Cultural dimensions of socio-ecological systems: key connections and guiding principles for conservation in coastal environments

A November 2013 paper in the journal Conservation Letters examines the importance of cultural values to ecosystem-based management of coastal environments. Extended abstract by Melissa Poe of NOAA Fisheries and Washington Sea Grant, with Phil Levin and Karma Norman.

Photo by Ingrid Taylar
Photo by Ingrid Taylar

Poe, Melissa R., Karma C. Norman, and Phillip S. Levin. 2013. "Cultural dimensions of socio-ecological systems: key connections and guiding principles for conservation in coastal environments." Conservation Letters. doi: 10.1111/conl.12068.

Extended abstract

Environments are complex socio-ecological systems demanding interdisciplinary research and conservation. Despite significant progress in characterizing socio-ecological complexity, cultural values and their importance to conservation remain poorly understood and inadequately accounted for in ecosystem-based management (EBM). In this review we synthesize existing social sciences to build an approach for better integrating cultural dimensions into coastal conservation. A focus on cultural dimensions helps identify important interactions between coastal resources and social groups, and improves socio-ecological analyses and management. Using examples from coastal ecosystems in North America, our cultural dimensions of socio-ecological systems model illustrates five key interrelated cultural aspects: meanings, values, and identities; knowledge and practice; governance and access; livelihoods; and cultural interactions with biophysical environments.

Why is it important to consider cultural dimensions in conservation? Implementation of integrated conservation programs without consideration of sociocultural dimensions is insufficient, providing only part of the ecosystem picture. Coastal environments are fundamental to the sociocultural wellbeing of people and contribute to people’s sense of place, wellbeing, relationships, and community resilience. Thus, failure to consider cultural dimensions risks creating or reproducing social inequalities, diminishing community resilience, and stripping away mitigating processes (e.g., customary tenure, social norms, and knowledge systems). Moreover, omitting important cultural dimensions may create conflict, reduce trust, and hinder collaborative management. Conversely, including sociocultural dimensions in conservation may increase buy-in, reduce conflict and costs associated with negotiation, and yield better alternatives that address concerns of those most affected by environmental and institutional changes. Including meaningful sociocultural components in conservation also fulfills a number of government directives to which natural resource agencies are bound. 

We conclude by suggesting a set of guiding principles for conservation scientists and practitioners working across socio-ecological systems. These principles are: (1) Recognize the diverse cultural meanings and values embedded in human-environment interactions; (2) Protect access to resources, spaces, and processes upon which cultural wellbeing depends; (3) Involve communities who have cultural connections to ecosystems in science and management at all stages (from problem framing to assessment, to identifying and implementing solutions, to monitoring); (4) Allow for cross-scale and nested linkages when assessing and managing cultural dimensions of ecosystems; (5) Recognize the integrated and coupled nature of sociocultural wellbeing and ecosystem health; and design conservation approaches appropriately. Joining sociocultural with ecological and economic considerations of complex socio-ecological systems can be challenging, but is necessary to manage and protect environments for human wellbeing, ecosystem integrity, and viable economies. 

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About the Author: 
Melissa Poe is the joint social science liaison with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center and Washington Sea Grant. Prior to joining NWFSC in 2012 as an affiliate research social scientist, Poe was a core research PI at the Institute for Culture and Ecology, and worked in collaboration with the USDA Pacific Northwest Research Station on community-based natural resource management in the Pacific Northwest. She earned a M.A. (2004) and Ph.D. (2009) in Environmental Anthropology at the University of Washington. Poe is currently collaborating with other staff scientists in the Conservation Biology division to define, identify, and assess social and cultural interactions with coastal and marine ecosystems. Three key areas of research are: (a) the sociocultural dimensions of ocean acidification; (b) shellfish harvesting and subsistence as cultural benefits of marine ecosystems; and (c) methods for understanding the social and spatial dimensions of human-marine interactions and wellbeing.