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Is adaptability a normative and spontaneous concept? A review of the literature on
social-ecological systems literature and resilience
Björn Nykvist1,2* and Thomas Hahn1
Stockholm Resilience Centre
2 Stockholm Environment Institute, and Department of Systems Ecology, Stockholm
* Corresponding author:
Tel: +46 (0)8-674 7513
Fax: +46 (0)8-674 7020
Adress: Kräftriket 2B, SE-106 91 Stockholm, Sweden
Contact details co-author:
Tel: + 46 (0)8-674 7071
Social-ecological systems (SES) are often analysed as complex adaptive systems (CAS)
illustrated by, for example, the adaptive cycle. In this framework are human responses often
seen as spontaneous and self-organized adaptations by autonomous agents, with often limited
analysis of the intentions, strategies and conflicts among actors in a SES. In other analytical
frameworks, intentions and conflicts are emphasized. In the literature on SES adaptability is
often, but not always, used in a normative way. In general research on SES tends to differ in
the degree of normative connotations associated with e.g. the concept resilience. In this paper
we investigate adaptability, and whether the diversity in perspectives reflects a creative
tension and richness, or if the resilience theory would be advanced by a more rigorous
understanding and use of the adaptability concept.
Normative challenges in the literature of SES and resilience have been reviewed and
discussed on a number of occasions – most recently in a special issue on governance,
complexity, and resilience in Global Environmental Change. The key issue and critique put
forward against resilience thinking have been the lack of recognition that associating
resilience, adaptation, and innovation with sustainability or prosperous paths of development,
comes with important normative challenges. The aim of this paper is to review when and how
adaptability is referred to in a normative sense, and explore in what sense and to what extent
such a critique is justified. Adaptability is reviewed as an inclusive concept that makes no
distinction between adaptability, adaptations, or adaptive capacity in social-ecological
systems. All publications in ISI web of science matching “social-ecological systems”
“resilience” and “adapt*” in title, abstract, and keywords were reviewed. We do not perform a
comprehensive review of each paper, nor do we aim at categorizing papers as such. We are
only interested in the explicit use of the concept adaptability for the purpose of clarifying
resilience theory.
The paper addresses two dimensions of adaptability. First we ask if adaptability is a property
that is framed and analyzed as a reactive and spontaneous phenomenon, or, on the contrary, as
something that is related to strategic planning, anticipation, and therefore intention. Secondly
we ask whether adaptability is inherently good, associated with a certain state or development,
and referred to in a normative language; or, contrary, in a descriptive way, regardless of expected outcome. The results reveal that all four possible versions of framing of adaptability resulting from our two variables are well represented in the reviewed literature. We present the relative occurrence of the two variables, and the four categories of uses. We then discuss the different uses of adaptability, aiming to provide a better understanding of some of the normative challenges in research on adaptive management, resilience, and social-ecological systems. Specifically we address one of the key findings on the limits of a CAS framing of adaptations as self-organizing. Finally, we present some conclusions on future research, and reflects on the validly of recent critiques of resilience thinking in the light of our review.


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