In a study published in Ecology and Society, researchers analyzed a random set of articles on social-ecological systems. They looked at how the concept has evolved over time and how scholars define the concept. Photo: B. Kristersson/Azote

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social ecological systems

What they talk about when they talk about SES

As the social ecological system framework celebrates 20 years, researchers analyse its use in scientific publications. Despite increased popularity, a unifying definition is still missing

Story highlights

  • ­The social-ecological systems framework celebrates 20 years since inception and publications mentioning the framework have steadily increased
  • But many papers do not include a definition of the framework, making case comparisons difficult and reducing the usefulness of the concept
  • A unifying definition could ensure that scholars speak the same language and that useful comparisons can be made

It’s been five decades since the notion of “social-ecological system” (SES) was coined, and two since it was turned into a framework for studying the connections between human and natural systems. As the SES concept celebrates its 20-year existence centre researchers Stephan Barthel and Johan Colding decided to make an overview of how authors use the concept in relation to research that deals with social and ecological linkages.

In the study, which was published in Ecology and Society, the authors used the Scopus database to analyze a random set of articles on social-ecological systems. They looked at how the concept has evolved over time and how scholars define the concept.

The first to define “social-ecological system” was a Russian microbiologist, B.L. Cherkasskii in 1988. Ten years later, in 1998, Fikret Berkes and Carl Folke further developed the concept as an analytical framework for studying the linkages between ecosystems and institutions.

An increasingly popular term…

Since the inception of the term the authors found that there is a steady increase of publications on social-ecological systems.

The Scopus search (conducted in 2017) showed that studies on social-ecological systems are published in a wide range of journals and subject areas. Most studies were from the environmental or social sciences, but the range of subject areas included also for example medicine, computer science and engineering.

The search generated 12,990 results. Out of these 49 were randomly selected and analyzed in more detail.

The authors found that there are three major analytical frameworks that researchers use when they study social-ecological systems: the original; the robustness; and the multitier. The first of the three is mainly descriptive of the concept, whereas the latter two have a more diagnostic focus and are useful in modeling.

… but what does it mean?

The analysis also showed that after 20 years there still is no unifying definition of an SES. Instead there are a number of different definitions of the term in use. Spanning from more simple ones like “a system of people and nature” to more qualified and in-depth definitions.

As in all scientific explorations a clear definition if the terms and concepts of the scientific endeavor is critical to ensure that scholars speak the same language and that useful comparisons can be made.

Johan Colding explains: “61% of the papers analyzed did not even provide a definition of the term social-ecological system, a shortcoming that makes case comparisons difficult and reduces the usefulness of the concept”.

Colding and Barthel also conclude that though they are not in the position to provide a unifying definition, the fact that one is lacking is a drawback when communication with a multidisciplinary audience.

“It would be a bit presumptuous of us to come up with a more thorough definition of the SES concept in this paper, but we want to urge researchers to be more meticulous in making explicit what they mean by a social-ecological system,” says Barthel.


The authors performed an advanced literature search query on the Scopus database, downloaded from the Stockholm University Library on 20 August 2017. The words “social-ecological systems” were entered in all fields in order to retrieve articles and other documents dealing with SES, and searched in the options “all text,” “article title,” “abstract,” and “keywords.” From this they retrieved 12,990 documents dealing with social-ecological systems. They analyzed results regarding publication date, document type, subject area, and author name.

Fifty articles were selected for a more detailed analysis. Articles were randomly selected using a random number generator (i.e., Out of the 50 articles, one was dropped because the main text was in Chinese. The 49 remaining articles used for analysis were assessed for the following: (1) number and proportion of articles that define SES; (2) definitions of SES employed; and (3) main sources of inspiration.

Link to publication

Published: 2019-11-06