Continuity and Change in Social-ecological Systems: the Role of Institutional Resilience

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Authors: E. Herrfahrdt-Pähle, C.Pahl-Wostl

Publication Year: 2012


Journal: Ecology and Society

Volume: 17

Issue: 8

Categories: Digital Transformation, Resilience, Resilience


Recent years of human history have witnessed dramatic crises in politics, economic systems and environment. Changing climate of the planet Earth calls for immediate action to prevent the exacerbation of the problem while the global financial crisis requires fundamental changes in financial policies. As the busts occur in the systems, existing paradigms, structures and mechanisms come under questioning and re-evaluation. Remarkably, questioning and re-evaluation of dominant systems is faced with a great amount of resistance and reluctance on the side of decision-makers. Conventional patterns are attempted to be preserved at all costs, while change seems like a painful and dreadful experience. Thus often, the solution is thought to be repairing of the system as fast as possible, to bring it back to the state it was before the crisis. Reparation of the system without learning about the change and attempting to adapt it to the change is hardly a sustainable approach. This paper urges the focus to be moved away from preservation of existing structures towards finding sustainable pathways. In this case crises could be used as an opportunity for learning and adapting existing structures to eventually improve them. Conceptualization of continuity and change can be done in a myriad of ways, thus this paper takes the institutional perspective with which it reveals the interplay of continuity and change. The way in which the institutional resilience to change develops over time is compared across two case studies. The paper presents empirical data of two countries' institutional frameworks which acted differently under decades-long pressure to transform. Institutional continuity was opted for in one state, whereas institutional change occurred in the case of the opposing example.

Critical Reflection

This article is relevant with regards to the topic of the adaptive cycle and the concept of Panarchy. Authors apply the conceptual framework of the adaptive cycle model to describe the continuity and change in social ecological systems. They discuss the cases of two specific examples of ecosystems in this respect: Institutional systems in Uzbekistan and South Africa which were faced with the challenge to transform. The countries of both case studies found themselves locked in resistant maladaptive regimes. Adaptive cycle is used as a baseline conceptual framework upon which comparisons between the two cases are drawn and conceptualizations of change and continuity are built on. Movements from one phase of the cycle to another are used to illustrate the crises and transformations of the institutional ecosystems of the two countries. Throughout the analysis of the case studies, conformance to the principles of the adaptive cycle literature was found. This paper is a relevant contribution to the discussion of adaptive cycles in the context of institutions, as it illustrates with the help of two carefully studied examples the real life application of the subject matter.