Talk:Complex socio-ecological systems/Social systems

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Discussion on Social Systems - Postings

Main questions for discussion:

1) Is it possible to understand social systems using the traditional theory of resilience of SES as we have seen in past sessions of this seminar?

2) At which extent is possible that the ecological and material components of a system are resilient, while at the same time a cultural group within it is pushed over a threshold to a new state?

3) Cultural/social systems are in constant and rapid transformation, so what it means to be resilient in social terms?

4) Can we achieve an integrated analysis of social and ecological resilience using one frame of reference?

5) Should we privilege the environment over the current needs of humans or vice-versa? Which right should prevail (e. g. poverty)?

6) In what sense can social systems be viewed as self-organizing?

7) Can you give an example of a system in which an increased ecological resilience led to a decreased cultural resilience?

8) Are societies simple really simple in times of globalization and social change?

9) How do we govern the commons in complex urban societies? E. g. water

Armitage (2008):

Besides the political ecology, resilience/complex systems and the commons literatures, which other body of literature might help us think about the governance of natural resources?

How can "hybridized perspectives" help us deal with some of the issues that political ecologists identify as regards the management of natural resources?

What factors influence policy makers and scientists, which might make it hard for them to come up with "conceptually consistent frameworks" to assess common governance approaches?

Armitage (2008) points out the self-organization of social systems and of ecological systems. It is important to recognize that the resilience of social systems might not go hand-in-hand with the resilience of ecological systems. Vested interested in the maintenance of social systems might make these systems more resilient, but lead to the ruin of ecological systems (a regulation that fosters deforestation, for example).

Do social systems, such as institutions, self-organize?

When considering social systems, I think it is important to take into consideration the possibility of "flip backs" into periods of poor governance, as Armitage (2008) explains. The idea of flip back could also be applied to other social systems, such as knowledge and government. With this I mean to say that we should not assume that social systems are progressing (towards better stages).

I like how Armitage (2008) brings together these three literatures, especially the political ecology literature, to emphasize the normativeness of governance projects, and how in reality politics, power imbalances and inequalities play a very important role in determining whether governance schemes, such as collaborative adaptive management has chances to evolve.

The idea that governance is a project of government is interesting. It opens space to questioning to which point social systems are self-organizing, or whether we need proactive planning, policy-making and creation of governance schemes, without which systems would collapse.

flaleite 22:08, 10 February 2011 (UTC)Reply

Harrison: This is by far the best critique of resilience theory and it's application I've yet read. He calls into question the concept that all social systems are complex, and points out the lack of treatment of authoritative institutions and the overlapping spheres of complexity an individual may be a component of in social systems. I feel these points are best summed in his statement "If the model of complex systems that explains ecological systems does not fit social systems equally well, treating them as a single object of study loses significant information..." I would take it a step further, however. It's not simply that resilience theory, headed mainly be ecologists at this point, has attempted to inappropriately use resilience theory frameworks to explain all socio-ecological systems. In my view, it's mainly that the social sciences themselves have not reached a point in their models, theoretical and numerical, wherein they adequately capture the components of social systems. In my view, this is the fault of the many social science researchers who make the claim that social systems can not be quantified to any meaningful degree. By entirely rejecting the notion that it is possible, those social scientists have divided their specific fields into mutually-exclusive enterprises and cheapened the value of their scientific contributions. It has become a self-fulfilling statement: because scientists have not, we can not. Can their really be no governing rules as to how institutions change, as Harrison states as "At each level of complexity what can be done and what needs to be done to change institutions and behaviors will be unique to that degree of complexity."?

I read from Harrison's paper two main points: First, that humans act in such ways that they have inherited (learned) probabilities of behavior that is modified by a certain amount of pre-determination based on some sort of cultural norm or internal value. While it has been argued and proved that ecological systems lack pre-determination, I don't see why it is impossible to incorporate both concepts into models. That humans have this kind of behavior seems to be a hypothesis, one that desperately needs to be evaluated empirically. Certainly resilience scholars have stuck to economics (famously, Bob Costanza). As far as I am aware, it is the only social science that really has attempted to quantify decision making and social structure in any meaningful way. However, Harrison is obviously not familiar with much of the work emerging out of animal behavior studies about power, authority, and social organization in many monkey societies. The studies have shown that "While animals are homeostatic, humans are driven by desire to act strategically" to not be entirely true. Many of these primate societies exhibit behavior of cooperation, preference, power and authority structures, stress, prostitution... all behaviors once considered unique to humans. Further, not only is the behavior an emergent property that can be observed; the biological expressions of authority are observed in individual animals, with the same characteristic health issues observed in highly complex societies. Along those lines, I find it interesting that Harrison points out how many studies now agree that management for a single species doesn't (or rarely?) work, but the inherent irony that we are trying to manage ecosystems for the benefit or desires of a singly (human) species is overlooked.

The second key point I read is that, to date, application of resilience theory has treated social systems as if each component of the social system experiences only one feedback loop (say, economical). In reality, each component will be a part of multiple loops, and I sort of visualize it as a Venn diagram, where each circle represents one set of "hierarchies" (to use Harrison's language) that affects that component. I'm reminded of the book 'Myth and Reality in the African Rainforest' (John Oates), which outlines examples where conservation activities have failed repeatedly due to a one-dimensional treatment of the coupled social and ecological local issues.

