Adaptive capacity beyond the household: A systematic review of empirical social-ecological research

Sechindra Vallury, Ada P. Smith, Brian C. Chaffin, Holly K. Nesbitt, Sapana Lohani, Sabrina Gulab, Simanti Banerjee, Theresa M. Floyd, Alexander L. Metcalf, Elizabeth C. Metcalf, Dirac Twidwell, Daniel R. Uden, Matthew A. Williamson, Craig R. Allen

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


The concept of adaptive capacity has received significant attention within social-ecological and environmental change research. Within both the resilience and vulnerability literatures specifically, adaptive capacity has emerged as a fundamental concept for assessing the ability of social-ecological systems to adapt to environmental change. Although methods and indicators used to evaluate adaptive capacity are broad, the focus of existing scholarship has predominately been at the individual- and household- levels. However, the capacities necessary for humans to adapt to global environmental change are often a function of individual and societal characteristics, as well as cumulative and emergent capacities across communities and jurisdictions. In this paper, we apply a systematic literature review and co-citation analysis to investigate empirical research on adaptive capacity that focus on societal levels beyond the household. Our review demonstrates that assessments of adaptive capacity at higher societal levels are increasing in frequency, yet vary widely in approach, framing, and results; analyses focus on adaptive capacity at many different levels (e.g. community, municipality, global region), geographic locations, and cover multiple types of disturbances and their impacts across sectors. We also found that there are considerable challenges with regard to the 'fit' between data collected and analytical methods used in adequately capturing the cross-scale and cross-level determinants of adaptive capacity. Current approaches to assessing adaptive capacity at societal levels beyond the household tend to simply aggregate individual- or household-level data, which we argue oversimplifies and ignores the inherent interactions within and across societal levels of decision-making that shape the capacity of humans to adapt to environmental change across multiple scales. In order for future adaptive capacity research to be more practice-oriented and effectively guide policy, there is a need to develop indicators and assessments that are matched with the levels of potential policy applications.

Original languageEnglish
Article number063001
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number6
StatePublished - 2022


  • adaptive capacity
  • co-citation analysis
  • community resilience
  • social-ecological systems
  • systematic literature review


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