According to some critics, the literature views adaptability as the capacity of SES to self-organize in an autonomous, harmonious consensus-building process, while ignoring strategies, conflicting goals, and power issues among social actors.

The authors assessed 183 papers, coding two dimensions of adaptability: autonomous vs. intentional and descriptive vs. normative, and found a plurality of framings.

For the first dimension, 51% of the papers perceived adaptability as autonomous, but one-third viewed adaptability as being formed of intentional processes driven by stakeholders, in which social learning and networking are often used as strategies for changing power structures and achieving sustainable outcomes.

For the second dimension, adaptability was used normatively in 59% of the assessed papers, but one-third used descriptive framings.

We found no evidence that the SES literature in general sets out from an assumption that adaptations are harmonious consensus-building processes. It is, rather, conflicts that are assumed, though not spelled out, and assertions of what is “desirable” that are often not clarified by reference to policy documents or explicit normative frameworks.

We discuss alternative definitions of adaptability and transformability to clarify or avoid the notion of desirability. While a complex adaptive systems approach often precludes analysis of agency, lately self-organization and emergence have been used to study actors with intentions, strategies, and conflicting interests. Transformations and power structures are increasingly being addressed in the literature on social-ecological systems. We conclude that ontological clashes between social science and SES research have resulted in various constructive research pathways.

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