Theory <-> Action

Faculty in Nature/Society use several theoretical, conceptual, and methodological frameworks and approaches to examine and address the complexities at the intersection of social and ecological systems. These frameworks and approaches play a crucial role in tackling individual research themes and assist in understanding the myriad players at multiple spatial and temporal scales and feedbacks in complex human-environment interactions.

Political ecology

Political ecology is a rapidly growing, multi-disciplinary approach to the study of linked social and environmental change that emphasizes the importance of context, power relations, and broad social structures in the investigation of particular cases and dynamics of human-environment interactions. Political ecology overlaps with the broad field of human-environment interactions, with particularly close connections with human and cultural ecology, anthropology, environmental history, and human dimensions of global change and sustainability science.

Brian King's interests in political ecology concentrate upon environment-development, the politics of nature conservation, and the intersections between health and environment. His recent work is evaluating how social and environmental systems are being reworked in response to the onset of disease, particularly HIV/AIDS.

Karl Zimmerer's interests in political ecology are focused on these areas of overlap and the role and applications of ecological theory, concepts, and methods.

Petra Tschakert draws upon political ecology to understand unequal power relations, nested scales in resource exploitation and environmental stewardship, and participation in the context of social exclusion. Her main interest is in small-scale (mainly) illegal gold mining in West Africa. She combines political ecology with critical geography to offer procedural spaces for counteracting the very processes that produce misrecognition and exclusion.

Complex Systems Science/Resilience Thinking

Complex Systems Science historically emerged out of a number of fields, including the social sciences, ecology, and engineering, and is now increasingly used in geography, anthropology, economics, and political science to assess the characteristics and behavior of interconnected social and ecological systems. Various conceptual frameworks (e.g., complex adaptive systems, resilience, panarchy, adaptive cycles) allow us to investigate such system aspects as dynamics, temporal and spatial non-linearities, thresholds, uncertainties, and cross-scale interactions in both human and natural systems, as well as linked social-ecological ones. One of the most interesting theoretical approaches is the notion of resilience - the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance before it changes its structure. Resilience thinking also plays a fundamental role in addressing long-term structural changes and radical transformations. It addresses interactions across multiple scales, and is closely linked to key questions of governance and sustainability. Frameworks that address adaptive capacity are also highly relevant, since humans have a unique capacity for learning, innovation, and adaptation to better anticipate and prepare for the future.

Petra Tschakert is interested in the applicability of the concept of social-ecological resilience to understand dynamics of adaptive capacity and existential/livelihood tipping points. She uses coupled social-ecological systems thinking to explore thresholds in disturbed environments that may cause significant impacts on human and environmental health. This includes recent work on limits to climate change adaptation as well as linkages and feedbacks between climatic extremes, land disturbance, and the activation of a bacterium that causes Buruli ulcer within Ghana's mining sector (in collaboration with Dr. Erica Smithwick and Dr. Kamini Singha).


Brent Yarnal and his students work on developing the theoretical understanding of local causes and consequences of global environmental change to enhance our knowledge of global change in local places and to help communities and other local entities use that knowledge for more-enlightened planning and management. Their research on local activities emitting greenhouse gas emissions and the socioeconomic forces driving those activities are contributing to a better understanding of how to reduce local emissions by wiser use of energy resources. Their work on the dimensions of vulnerability - exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity - are leading local decision-makers to understand why and how they are vulnerable and to adopt measures to reduce vulnerability to local natural hazards and climate change.
Denice Wardrop is fascinated with the potential existence of alternative stable states in aquatic ecosystems, the identification of thresholds in both human and environmental factors, and the characterization of non-linear ecological responses and resilience in these systems. She has investigated resilience in the context of Phragmites australis invasion of coastal marshes, and the loss of spatial diversity in freshwater wetland systems from human disturbance. 

Participatory/Community-Based Research and Stakeholder Consultation

Several faculty members in the field of Nature/Society subscribe to a research methodology that can be broadly described as participatory and community-based in which 'experts' engage with multiple community stakeholders or social actors in a joint research process. This process typically involves various stages or cycles of planning, deliberation, action, reflection, evaluation, and collective learning. Specific emphasis is put on different types of knowledge and skills as well as potential power differentials and often conflicting agendas.

Petra Tschakert uses a variety of participatory research (PR) methods to engage a broad range of social actors and facilitate innovative and potentially empowering collective learning. She draws upon PR as an epistemological framework that promotes critical engagement with marginalized communities (of space and practice) in order to open up alternative routes for 'doing' geography. She has experimented with change matrices, village and resource flow mapping, Venn diagrams, focus groups, group drawings, agricultural calendars, ranking, piling, and scoring, visual household budgets, participatory GIS, conceptual mapping (mental models), hazard mapping, vision mapping, body health mapping, environmental theatre, and, most recently, participatory video.

Brent Yarnal and his students are deeply involved in stakeholder consultation and deliberation, in which stakeholders help guide and modify the research from the onset, contribute to the knowledge base of the research, help determine the form of products of the research, and enjoy benefits from the outcomes of the research. This stakeholder interaction has taken place in the contexts of climate change, water management, and emergency management, among others.