Reflections on SES modeling: Stop me if you’ve heard this
Article Full Text (PDF)


social-ecological systems
boundary object

How to Cite

Cockerill, K. (2024). Reflections on SES modeling: Stop me if you’ve heard this. Socio-Environmental Systems Modelling, 6, 18658.


Key lessons about and limits to social-ecological systems (SES) modeling are widely available and frustratingly consistent over time. Prominent challenges include outdated perspectives about systems and models along with persistent disciplinary hegemony. The inherent complexity in SES means that an emphasis on discrete prediction is misplaced and has potentially reduced model efficacy for decision-making. Although computer models are definitely the tool to use to identify the complex relationships within SES, humans are messy and hence the ‘social’ in SES is often ignored, glossed over, or reduced to simplistic economic or demographic variables. This combination of factors has perpetuated biases in what is worth pursuing and/or publishing.

In (re)visiting issues in SES modeling, including debates about model capabilities, data selection, and challenges in working across disciplinary lines, this reflection explores how the author’s experience aligns with extant literature as well as raises issues about what is absent from that body of work. The available lessons suggest that scholars and practitioners need to re-think how, why, and when to employ SES modeling in regulatory or other decision-making contexts.

Article Full Text (PDF)


Allison, A.E.F., Dickson, M.E., Fisher, K.T., Thrush, S.F. (2018). Dilemmas of Modelling and Decision-Making in Environmental Research. Environmental Modelling and Software 99: 147-155.

Botkin, D.B. 1990. Discordant Harmonies: A New Ecology for the Twenty-first Century. Oxford Univ Press.

Bourceret, A., Amblard,L., Mathias, J.D. (2021). Governance in Social Ecological Agent-Based Models: A Review. Ecology and Society 26(2): 38.

Castilla-Rho, J. C., Rojas, R., Andersen, M. S., Holley, C., & Mariethoz, G. (2017). Social Tipping Points in Global Groundwater Management. Nature Human Behaviour 1(9): 640–649.

Cockerill, K. (2010). Cooperative Modeling to Promote Systems Thinking in Applying the National Environmental Policy Act. Environmental Practice 12(2): 127-133.

Cockerill, K., Tidwell, V., Passel, H. (2004). Assessing Public Perceptions of Computer-Based Models. Environmental Management 34(5): 609-619.

Cockerill, K., Passell, H., Tidwell, V. 2006. Cooperative Modeling: Building Bridges Between Science and the Public. Journal of the American Water Resources Association 42(2): 457-471.

Cockerill, K., Tidwell, V.C., Passell, H., Malczynski, L.A. (2007). Cooperative Modeling Lessons for Environmental Management. Environmental Practice 9(1): 28-41.

Cockerill, K. Daniel, L., Malczynski, L., Tidwell, V. (2009). A Fresh Look at a Policy Sciences Methodology: Collaborative Modeling for More Effective Policy. Policy Sciences 42: 211-225.

Cockerill, K., Tidwell, V., Daniel, L., Sun, A. (2010). Engaging the Public and Decisionmakers in Cooperative Modeling for Regional Water Management. Environmental Practice 12 (4): 316-327.

Cockerill, K., Armstrong, M., Richter, J., Okie, J.G. (2017). Environmental Realism: Challenging Solutions. Palgrave MacMillan.

Colding, J., Barthel, S. 2019. Exploring the Social-Ecological Systems Discourse 20 Years Later. Ecology and Society 24(1): 2.

Cooper, C. (2015). Human Systems in Watershed Modeling: A Literature Review of Integrated Watershed Models in the United States. Unpublished thesis, Appalachian State University.

Drechsler, M. (2020). Model-Based Integration of Ecology and Socio-Economics for the Management of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services: State of the Art, Diversity and Current Trends. Environmental Modelling and Software 134: 104892.

Edmonds, B. (2023). The Practice and Rhetoric of Prediction – The Case in Agent-Based Modelling. International Journal of Social Research Methodology 26(2): 157–170.

Elsawah, S., Filatova, T., Jakeman, A.J., Kettner, A.J., Zellner, M.L., Athanasiadis, I.N., Hamilton, S.H., Axtell, R.L., Brown, D.G., Gilligan, J.M., Janssen, M.A., Robinson, D.T., Rozenberg, J., Ullah, I.I.T., Lade, S.J. (2020). Eight Grand Challenges in Socio-Environmental Systems Modeling. Socio-Environmental Systems Modeling 2: 16226.

Forrester, J. W. (1993). System Dynamics and the Lessons of 35 Years. In: A Systems Approach to Policymaking, K. B. DeGreene, (ed.) Kluwer Academic Publishers, Boston, 199–240.

