New Publication on Variables in Social-Ecological Systems

First, a word of warning.  This post will not be referring or commenting on COVID, BLM, the economic crisis, Donald Trump, climate change or any of the other enormous challenges confronting both the USA and the globe at present.  It’s just an update on a research publication.

The publication is entitled “From concepts to comparisons: a resource for diagnosis and measurement in social-ecological systems”, and the full reference and link to the DOI can be found at the end of this post.

Building on years of work on a meta-analysis of social-ecological systems (through the Social-Ecological Systems Meta-Analysis Database known as SESMAD), this paper elucidates on the findings of this research and looks at the importance of consistency in assessing and analyzing pertinent variables in social-ecological systems.

As an example of how important this is, an example that I often use with my students is about policing.  Damn…I’m getting into one of the topics above.  If the variable of concern is how do we assess good policing, what should we measure?  Crime rates?  Well, those are influenced by many things, including level of economic growth, but the police don’t control that.  What about arrest rates?  Does a high arrest rate mean that the police are doing a good job (getting all the bad guys) or a bad job (harassing many people for trivial reasons)?  We can envision all types of ways that we can influence these numbers without any real measure of the effectiveness of the police force.  I thought about this every time I drove through some of the small towns near where I grew up.  If it was the end of the month, the town cop would be out to catch people speeding to make sure he met his monthly quota.  I’m not sure that has anything to do with good policing.  What about response rates and times?  What about levels of trust in their communities and neighborhoods?  And the list goes on and on.  I’m not a criminal justice scholar, so I don’t want to comment more than this.  Rather, we can all think through this example as to the importance of being very clear about what and how we are measuring concepts that we find important in our research.

Our paper and the research program, more broadly, identifies key variables for understanding social-ecological systems by drawing on several of the core theories in the field and identifying how variables are connected in these theories.  This paper then sets out to provide clear, repeatable mechanisms for measuring and comparing these variables across cases.  Enjoy!


Cox, Michael, Natalie Ban, Graham Epstein, Louisa Evans, Forrest Fleischman, Mateja Nenadovic, Gustavo García-López, Frank van Laerhoven, Chanda Meek, Irene Perez Ibarra, Michael Schoon, and Sergio Villamayor-Tomas. 2020. “From concepts to comparisons: a resource for diagnosis and measurement in social-ecological systems”, Environmental Science and Policy 107: 211-216. DOI:

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