A new conceptual framework to explore boundaries and domains of social-ecological systems
Boundaries are an important research theme of the ecological and social sciences and can unite diverse disciplines to advance understanding of social-ecological systems (SES). Realized and perceived boundaries exist in many forms: geographical, biophysical, ecological, political, economical, and social. Boundaries exhibit structural properties (such as a gradient-transition zones or sharp edges) and functional attributes (such as degree of permeability). However, the nature of such boundaries and the extent to which they overlay one another to create “SES domains,” is understudied. In many cases, social and ecological boundaries may not map simply on one another, highlighting mismatches of social and ecological domains and potential areas of conflict for natural resource management.
We present a conceptual framework that emphasizes the importance of the structures and functions of both the ecological and social domains, and where the domains overlap to create SES domains. The SES boundaries and domains are identifiable areas characterized by distinct suites of linked social and ecological processes and will often occur at multiple scales. This conceptual framework is hierarchical and thus can be applied across scales, geographies, socio-ecological archetypes, and available geospatial datasets. This framework is also contextual to facilitate a focus on socio-ecological boundary dynamics, interactions and feedbacks between domains. The creation of SES domains can generate new, social-ecological interactions and emergent phenomenon that may control the flow or exchange of materials, energy and/or information and feedbacks across domains. As an example, the SES domains can create “hot spots” for ecosystem services within landscapes and the structure and function of the SES boundaries and domains can influence the status, valuation and vulnerability of ecosystem services. Detecting and characterizing the SES boundaries and domains can identify localities of cooperation or conflict in regards to ecosystem services.
Among our transdisciplinary research team, this framework has stimulated hypothesis testing, fortified development of novel methodologies for application and model development across several geographies, and successfully integrated diverse scientists to address scholarly SES issues. Studying SES boundaries and domains will help quantify hotspots of SES activities and zones of socio-ecological conflict or cooperation that can inform future research, land management, policy, and sustainable development.