Quantifying uncertainty and trade-offs in resilience assessments

Craig R. Allen, Hannah E. Birge, David G. Angeler, Craig Anthony Tony Arnold, Brian C. Chaffin, Daniel A. Decaro, Ahjond S. Garmestani, Lance Gunderson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Scopus citations


Several frameworks have been developed to assess the resilience of social-ecological systems, but most require substantial data inputs, time, and technical expertise. Stakeholders and practitioners often lack the resources for such intensive efforts. Furthermore, most end with problem framing and fail to explicitly address trade-offs and uncertainty. To remedy this gap, we developed a rapid survey assessment that compares the relative resilience of social-ecological systems with respect to a number of resilience properties. This approach generates large amounts of information relative to stakeholder inputs. We targeted four stakeholder categories: government (policy, regulation, management), end users (farmers, ranchers, landowners, industry), agency/public science (research, university, extension), and NGOs (environmental, citizen, social justice) in four North American watersheds, to assess social-ecological resilience through surveys. Conceptually, social-ecological systems are comprised of components ranging from strictly human to strictly ecological, but that relate directly or indirectly to one another. They have soft boundaries and several important dimensions or axes that together describe the nature of social-ecological interactions, e.g., variability, diversity, modularity, slow variables, feedbacks, capital, innovation, redundancy, and ecosystem services. There is no absolute measure of resilience, so our design takes advantage of cross-watershed comparisons and therefore focuses on relative resilience. Our approach quantifies and compares the relative resilience across watershed systems and potential trade-offs among different aspects of the social-ecological system, e.g., between social, economic, and ecological contributions. This approach permits explicit assessment of several types of uncertainty (e.g., self-assigned uncertainty for stakeholders; uncertainty across respondents, watersheds, and subsystems), and subjectivity in perceptions of resilience among key actors and decision makers and provides an efficient way to develop the mental models that inform our stakeholders and stakeholder categories.

Original languageEnglish
Article number3
JournalEcology and Society
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2018


  • Coupled human-natural system
  • Resilience assessment
  • Social-ecological system
  • Stressed watersheds


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