Does scale exist? An epistemological scale continuum for complex human-environment systems

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Scale pervades interdisciplinary research on human-environment systems that exhibit hallmarks of complexity such as path dependence, nonlinearity, and surprise. Although scale concepts are woven through the data, methodology, and theory of human-environment research, the question remains: does scale exist? More broadly, can a single definition of scale suffice for human-environment systems? The meaning and use of scale is contested across the social, natural, and information sciences. Given that the study of human-environment systems spans many of these disciplines, specific research problems inherit a broad range of conflicting scale concepts. This paper proposes an epistemological scale continuum that arrays scale perspectives from the realist contention that there are natural scales independent of observers through to the constructionist view that scale is subjective and socially mediated. As seen in biocomplexity and human-environment research more broadly, this scale continuum establishes that scale is not a single measure or object of study, nor is any single definition of scale sufficient for human-environment systems. Viewpoints and tensions among scale epistemologies also suggest several general principles for using scale effectively in human-environment research.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)776-788
Number of pages13
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2008

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work is supported in part by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Earth System Science Fellowship program (ESS 99-0000-0008), NSF doctoral dissertation improvement grant (DDI 9907952), and the University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts and the McKnight Land-Grant Professorship Program. This work is partially an outgrowth of the Southern Yucatán Peninsular Region (SYPR) project, the principal sponsors of which have been NASA-LCLUC (Land Cover and Land Use Change) program (NAG5-6046, NAG5-11134, and NNG06GD98G), Center for Integrated Studies of the Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change, Carnegie Mellon University (NSF SBR 95-21914), and NSF-Biocomplexity (BCS-0410016). The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of the editor and anonymous reviewers. Responsibility for the opinions expressed herein is solely that of the author.


  • Constructionism
  • Global environmental change
  • Realism
  • Scale


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