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Social-Ecological Systems Meta-Analysis Database


We are proud to announce our first series of SESMAD publications, appearing in a special issue of the International Journal of the Commons (http://www.thecommonsjournal.org). These are each listed under the “publications” page of the home tab.


Welcome to the website for the social-ecological meta-analysis database (SESMAD) project! The goal of this project is to enable highly comparable case analyses of a diversity of social-ecological systems. The SESMAD project is unique in several respects. First and foremost, it is a collaboration that began with fourteen young scientists from diverse backgrounds, each trained to consistently code data into a common database. The SESMAD project began during a conference held by the Resilience Alliance in the spring of 2010. During this conference, a group known as the Resilience Alliance Young Scholars (RAYS) met and formed teams oriented around particular projects. SESMAD was one of those projects. Project members became part of the project either through their affiliation with RAYS or with the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University, a well-recognized leading center in the synthetic institutional study of small-scale common-pool resource management.

An additionally unique aspect of SESMAD is that it entails the development of tools and an approach as much as it involves the production of scientific results. In addition to serving as the hub for the work done by the core SESMAD team, this website, and the database it supports, is designed serve as a tool for a variety of collaborative research projects.

The core group is focusing on the use of meta-analytic methods to analyze large-scale environmental problems and systems such as the Great Barrier Marine Park and Ozone Depletion. The website and database, however, are capable of assisting in data collection and organization of any type of SES. Several pilot projects are under way which involve novel fieldwork and are guided by the use of the SESMAD approach.

Site Content:

This site serves as an interface with the SESMAD database. This is done with the series of tabs that are present on each page. The first two of these (Introduction and Manual) provide an introduction to the project.

The manual tab provides both a (1) in-depth guide to the structure of the SESMAD database, and (2) a much briefer data entry guide. These cover similar content. The manual tab can also be used by any user to browse the variables that are available to be measured via the database, the studies that users have either published themselves or used to code a case, and to browse through any surveys that were used to collect data for a case.

The next three tabs (Cases, Components and Theories) are used to add, edit, and browse data that describe social-ecological systems.

While only registered members of the SESMAD team can add or edit data, casual users can explore each of the above-mentioned tabs and can browse through the variables, cases, and theories involved. Every object in the database can be viewed on its own page in a wiki-like fashion.

Background: previous work on the commons

The SESMAD approach derives from previous work on small-scale common-pool resources (CPRs). A commons is anything (e.g., forests, fisheries) for which it is difficult to restrict access or otherwise establish boundaries. These resources are thus difficult to manage, and create conditions for what are known as collective-action problems between users of CPRs. A collective-action problem is a divergence between individual and group-level interests that occurs when private actors are incentivized to take actions against the interest of the group (such as consuming an exhaustible resource). Failure to resolve collective-action problems created by environmental CPRs has been popularized by the well-known scenario of the tragedy of the commons (Hardin 1968).

The primary research question that has been addressed in studies of small-scale CPRs is: how do resource users cooperate to overcome collective-action problems (i.e., divergences between group and individual-level interest) to avoid the deterioration of a shared resource? Thus, collective-action (or the lack of it) is seen as the ultimate cause of environmental outcomes, and research focuses on the proximate factors that affect the likelihood of human cooperation in social-ecological systems.

Our research largely follows this perspective, examining both the importance of this ultimate cause (and the collective-action orientation of traditional CPR work) as well as the importance of specific proximate factors that affect the likelihood of successful collective action. Among these proximate causes, institutions play a primary role in affecting collective-action outcomes. Institutions are the rules and patterns of behavior used by individuals to order their relationships (Ostrom 2005). Several key institutional arrangements include monitoring, sanctioning and conflict resolution mechanisms. Other explanatory variables in this literature include group size, leadership, trust, social capital, autonomy, and social heterogeneity, each of which can help or hinder participants’ efforts to maintain the cooperation needed to sustain a natural resource (Agrawal 2001).

The methodological foundations of SESMAD come from previous synthetic work on small-scale CPR systems pioneered at the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University. Previous projects from this research program include the Common-Pool Resource Research Project (Ostrom 1990; Schlager and Ostrom 1992; Tang 1992; Ostrom et al. 1994), the Nepal Irrigation Institutions Systems (NIIS) Project (Lam 1998b), and the International Forestry Resources and Institutions (IFRI) Project (Gibson et al. 2000; Poteete and Ostrom 2004; Wollenberg et al. 2007). The most famous output of the work is Ostrom’s design principles for successful community-based CPR management (see Ostrom 1990 and Cox et al. 2010).

These past projects have also shown the power of the synthetic methodologies, producing findings that have challenged the persistent belief that external authority must impose government or private ownership on user communities that share the use of a CPR such as a forest or irrigation system (Terborgh, 1999). Theoretical and empirical studies from this research program have likewise challenged earlier theories of helpless resource users trapped in complex environments and shown that, under certain conditions, communities can avoid the tragedy of the commons (Ostrom, 1990; Ostrom and Nagendra 2007)

Despite this progress, one of the challenges that CPR research still faces is producing synthetic findings that span many types of CPR settings (Poteete et al. 2010). The SESMAD project is expanding upon this traditional CPR work on several ways to meet this challenge:

  1. We include variables and concepts from several additional research areas, most notably work on international environmental regimes, resilience theory, ecosystems services, and conservation biology. This interdisciplinarity reflects the expertise of the SESMAD team.
  2. The SESMAD project is explicitly focusing on large-scale systems to assess the relevance of previous small-scale work to much larger-scale environmental problems.
  3. The project is also based on a comparative social-ecological framework (Ostrom 2007, 2009) and a relational database we developed that will facilitate the consistent collection of data across sites. This framework and the database are described in the manual on this site.


If you would like to use this database or any of its content for your own research you are free to do so. If you do, please include the following citation in your work:

SESMAD, 2014. Social-Ecological Systems Meta-Analysis Database: Background and Research Methods. Available from: http://sesmad.dartmouth.edu/.