I participated in the Garden Route Interface Meeting (GRIM) 2019 workshop, held at Pine Lake Marina, Sedgefield, South Africa, from the 16th-19thSeptember 2019. The workshop is an annual platform where students, researchers and practitioners converge to share ideas, research work and discussions on social-ecological systems (SES) and their complex interactions and feedbacks. Specific interests are, but not limited to human-nature (social-ecological systems), theory-practice (scientists and managers), and social-natural (sciences).

Key points

Systems thinking is the idea that all operational systems are intertwined and are a product of its parts, thus function with inextricable interdependency. Due to the linked interactions, any malfunction within parts of the system affects operation of the rest of its parts and ultimately the entire system. Understanding the systems therefore translates to having a knowledge of the functions of its parts leading to the overall output of the system as a whole. When this understanding is applied in the context of linked social and ecological systems, it is conceptualized as social-ecological systems. As a way to probe into this understanding, its framework casts light into the nature of complexity and demystifies generalized assumptions.

The idea of systems is often conceptualised as a grand organization of complex structures. While this perception holds potential in the bigger picture, it hides available options for simplicity, that is, scaling down definitions and practicality of the term ‘systems’, for instance, from individual level. Individualistic perception to social-ecological systems calls one to look at themselves as systems and examine how they function and interact with their surroundings. This is a way of moving from what is conceived as grandiose and theoretical to what is simple, relatable and comprehensible. Individualistic understanding of social-ecological systems offers a segue to understand bigger and more complex social-ecological systems.

Multiplicity of interpretations of the concept of social-ecological systems complicates the term and clouds its practical application. The diverse presentations and discussions from the conference pointed to variety of ways in which different people view, interpret and loosely use the term to connote different things. Paradoxically, such multiplicity of interpretations, and even synonymous use, gives room for context specific definitions while at the same time creates confusions around appropriateness, relevance and applicability. This surfaced as an area of disconnect between research work in the academia and management sectors, further compounded by a questioned palatability of research language often complicated using jargons.

Terry Achieng is an MPhil student at the CST.