenomenon of interest. The framework is part of a methodology we proposed for theorizing about SES phenomena that combines synthesis of empirical understanding of the phenomenon of interest with agent-based modelling to develop and test explanations and unravel the causal processes that produced the phenomenon.
The project to date has advanced the field of SES research by providing an analytical framework and a methodology to theorize about the dynamics of SES that account for their complex, intertwined and continuously changing nature. We have advanced conceptual and methodological integration across disciplines and developed a methodology and a tool to facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration.
We have analysed the ability of a different ontology, namely a process-relational one (as opposed to the much more common substance ontology) to better capture this continuously changing nature and bridge the dichotomy between social and ecological that still underlies many conceptual frameworks, theories and methods. Overcoming this dichotomy is still a major challenge and few studies and methods truly capture the intertwined and dynamic nature of SES.
Next to process philosophy we are also advancing agent-based modelling of social-ecological systems (as e.g. human and non-human agents in an action situation) as a method for integrative analysis of SES as complex adaptive systems. With one of the PhD students we are exploring the use of social-ecological networks in combination with agent-based modelling to capture structural and dynamic aspects of intertwinedness. We have developed models that take relevant real-world complexity regarding the behaviour of actors, the social structures they are embedded in and the non-linear dynamics of ecosystems into account.
Until the end of the project we expect to have advanced the conceptual foundations of cross-scale and cross-level analyses in SES and developed an understanding of key mechanisms and processes that enable adaptability and food security in small-scale fisheries and smallholder agriculture. We also envision to have enhanced social-ecological modelling through frameworks and methods to better account for the diversity of human behaviour, an analysis of transient social-ecological dynamics and capturing social and ecological structures. We will have further applied and tested our methodology of combining empirical synthesis with (agent-based) modelling with the aim of developing explanations and theories for SES phenomena.