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Deepening SES Research through a Place-Based Focus

A sustainable and equitable world requires strengthening the connections between people for nature on a local, regional, and international scale. The field of social-ecological systems (SES) research seeks to guide our understanding of human-nature interactions by focusing specifically on developing place-based social-ecological approaches to sustainability.

The Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS) was established in 2011 as a transdisciplinary SES network to engender knowledge and create change. Over the last decade, PECS has developed into one of the world’s major international SES networks. A key component of PECS’s popularity is its comparative approach to research, which champions place-based SES research as an inspiration for global sustainability.

In the wake of PECS, other institutions which support local sustainability initiatives have sprung up, such as the Seeds of a Good Anthropocene Project ( Evidence from these projects shows that societal values are shifting towards a higher regard for the environment. One such indicator is the UN’s Decade of Action which seeks to fundamentally enhance transformative action across all Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.

The article by Norström et al. (2022) reflects on the deepening research of SES and brings to light aspects of the field (system feedbacks, system design, goals, and paradigms) that risk being passed over in global assessments. Nörstrom et al. (2022) use studies from PECS as well as their own expertise as researchers to argue that place-based research has made tangible contributions to sustainable development.

According to Norström et al. (2022), the field of SES is like an iceberg. From a bird’s eye view, we see the key parameters, variables, and feedbacks of a social-ecological system. However, from the perspective of a fish, the much deeper system feedbacks and design, goals, and the underlying intent of SES research become visible. 

Norström et al. (2022) explain that the iceberg image is akin to Meadows (1999) leverage point framework. Her framework details a hierarchy of interventions that can be pressured to move incumbent systems. The shallow interventions are easy to carry out but limited in their impact while the deeper interventions are harder to accomplish but create deeper, more impactful change.

In recent years, the tendency to focus on deeper realms of leverage in SES research has moved from the periphery to the forefront due to the influence of PECS and similar networks. For instance, place-based SES research in Papua New Guinea and New Zealand found that sustainability transformations were sparked by a firm sense of place and strong social networks. In Papua New Guinea, researchers learned that positive peer pressure was a driver of sustainability transformation.

Place-based SES research has also helped to illuminate barriers to sustainability transformations, such as inequality, power asymmetries, or environmental degradation. SES studies found that grassroots organizations and local movements can shape regional and even global forces. These organizations use destabilizing events (such as a global pandemic) to unseat incumbent powers and gain traction on larger scales. SES work can engage with these local ‘seeds’ to motivate people towards positive action. However global power structures influence regional actors and can impact which voices are considered or ignored in decision-making scenarios.

SES research also engages with our understanding of ecosystem services because individuals engage with ecosystem services differently. According to Norström et al. (2022), “understanding how different actors exercise power through their discourses is one of the critical ways how place-based research has explored enabling-conditions for sustainability transitions that are linked to local realities.”

Further, place-based research brings together and produces diverse types of knowledge. This knowledge production addresses the unique problems of specific environments while focusing on the socio-economic, political, and biological elements that make each place distinctive. Indigenous and local knowledge, such as citizen science, has become increasingly relevant to this type of knowledge production. Such research requires frequent engagement with all relevant actors and trust-based relationships between involved parties, otherwise, we run the risk of excluding less powerful social actors.

Place-based SES research uses specific tools, (such as interviews, participatory data collection, and future analysis) to successfully deepen our understanding of leverage points. These methods cultivate a new age of sustainability research, which spans disciplinary and sectoral boundaries and encourages researchers to be contemplative. Training academics to reflect on their work is place-based research’s final contribution to the SES field. This location-specific research often spans years and involves deep engagement with the local landscape. This gives researchers the time to reflect on their own underlying assumptions, remain humble, and consider the motives of associated actors. Such reflection is called a “reflexive research journey.” During this time of meditation, researchers develop soft skills such as conflict resolution and self-care. Making room for contemplation enables researchers to reconsider their role as ‘scientists’ and to engage more successfully with their non-academic partners. For example, in Uruguay, the South American Institute for Resilience and Sustainability Studies (SARAS Institute) was intentionally founded to use art and science together as a lens to examine sustainability.

In the coming decades, Norström et al. (2022) imagine that PECS and place-based research, in general, will continue to build resilience and systems-thinking into social-ecological changes. Place-based research does face challenges: the strong location-dependence makes transferability difficult as do communication barriers, belief systems, and local needs. However, the same comparative analyses of the patterns and mechanisms that place-based research uses for local interventions may ultimately also be successful in guiding humanity through the Anthropocene at regional and global scales.

Norström, A. V., Agarwal, B., Balvanera, P., Baptiste, B., Bennett, E. M., Brondízio, E., … & Spierenburg, M. (2022). The programme on ecosystem change and society (PECS)–a decade of deepening social-ecological research through a place-based focus. Ecosystems and People18(1), 598-608.


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