Finding sustainability: Advancing multiple methods to apply the social-ecological systems framework


The social-ecological systems framework (SESF) was proposed by Elinor Ostrom in 2007 as a diagnostic tool to examine what influences collective action in the commons by identifying the social and ecological variables which interact and shape sustainability outcomes. It has now been more than 10 years since the SESF was first published, providing an opportunity to reflect on its proclaimed usefulness. Ostrom stated that the framework could be a diagnostic tool for empirical research, facilitate cross-case comparisons with a common set of variables, and among other uses, act as a communication tool for interdisciplinary science. Many have since cited the framework as a useful conceptual tool. However, substantially less literature has applied the framework empirically or examined the methodological challenges for using the framework in the ways Ostrom envisioned above. Rigorous exploration and analysis of the different methods and challenges for applying the framework and its conceptual development are largely absent in the literature, but are very much needed to guide future progress. I argue that a primary barrier for future research using the framework is a lack of knowledge on different methods and challenges for applying it. This thesis is a compilation of eight research articles aimed at building this knowledge. In the articles I explore different concepts and methods to continue building a research program with the SESF. The thesis is split into four parts. In Part 1: Introduction, I provide an overview of Elinor Ostrom's research and commons scholarship, and argue that the development of new interdisciplinary methodologies have been an essential feature of past progress and thus need to be an equally integral feature the SESF's progress. In Part 2: Context and Concepts, I present a review article on the field of tropical marine science, to situate the empirical research context of this thesis. Two articles then explore conceptual development of the SESF, linking the framework to the closely associated concepts of ecosystem services and sustainability science. In Part 3: Empirical Research, the core of this thesis is presented in four articles. Each of the four applies the SESF in a different way in three small-scale fisheries cases and one pond aquaculture case. All cases are located in the coastal tropics. Finally, in Part 4: Synthesis and Conclusions, I provide an article which reviews all the existing literature applying the SESF to orient the contributions of this thesis. This then provides a platform to present and discuss the lessons learned from my empirical research and from the literature. This is followed by separate sections, outside the articles, discussing limitations and overall conclusions. The larger picture of this thesis, I argue, is that we have inherited the SESF, a research tool than can help us find the conditions, interactions and outcomes that better enable more effective cooperation and governance for sustainability. We can look to the history of commons scholarship to understand how the evolution of theory and methods that led to the development of the SESF can motivate the same curiosity and rigor for its continued use and development. I conclude that there are many potential parallel uses and development pathways for the SESF, and provide reflection on the current barriers and continuing challenges.