Advancing quantitative methods for complex social-ecological system research: a case study of aquaculture

Abstract (abridged):

Analyzing the complexity of human-nature relationships is a central task of environmental governance research. Over the last few decades, environmental governance research has strongly embraced a complex adaptive systems (CAS) framing: solving sustainability challenges requires an understanding of the social-ecological systems (SES) they are embedded in, consisting of multiple components which interact and form dynamic and emergent patterns. Many frameworks have been developed to help conceptually understand SES, however less focus has been given to advancing methods for interdisciplinary empirical and synthesis SES research from a CAS perspective. I argue that methods, particularly quantitative, are lagging behind our conceptual understanding of SES as CAS, due to issues of methodological transparency and lack of critical engagement with properties of complexity in SES study design, both of which also inhibit synthesis research. Rigorous case studies and synthesis methods are critical for supporting the accumulation of complex SES knowledge which can inform and develop viable theoretical explanations for what conditions shape or predict normative sustainability outcomes. I identify a particular need to advance quantitative SES methods, as despite a growing range of approaches for studying and modeling complexity, much SES quantitative literature continues to heavily rely on classic statistical methods which by design ignore interactive effects and focus on reducing systems to individual components. This creates tensions when these methods are applied to SES, which are theorized as being heavily shaped by highly interactive and context-sensitive processes not easily reduced to isolated variables. Furthermore, despite an emphasis on standardizability and generalizability, quantitative research has not yet contributed to widespread synthesis of SES knowledge and explanations. There is a need to advance quantitative methods to study SES in ways which 1) incorporate rather than reduce complexity in case studies and 2) synthesize generalizable findings across cases without overly abstracting individual case complexity. In this thesis I explore and contextualize these methodological challenges within the literature on Elinor Ostrom’s social-ecological systems framework (SESF), and apply and test recent advances in methods for complexity through two empirical research studies within the case context of small-scale pond aquaculture governance in Indonesia. I conclude that advancing CAS methodologies in SES research is not about any one specific method. I rather argue for more critical and direct engagement with “complex systems thinking” not only in how we as researchers conceptualize environmental governance problems, but in how we design our research, to deepen our practical and theoretical understanding of how patterns in SES interactions and dynamics inform sustainability outcomes.