Gray, S., Voinov, A., Paolisso, M., Jordan, R., Bendor, T., Bommel, P., Glynn, P., Hedelin, B., Hubacek, K., Introne, J., Kolagani, N., Laursen, B., Prell, C., Olabisi, L.S., Singer, A., Sterling, E., Zellner, M. (2018). Purpose, Processes, Partnerships, and Products: Four Ps to Advance Participatory Socio-Environmental Modeling. Ecological Applications 28 (1): 46-61.

Groeneveld, J. , Müller, B., Buchmann, C.M., Dressler, G., Guo C., Hase, N., Hoffmann, F., Klassert, F.J.C., Lauf, T., Liebelt, V., Nolzen, H., Pannicke, N., Schulze, J., Weise, H., Schwarz, N. (2017). Theoretical Foundations of Human Decision-Making in Agent-Based Land Use Models - A Review. Environmental Modelling and Software 87: 39-48

Hellstrom, T., Jacob, M. (1996). Uncertainty and Values: The Case of Environmental Impact Assessment. Knowledge and Policy: International Journal of Knowledge Transfer and Utilization 9(1): 70–84.

Heng, K. (2023). Approximating Reality. American Scientist 111(4): 198-199.

Herndon, J.R. (2023). Models and Mathematics: Q&A with Erica Thompson. American Scientist 111(4): 251-252.

Lee, K.N. (1993). Compass and Gyroscope: Integrating Science and Politics for the Environment. Island Press.

Lim, T.C. Glynn, P.D., Shenk, G.D., Bitterman, P., Guillaume, J.H.A., Little, J.C., Webster, D.G. (2023). Recognizing Political Influences in Participatory Social-Ecological Systems Modeling. Socio-Environmental Systems Modeling 5: 18509.

Lindkvist, E., Wijermans, N., Daw, T.M.,Gonzalez-Mon, B., Giron-Nava, A., Johnson, A.F., van Putten, I., Basurto, X., Schlüter, M. (2020). Navigating Complexities: Agent-Based Modeling to Support Research, Governance, and Management in Small-Scale Fisheries. Frontiers in Marine Science 6: 733.

Lindblom, C. E. (1979). Still Muddling, Not Yet Through. Public Administration Review 39: 517–526.

Lorie, M. A., Cardwell, H.E. (2006). Collaborative Modeling for Water Management. Southwest Hydrology 5(4): 26–27.

McNamara, L., Chermak, J., Cockerill, K., Jarratt, J., Kelly, S., Kobos, P., Malczynski, L., Newman, G., Pallachula, K., Passell, H., Tidwell, V.C., Turnley, J.G., Waanders, P.V.B. (2004). Modeling the Transfer of Land and Water from Agricultural to Urban Uses in the Middle Rio Grande Basin, New Mexico. Sandia National Laboratories Report SAND 2004-5218, 54 pp.

Mollinga, P.P. (2010). Boundary Work and the Complexity of Natural Resources Management. Crop Science 50 (March-April): S1-9.

Polhill, J.G., Hare, M., Bauermann, T., Anzola, D., Palmer, E., Salt, D., Antosz, P. (2021). Using Agent-Based Models for Prediction in Complex and Wicked Systems. Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 24(3): 2.

Rittel, H., Webber, M.M. (1973). Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. Policy Sciences 4: 155-169.

Riviere, M., Caurla, S., Delacote, P. (2020). Evolving Integrated Models from Narrower Economic Tools: The Example of Forest Sector Models. Environmental Modeling and Assessment 25: 453-469.

Rounsevell, M.D.A., Arneth, A., Alexander, P., Brown, D.G., de Noblet-Ducoudré, N., Ellis, E., Finnigan, J., Galvin, K., Grigg, N., Harman, I., Lennox, J., Magliocca, N., Parker, D., O’Neill, B.C., Verburg, P.H., Young, O. (2014). Towards Decision-Based Global Land Use Models for Improved Understanding of the Earth System. Earth System Dynamics 5: 117-137.

Rounsevell, M.D.A., Arneth, A., Brown, C., Cheung, W.W.L., Gimenez, O., Holman, I., Leadley, P., Lujan, C., Mahevas, S., Marechaux, I., Pelissier, R., Verburg, P.H., Vieilledent, G., Wintle, B.A., Shin, Y.J. (2021). Identifying Uncertainties in Scenarios and Models of Socio-Ecological Systems in Support of Decision-Making. One Earth 4: 967-985

Rouwette, E.A.J.A., Vennix, J.A.M., van Mullekom, T. (2002). Group Model Building Effectiveness: A Review of Assessment Studies. System Dynamics Review 18(1): 5–45.

Schill, C., Anderies, J.M., Lindahl, T., Folke, C., Polasky, S., Cardenas, J.C., Crépin, A.S., Janssen, M.A., Norberg, H., Schlüter, M. (2019). A More Dynamic Understanding of Human Behavior for the Anthropocene. Nature Sustainability 2: 1075-1082.

