Advancing adaptive governance of social-ecological systems through theoretical multiplicity

Published: 27th January 2016 17:15Last Updated: 27th January 2016 17:15
figure 2 revised - climate adaptation.

Distribution of papers by year for the time period 2005–2014 (a). Distribution of reviewed articles by orientation (b), regional focus (c), thematic scope (d)


In the last decade there has been increasing interest in the governance of complex sustainability issues. Adaptive governance has evolved as an analytical approach for understanding natural resource governance that takes as its foundation the interdepen- dence of social and ecological systems (Dietz et al., 2003; Folke, 2007; Folke et al., 2005). 

Adaptive governance and new modes of governing

In a world that changes both slowly and abruptly in unpredictable directions, the notion of adaptive governance brings attention to how social-ecological systems can adapt to constantly changing conditions, especially where decisions need to be taken under high uncertainty (Brugnach et al., 2008; Hurlbert and Diaz, 2013). 

The aim of this paper* is to examine adaptive governance as a theory of environmental governance. In particular, we seek to evaluate how adaptive governance as a theoretical lens is applied to real-world problems and explore the potential value of theoretical multiplicity in progressing new understandings of adaptive governance.

What is theoretical multiplicity? 

Theoretical multiplicity can be defined as a meta-paradigmatic approach which recognises the value of exploring areas where theories overlap or can inform each other without undermining the distinctiveness of individual theories (Dewulf et al., 2009; Termeer and Dewulf, 2012). Theoretical multiplicity rests on the notion that, by using a variety of theories, a more nuanced understanding can be attained of ‘wicked’ societal and sustainability issues.

Relevance of theoretical multiplicity to adaptive governance scholarship

Theoretical multiplicity can be of added value since it can cast new light on how to conceptualise complex issues that are currently epistemologically ‘grey areas’ of adaptive governance scholarship, for instance issues that pertain to the conceptualisation of power and politics.

*Published in Environmental Science & Policy. For the full text please refer to the download available from the right-hand column and via the link under Further Resources. 


We draw on systematic review methods as a way to develop conceptual insights on the current state of knowledge in adaptive governance, focusing on the period 2005–2014.

Systematic review methods differ from traditional literature reviews in that they can yield a comprehensive assessment of the state of knowledge by applying rigorous, objective and transparent steps and criteria for reaching conclusions from a body of scientific literature.

Key insights

  • We find that there are still few alternative governance theories to draw upon that can handle processes of change characterised by nonlinear dynamics, threshold effects, cascades and limited predictability. 
  • Water management related topics tend to be over-represented in the literature. In contrast, while there is an increasing emphasis on topics such as coastal management, urban sustainability and food security, these are still topics that are far less represented in the literature.
  • The majority of articles on adaptive governance have been carried out in developed countries. There are critical theoretical research areas that are most relevant to social-ecological dynamics and governance in developing economies that are less represented in the literature.
  • One particularly important research opportunity is how to go beyond ‘just managing’ vicious cycles of poverty, social exclusion and environmental harm in the Global South towards recognising the need for governance flexibility, creativity and innovation.
  • Recent innovative foci of adaptive governance scholarship are represented by articles that develop links with other theories and approaches (theoretical multiplicity).
  • Theoretical multiplicity can in the long run expand the relevance of adaptive governance in social-ecological systems research and contribute to a more robust theory that can be used to address a greater variety of governance contexts

Further resources

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