This review asks the question: What new avenues of social science enquiry are suggested by new ecological thinking, with its focus on nonequilibrium dynamics, spatial and temporal variation, complexity, and uncertainty? Following a review of the emergence of the “new ecology” and the highlighting of contrasts with earlier “balance of nature” perspectives, work emerging from ecological anthropology, political ecology, environmental and ecological economics, and debates about nature and culture are examined. With some important exceptions, much social science work and associated popular and policy debates remain firmly wedded to a static and equilibrial view. This review turns to three areas where a more dynamic perspective has emerged. Each has the potential to take central elements of new ecological thinking seriously, sometimes with major practical consequences for planning, intervention design, and management. First is the concern with spatial and temporal dynamics developed in detailed and situated analyses of “people in places,” using, in particular, historical analysis as a way of explaining environmental change across time and space. Second is the growing understanding of environment as both the product of and the setting for human interactions, which link dynamic structural analyses of environmental processes with an appreciation of human agency in environmental transformation, as part of a “structuration” approach. Third is the appreciation of complexity and uncertainty in social-ecological systems and, with this, the recognition of that prediction, management, and control are unlikely, if not impossible.


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  • Article Type: Review Article
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