On a final not of this paper, I think the statement "But whereas self-organization in ecological systems creates systems "far from equilibrium" that are not stable in the long-term..." is wrong. Self-organization is characterized by a set of positive feedbacks (destabilizing) that ultimately organizes because of larger negative feedbacks (stabilizing) that controls the destabilizing properties of the system, usually considered in terms of patch size or growth rates. The word equilibrium has differing definitions in various fields, so perhaps the author is using one I am completely unfamiliar with. Or, perhaps the author is confusing stable state with steady state? DWatts 11:23, 11 February 2011 (UTC)Reply

Crane's rather rambling paper can't seem to decide what it wants to be. On the one hand, Crane tries to make steps toward examining his model Malian system from a resilience perspective. However, his efforts appear best summarized by the following sentence from the paper: "A close analysis of resilience as it is experienced in cultural context is not necessarily universally useful." In other words Crane finds that he cannot use qualitative observations to construct a convincing model of socio-cultural resilience. That he cannot should come as no surprise: he correctly points out early in the paper that social-ecological systems are complex; yet, curiously, he goes on to attempt an analysis of such a system without using any sort of truly analytical technique. In this paper Crane merely makes some descriptions of the system he observes. This situation places him among the good company of scores of scientists before him, who have discovered that before one can model a system, one must describe it. But Crane's choice of descriptive techniques, careful though it must have been during his 17 months in Mali, does not progress beyond the level of unqualified generalizations casual anecdotes--the plural of which, unfortunately, is not "data" (to paraphrase Roger Brenner).

In order to create any sort of model of a complex system which is useful--by which I mean usable by other researchers, repeatable or testable or transferrable to other systems--one must begin by carefully choosing what to measure. Crane acknowledges the difficulty of making measurements of features of social systems that are difficult to quantify, but himself makes no attempt to progress beyond the kind of apologetic confusion that plagues research in the humanities and prevents the use of powerful tools such as hypothesis testing.

Resilience in a social-ecological context may be thought of as a rather fuzzy concept, but this should not be so. Recall that the concept was transferred from complex ecological systems, where much careful observation is required to render a system in terms of quantifiable terms. This approach has allowed the development of ecological resilience theory, which includes concepts of hysteresis, thresholds, and stable states which can even be measured in some cases. Use of these concepts in a social-ecological context implies at most that they could be similarly measured--or that, at the very minimum, they could be defined. Crane makes a convincing case that the system he discusses does not lend itself to easy quantification in terms of resilience, but he does not do a good job (in my opinion) of even making clear definitions of what various resilience concepts would look like in the context of his system.

One may argue that I am being unkind, and that concepts such as societal values cannot be easily quantified. While that may appear true, the bigger point is that variables exist which can be used to approximate values, and which can be quantified. (For example, economists can use money spent on an activity, and behavioral biologists can use time or energy expended on certain actions, as quantifiable descriptions that can be thought of as measuring the value placed on that activity or action by humans or even other species.) If one chooses to describe a system in ways which cannot be quantified, one must give up the hope of applying quantitative tools to model it.

In summary, Crane does identify a system which might make a good case study of a social-ecological system where thresholds and resilience may exist. However, he falls far short by failing to describe what these concepts would mean in terms of the theory, and also he fails to even suggest ways in which he or future researchers might examine the system from a resilience perspective in ways which would be useful toward advancing the field.
I think Armitage's take on political ecology and resilience is fascinating and rather contrary to what most individuals in those respective fields of study would conclude. Indeed, the similarities remarked in Armitage's table pale in comparison to even a synoptic glance at the difference in approaches they take. For one, much of political ecology views the ecological system as tied to macro-institutional change (echoing Harrison), when in fact resilience looks at cross-scalar dynamics that might also position the individual in a privileged state, depending on the flux and fluidity of the environment. For another, the state change called for in much of political ecology focuses almost solely on collapse and very little on renewal (Crane can be looked at for the latter, though Adam has his points about that work too). The linkage with some of the other articles may be difficult, but I would really like to engage Danielle and others about this perspective that the social sciences have created artificially demarcated schools of related thought; that they are underdeveloped helots who at best hide behind the veil of infinite complexity, and who at worst don't have cool enough tools and toys to make their science compete with the big boys. This is the thinking that led to, in part, the Science Wars (where much of political ecology was in the front ranks), the ashes from which socio-ecological resilience arose. ~Sam

I think Adam missed a key part of Crane's paper. The sentence that resilience analysis "may not be universally useful" is from the discussion. However, in the prior section he does actually analyze the resilience of the Mali case, drawing conclusions, while contrasting emic and etic perspectives. "Marka system ... changes in labor, economies and land management ... has not crossed thresholds which are emically characterized..."

I think Harrison sets up straw men to conquer. One is that resilience scientists mainly use public choice theories where actors are always egoistic, rational, utility maximizers. Axelrod's introduction explicitly frames his work as a contrast to this approach, and so does Ostrom. It's a straw man.

Harrison's view that social systems have cultural complexity that makes them inexplainable by a systems approach reminds me of the idea that the vertebrate eye is so complex that it could never have evolved by natural selection. [This is a classic denial of evolution and has been soundly rebutted.] Axelrod's whole book demonstrates how complex behaviors can evolve from (1) simple rules, (2) variation and (3) selection. In fact, in the genetic algorithm, planning and forethought (of a sort) emerged by selection in something as simple as a string of 70 0s and 1s. So the "exceptionalist" idea that human systems are too complex to systematically study is just creationism.Rbusch 18:03, 11 February 2011 (UTC)Reply