I am an environmental social scientist whose work draws on theories and methods from sociology and economics to contribute a better understanding of the linkages between people and nature that underpin complex environmental problems. I have specialized expertise in social network science, and I apply this expertise to sustainability challenges facing coral reefs and other social-ecological systems, while also making key disciplinary contributions.
I obtained my PhD in Natural Resources and Environmental Management from the University of Hawaii in 2015. Throughout my tenure in Hawaii, I held adjunct faculty appointments at the University of Hawaii and Hawaii Pacific University, where I developed and taught courses on the human dimensions of marine systems and quantitative social science methods. I also worked as a research specialist in the Socioeconomics and Planning Group at NOAA’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center in Honolulu, HI.
In 2015, I was awarded a U.S. National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship to develop and apply an integrative network modelling framework to capture complex linkages in coral reef social-ecological systems (2015 – 2018; ~AUD $208,500). I am now a Senior Research Fellow in the People and Ecosystems Group at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies here at James Cook University. In 2018 I was awarded an early career research fellowship (DECRA) from the Australian Research Council to study how social networks and power shape adaptive action (2019 – 2022; $370,000).
My research program draws heavily on sociology, economics, and social-ecological systems theory to analyze social dynamics in environmental systems and how they relate to the sustainable use and governance of environmental resources. I have specialized expertise in social network science, and my lab and I work on highly interdisciplinary projects that draw on this expertise to elucidate how complex interactions between people and ecosystems can enable or inhibit sustainability outcomes. We also contribute to advancing network theory and methods. The bulk of our work focuses on marine and coastal systems – particularly fisheries, but we have also worked on questions related to sustainable agriculture, illegal hunting, and large-scale environmental governance. In this context, we work to uncover actionable insights that can contribute toward a sustainable future for both people and ecosystems through the use of network analysis, quantitative modeling, experiments, economic valuation, and qualitative methods, and by working closely with a range of other social scientists, economists, ecologists, biologists, mathematicians, policymakers, and conservation and development practitioners.
Our current research focuses on three broad themes:
(1) Social networks, social capital, and environmental outcomes: Understanding how social dynamics drive outcomes in environmental systems is critical to advancing global sustainability. To meet this challenge, this body of work focuses on basic theories of social organization and how different patterns of social structure and social capital drive outcomes in environmental systems. Investigations into social organization focus on different types of social networks at both small and large scales, include inquires related to network formation and function, and often focus on issues of sociocultural diversity. We investigate social, ecological, and economic outcomes at both the micro and macro level. Past projects have focused on cooperation and collaboration, sociocultural diversity, collective action, fisher profitability, and shark bycatch. This work has been supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), NOAA’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, the Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research, and the ARC CoE for Coral Reef Studies, and has appeared in journals such as Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,Social Networks, Ecology and Society, Ecological Economics, and Environmental Management. More recent work in this area focuses on social influence and diffusion (see our recent paper in Biological Conservation), and the role of social capital and social networks in supporting resilience (see our recent papers in Ecology and Society,Nature Climate Change, and One Earth).
(2) Social-ecological linkages and feedbacks: This body of work extends my first research theme to explicitly account for the linkages and feedbacks between social and ecological structures. In this era of unprecedented anthropogenic stress on natural capital essential for supporting human wellbeing, we must have a strong understanding of the linkages and feedbacks between people and nature. This challenge is particularly relevant for marine ecosystems such as coral reefs which continue to decline globally, threatening biodiversity and the basic life supporting services they provide to humanity (see our recent publication in Nature). In an effort toward meeting this challenge, I am involved in ongoing research initially funded by NSF and the ARC CoE for Coral Reef Studies that advances a novel interdisciplinary network modeling framework to assess how social-ecological interdependencies mediate outcomes in social-ecological systems. This project involves both theoretical and comparative empirical work, and involves a diverse array of collaborators from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, the Stockholm Resilience Center, CSIRO, University of Melbourne, University of Hawaii, Lancaster University, Exeter University, Conservation International, and the Wildlife Conservation Society. Empirical work from this project, covered by Forbes, provides evidence that social-ecological alignment – in this case, cooperative communication among fishers targeting the same fish species – can support improved reef ecosystem conditions (Nature Communications).
(3) Adaptation, transformation, and resilience: Confronting the profound social, environmental, and climatic changes that threaten biodiversity and human welfare necessitates the capacity of people, communities, and institutions to adapt and potentially transform in order to secure a sustainable future. In this research theme, we draw on multiple strands of social and ecological research related to adaptation, transformation, and resilience in asking critical questions such as: What factors drive or underpin human responses to environmental change (and in what context)? When can a response or action be considered transformative vs. adaptive? How are human responses to change underpinned by social-ecological feedbacks, and how can they potentially alter these feedbacks? What role does power play in shaping responses to change, and what does this mean for resilience (and for whom)? Existing work in this theme attempts to contribute theoretical and conceptual clarity on the social dimensions of resilience in coupled human-natural systems (One Earth), the factors that underpin adaptive capacity (Nature Climate Change), and how social and ecological structures form the foundation for adaptation and transformation (Ecology & Society). Ongoing empirical work in this theme funded by the Australian Research Council builds on my previous two themes by drawing on dynamic social-ecological data to examine how social networks, social-ecological linkages, and power shape adaptive responses to climate change at multiple scales (i.e., individual-level, household-level, governance system-level).
In a recent paper, we used novel multilevel, social-ecological network modelling to examine how different domains of adaptive capacity—assets, flexibility, organization, learning, socio-cognitive constructs and agency—are related to adaptive and transformative actions in response to climate change impacts. We found that social ties (organization), perceived power (agency), and connections to the marine environment (learning) help and hinder people as they navigate climate change. Check out our video abstract below, our Behind the Paper blog, or read the full paper here in Nature Climate Change.
Amber Datta (PhD candidate): “The influence of severe disturbance on governance narratives and networks in social-ecological systems”
Henry Bartelet (PhD candidate): “Microeconomic adaptation in social-ecological systems”
Sarah Sutcliffe (PhD candidate): “Drivers and deviance: food and nutrition security in small-scale fisheries”
Lucy Holmes McHugh (PhD candidate): “Framing climate risk and crisis in World Heritage governance”
Diego Salgueiro (Visiting PhD student): “Small-scale fisheries and the role of connectivity in adaptation to climate change”
Francis Commercon (Fulbright student researcher): “Understanding the social context of illegal wildlife consumption in rural southwest China”
Previous Lab Members:
Emmanuel Mbaru (PhD – completed in 2019): “Diffusion of a gear-based conservation innovation in coral reef fisheries”
Hughes T.P., Barnes, M.L., Bellwood, D.R., Cinner, J.E., Cumming, G.S., Jackson, J.B.C., Kleypas, J., van de Leemput, I., Lough, J., Morrison, T.H., Palumbi, S.R., van Nes E.H., & Scheffer, M. (2017). Coral reefs in the Anthropocence. Nature 546(7656), 82-90.