Complex socio-ecological systems/Operationalizing Resilience

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Assessing Resilience

Facilitators: Adam and Danielle

Required readings:

Carpenter, S., B. Walker, J. M. Anderies, and N. Abel. 2001. From Metaphor to Measurement: Resilience of What to What? Ecosystems 4: 765–781.

The title of this paper neatly sums up an important point about resilience: it is not a dimensionless concept, but one which must be expressed in units relevant to the system under consideration. In other words, talking about the resilience of a particular system without reference to the particular components of that system is not useful. An ecological proverb bears repeating here: "Before you analyze a system, you have to define it." Carpenter et al. are essentially making this argument for resilience studies, since one cannot know how resilient a system is without making some attempt to figure out how it works.

The authors argue that for resilience as a concept to advance, an operational, measurable definition of resilience is necessary; further, this definition needs to be as universal for SES systems. An important initial step, Carpenter and colleagues state, is to define the system and its drivers, states, and disturbances. The disparate examples of a lake district and a rangeland system are used to illustrate the concept, but these illustrations stop short of functional case studies because the authors avoid going further than qualitative variables. Their decision to do so is justified, since this Minireview paper's main point is to reinforce definitions of some key resilience concepts that, at the time, were in danger of being misappropriated. Ideally, this paper should be considered in concert with other studies that go beyond identifying qualitative system attributes, to actual measurement of those variables (as in this trio of papers).

Cumming, G. S., G. Barnes, S. Perz, M. Schmink, K. E. Sieving, J. Southworth, M. Binford, R. D. Holt, C. Stickler, and T. Van Holt. 2005. An Exploratory Framework for the Empirical Measurement of Resilience. Ecosystems 8: 975–987.

The UF "roadies" group that produced this paper here make an attempt to apply the advice of Carpenter et al. to their particular socio-ecological system, namely the MAP tri-country area in South America. One of this paper's most useful contributions may be that it walks the reader through the process that was used to define the region under study (considering where the system boundaries lie), and to identify measurable variables to define the current system state, thresholds, and future possible states. Cumming et al. provide some easily-understood examples of quantifiable, characteristic system attributes--variables--and provide defensible values for thresholds beyond which the system may begin to behave differently: or, to use slightly different terminology, to lose its identity. An important step the authors describe in some detail is to imagine some possible future, alternative states of the system--or, to again use terminology encountered elsewhere, to identify plausible worlds. This step additionally forces the careful consideration of important system drivers.

Ostrom, E. 2009. A General Framework for Analyzing Sustainability of Social-Ecological Systems. Science 325: 419-422. Although Ostrom and colleagues do not provide case studies, their short paper does provide a quite useful example of how a complex system can be considered as a group of interacting subsystems with their own major defining variables. The list they provide could be transferred to many other studies of complex systems, with some changes depending on the particular system under consideration. A companion observation to this list that Ostrom et al. make is that "[o]btaining measures for these 10 variables is the first step in analyzing whether the users of one or more SESs would self-organize." In other words, because self-organization is one important characteristic of a complex system, providing measures of the variables one has chosen to define it will provide both a test of the user's definition of the system, and the adequacy of their choice of variables in describing it.


Walker B., L. Gunderson, A. Kinzig, C. Folke, S. Carpenter, and L. Schultz. 2006. A Handful of Heuristics and Some Propositions for Understanding Resilience in Social-Ecological Systems. Ecology and Society 11 (1):13 online: (
Walker et al. recount the collected ideas and propositions that broadly categorize resilience in social- ecological systems. It describes how complex systems change and what governs responses to perturbations in ecological and social domains. The authors use the word “propositions” because they recognize that they are not sufficiently defined to be considered hypotheses using the scientific method. The data for these propositions were developed over the course of two workshops, whereby participants compared the dynamics of 15 case studies in variable regions throughout the world, not unlike the other article in this week’s reading list by Ostrom (2009). Walker et al. do not claim that their propositions are conclusive about SES and resilience, but rather view this list as a way to help define the next phase of resilience-related research.

Clicking on this link will download the list of compiled resilience components from the above readings: