The Complexities of Ecological and Social Diversity: A Long-Term Perspective


Calls for preserving cultural and biological diversity regularly appear in the news. The preservation of diversity is not just a subject of study by ecologists, anthropologists, conservationists, and land managers; it is an explicit goal of social movements and governmental policies. This research project will examine how social and ecological diversity interact to influence the resilience of societies facing major changes in their social or environmental circumstances. The goal of the investigators conducting this project is to discover configurations of diversity in ecological landscapes and in forms of social organization that make systems more or less able to cope with significant environmental or social changes without undergoing an unpleasant transformation. The researchers will focus on a few important variables indicating both social diversity (integration, conformity, and hierarchy) and ecological diversity (diversity of plant and animal species and of patches on the landscape). To understand the relationships of interest, they will develop mathematical models of the interactions of key variables and conduct extensive quantitative analysis of data from empirical studies of millennium-long societal trajectories. They will examine five archaeological cases from the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico as long-term "experiments" to see how diversity in the social and ecological realms affected these societies' abilities to thrive or forced them into dramatic transformations when faced with different environmental or social stimuli. The outcomes of these analyses will provide the basis for dynamic modeling designed to investigate the broad range of conditions in which these domains of diversity contribute to varying responses to change across different time scales. Model analyses conducted using dynamical systems and numerical techniques will begin with simple social situations coupled with simple landscapes followed by step-wise modifications designed to "complexify" both social and ecological modeled landscapes. The project will move iteratively between archaeological analysis and mathematical modeling. Patterns observed in the empirical studies will inform the modeling, which will examine those relationships more abstractly. The effects predicted by the modeling then will be explored with respect to the empirical details of the case studies.

Insights about diversity in contemporary research on interacting social and ecological systems have overwhelmingly relied upon studies and observations over short time spans. This project's emphasis on case-specific, comparative analysis of long-term, regional-scale archaeological sequences in the Americas will yield new perspectives regarding important episodes in human history. This project will demonstrate the value of integrating insights from ecology and archaeology, the importance of balancing concerns for social and ecological processes, and the ability of archaeology to contribute to understanding the role of diversity in the resilience of social-ecological systems. As societies cope with inevitable change, their actions generate vulnerabilities. Lack of awareness of these dynamics can contribute to the need for costly transformations. When made more aware of the complex dynamics of change as they have functioned in the past, people can better weigh the implications of their decisions and build resilience to such vulnerabilities. This project will demonstrate how interactions associated with social and ecological diversity can inform contemporary policies dealing with sustainability, robustness, vulnerability, and transformative change. This project also will enhance education from pre-collegiate through graduate levels as students and teachers integrate knowledge derived from both the social and natural sciences and benefit from primary datasets of richly documented social and ecological analyses of diversity. This project is supported by the NSF Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems (CNH) Program.


David Abbott

Co-principal Investigator

Margaret Nelson

Principal Investigator

Marty Anderies

Michelle Hegmon

Co-Principal Investigator

Jon Norberg

Co-Principal Investigator

Ann Kinzig

Co-principal Investigator


National Science Foundation Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences


September 2011 - February 2015