Process Ontologies and Social-Ecological Systems (SES) Research

We just published the third paper on our process-relational work entitled: “From nouns to verbs: How process ontologies enhance our understanding of social‐ecological systems understood as complex adaptive systems”! It argues that while research on social-ecological systems (SES) has highlighted their complex and adaptive character researchers often frame their analyses of the systems in terms of isolated and static entities, e.g. actors that are independent and have unchanging properties. In a study published in People and Nature we argue for a way to close the gap between how we say we view SES as complex adaptive and intertwined systems and how we treat them in research and practice.

We talk and think in terms of things and entities that have a stable set of properties. This is understandable, because doing so allows us to control, predict and manage our environment. However, this means that we might run the risk of neglecting the situatedness of people, as well as the social-ecological processes which influence who people are, or which processes people realize at any given moment. But people are not the same across contexts, nor do they behave the same. Hence, we need ways that allow us to account for the many processes and relations a person is embedded it.

This paper presents an alternative philosophical perspective that allows us to see change as being more fundamental than stability.

We argue that this mismatch stems from what in philosophy is termed ontology – the way we understand reality. The ontologies that underlie the tendency to divide SES into parts and describe them as stable entities have influenced most of contemporary science and are known as “substance ontologies”. These assume that reality is made up of things and entities that exist independent of each other. Instead, we argue that we must think of a reality in constant change which will also allow us to bridge the dichotomy between the social and the ecological. Metaphorically we can describe this as a move away from noun-based thinking towards verb-based thinking (Arthur 2015, Rescher 2000, Law 1992, Langley and Tsoukas 2016).

The paper argues that “process ontologies”, which focus on concepts such as processes, events and possibility spaces would be more suitable for the study of SES especially when it comes to grasping their complex and intertwined nature and we conclude that such a shift in worldview would enable researchers to understand SES in new ways and support the development of new governance approaches. Please find the paper here, a plain language summary here and a short video presenting the paper here

Arthur, B. (2015). Lecture on “Algorithms and the Shift in Modern Science,” at NTU Singapore – available at:

Langley, A., Tsoukas, H. (2016). The SAGE Handbook of Process Organization Studies. London, UK: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Law, J. (1992). Notes on the Theory of the Actor-Network: Ordering, Strategy, and Heterogeneity, Systems Practice 5(4):379–93.

Rescher, N. (1996). Process metaphysics: An introduction to process philosophy. New York, NY: SUNY Press.