Schlüter, M., McAllister, R.R.J., Arlinghausm R., Bunnefeld, N., Eisenack, K., Hölker, F., Milner-Gulland, E.J., Müller, B. (2012). New Horizons for Managing the Environment: A Review of Coupled Social-Ecosystems Modeling. Natural Resources Modeling 25(1): 219-272.

Schlüter, M., Baeza, A., Dressler, G., Frank, K., Groeneveld, J., Jager, W., Janssen, M.A., McAllister, R.R.J., Müller, B., Orach, K., Schwarz, N., Wijermans, N. (2017). A Framework for Mapping and Comparing Behavioural Theories in Models of Social-Ecological Systems. Ecological Economics 131: 21-35.

Schlüter, M., Müller, B., Frank, K. (2019). The Potential of Models and Modeling for Social-Ecological Systems Research: The Reference Frame ModSES. Ecology and Society 24(1): 31.

Schulze, J., Müller, B., Groenveld, J., Grimm, V. (2017). Agent-Based Modelling of Social-Ecological Systems: Achievements, Challenges, and a Way Forward. Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Stimulation 20(2): 8.

Solomon, C.T., Dasso, C.J., Iwicki, C.M., Jensen, O.P., Jones, S.E., Sass, G.G., Trudeau, A., van Poorten, B.T., Whittaker, D. (2020). Frontiers in Modelling Social-Ecological Dynamics of Recreational Fisheries: A Review and Synthesis. Fish and Fisheries 21: 973-991.

Steger, C., Hirsch, S., Cosgrove, C., Inman, S., Nost, E., Shinbrot, X., Thorn, J.P.R., Brown, D.G., Gret-Regamey, A., Müller, B., Reid, R.S., Tucker, C., Weibel, B., Klein, J.A. (2021). Linking Model Design and Application for Transdisciplinary Approaches in Social-Ecological Systems. Global Environmental Change 66: 102201.

Sterman, J. D. 2000. Business Dynamics, Systems Thinking and Modeling for a Complex World. McGraw-Hill, Boston.

Sun, Z., Lorscheid, I., Millington, J.D., Lauf, S., Magliocca, N.R., Groeneveld, J., Balbi, S., Nolzen, H., Müller, B., Schulze, J., Buchmann, C.M. (2016). Simple or Complicated Agent-Based Models? A Complicated Issue. Environmental Modelling and Software 86: 56-67.

Sun, A., Tidwell, V., Klise, G., Peplinski, W. (2012). Modeling the Gila-San Francisco Basin Using System Dynamics in Support of the 2004 Arizona Water Settlement Act. Sandia Report SAND2012-3220.

Taberna, A. Filatova,T., Roy, D., Noll, B. (2020). Tracing Resilience, Social Dynamics, and Behavioral Change: A Review of Agent-Based Flood Risk Models. Socio-Environmental Systems Modelling 2: 17938.

Vallury, S., Smith, A.P., Chaffin, B.C., Nesbitt H.K., Lohani, S., Gulab, S., Banerjee, S., Floyd, T.M., Metcalf, A.L., Metcalf E.C., Twidwell, D., Uden, D.R., Williamson, M.A., Allen, C.R. (2022). Adaptive Capacity Beyond the Household: A Systematic Review of Empirical Social-Ecological Research. Environmental Research Letters 17: 063001.

Van der Wal, M.M, de Kraker, J., Kroeze, C., Kirschner, P.A. (2016). Can Computer Models be Used for Social Learning? A Serious Game in Water Management. Environmental Modelling and Software 75: 119-132.

Voinov, A., Seppelt, R., Reis, S., Nabel, J.E.M.S., Shokravi, S. (2014). Values in Socio-Environmental Modeling: Persuasion for Action or Excuse for Inaction. Environmental Modelling and Software 53: 207-212.

Voinov, A., Kolagani, N., McCall, M.K., Glynn, P.D., Kragt, M.E., Ostermann, F.O., Pierce, S.A., Ramu, P. (2016). Modeling with Stakeholders - Next Generation. Environmental Modelling and Software 77: 196-220.

Vos, A. de, Biggs, R., Preiser, R. (2019). Methods for Understanding Social-Ecological Systems: A Review of Place-Based Methods. Ecology and Society 24(4): 16.

Weber, C.T., Borit, M., Aschan, M. (2019). An Interdisciplinary Insight into the Human Dimension in Fisheries Models. A Systematic Literature Review in a European Context. Frontiers in Marine Science 6: 369.

Xu, H., Windsor M., Muste, M., Demir, I. (2020). A Web-Based Decision Support System for Collaborative Mitigation of Multiple Water-Related Hazards Using Serious Gaming. Journal of Environmental Management 255: 109887.

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Copyright (c) 2024 Kristan Cockerill