Key features for more successful place-based sustainability research on social-ecological systems: A programme on ecosystem change and society (PECS) perspective

Patricia Balvanera, Tim M. Daw, Toby A. Gardner, Berta Martín-López, Albert V. Norström, Chinwe Ifejika Speranza, Marja Spierenburg, Elena M. Bennett, Michelle Farfan, Maike Hamann, John N. Kittinger, Tobias Luthe, Manuel Maass, Garry D. Peterson, Gustavo Perez-Verdin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

94 Scopus citations


The emerging discipline of sustainability science is focused explicitly on the dynamic interactions between nature and society and is committed to research that spans multiple scales and can support transitions toward greater sustainability. Because a growing body of place-based social-ecological sustainability research (PBSESR) has emerged in recent decades, there is a growing need to understand better how to maximize the effectiveness of this work. The Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS) provides a unique opportunity for synthesizing insights gained from this research community on key features that may contribute to the relative success of PBSESR. We surveyed the leaders of PECS-affiliated projects using a combination of open, closed, and semistructured questions to identify which features of a research project are perceived to contribute to successful research design and implementation. We assessed six types of research features: problem orientation, research team, and contextual, conceptual, methodological, and evaluative features. We examined the desirable and undesirable aspects of each feature, the enabling factors and obstacles associated with project implementation, and asked respondents to assess the performance of their own projects in relation to these features. Responses were obtained from 25 projects working in 42 social-ecological study cases within 25 countries. Factors that contribute to the overall success of PBSESR included: explicitly addressing integrated social-ecological systems; a focus on solution-and transformation-oriented research; adaptation of studies to their local context; trusted, long-term, and frequent engagement with stakeholders and partners; and an early definition of the purpose and scope of research. Factors that hindered the success of PBSESR included: the complexities inherent to social-ecological systems, the imposition of particular epistemologies and methods on the wider research group, the need for long periods of time to initiate and conduct this kind of research, and power asymmetries both within the research team and among stakeholders. In the self-assessment exercise, performance relating to team and context-related features was ranked higher than performance relating to methodological, evaluation, and problem orientation features. We discuss how these insights are relevant for balancing place-based and global perspectives in sustainability science, fostering more rapid progress toward inter- and transdisciplinary integration, redefining and measuring the success of PBSESR, and facing the challenges of academic and research funding institutions. These results highlight the valuable opportunity that the PECS community provides in helping build a community of practice for PBSESR.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number14
JournalEcology and Society
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017 by the author(s).


  • Interdisciplinarity
  • PECS
  • Solutions
  • Stakeholders
  • Transdisciplinarity
  • Transformations


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