Emergence, institutionalization and renewal: Rhythms of adaptive governance in complex social-ecological systems

Brian C. Chaffin, Lance H. Gunderson

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

165 Scopus citations


Adaptive governance provides the capacity for environmental managers and decision makers to confront variable degrees of uncertainty inherent to complex social-ecological systems. Current theoretical conceptualizations of adaptive governance represent a series of structures and processes best suited for either adapting or transforming existing environmental governance regimes towards forms flexible enough to confront rapid ecological change. As the number of empirical examples of adaptive governance described in the literature grows, the conceptual basis of adaptive governance remains largely under theorized. We argue that reconnecting adaptive governance with foundational concepts of ecological resilience-specifically Panarchy and the adaptive cycle of complex systems-highlights the importance of episodic disturbances and cross-scale interactions in triggering reorganizations in governance. By envisioning the processes of adaptive governance through the lens of Panarchy, scholars and practitioners alike will be better able to identify the emergence of adaptive governance, as well as take advantage of opportunities to institutionalize this type of governance in pursuit of sustainability outcomes. The synergistic analysis of adaptive governance and Panarchy can provide critical insight for analyzing the role of social dynamics during oscillating periods of stability and instability in social-ecological systems. A deeper understanding of the potential for cross-scale interactions to shape adaptive governance regimes may be useful as society faces the challenge of mitigating the impacts of global environmental change.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)81-87
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Environmental Management
StatePublished - Jan 1 2016


  • Adaptive governance
  • Adaptive management
  • Environmental governance
  • Panarchy
  • Resilience


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