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Social-Ecological Systems Meta-Analysis Database: Theory

Social-ecological fit theory

Variable relationship:

According to Ostrom (1990), appropriate institutions should be matched with characteristics of the commons, such as spatial and temporal heterogeneity (socio-ecological fit) in order to be effective in promoting resource conservation (Commons Condition Trend). "Some scholars have also identified local conditions as involving the predominant culture, ideology, customs, and livelihood strategies of a community. And others have highlighted the negative consequences that result when externally imposed rules do not match local customs and livelihood strategies" (Cox et al. 2010).

More generally, the socio-ecological fit theory posits that institutions are likely to succeed (or fail) in relation to how institutions are designed for coupled systems of people and nature (Epstein et al. 2015). In other words, the theory implicitly argues that the positive effects of an institution
depend upon the state of one or more contextual attributes. For instance, common property pasture regimes have generally been more successful in highly variable and uncertain rangeland ecosystems than have alternative private property pasture regimes (Epstein et al. 2015).

The theory is also reflected in Oran Young's argument about "fit, scale and interplay". According to Young (2002), institutions should account for key ecosystem links. The more links accounted for by institutions, the greater the potential fit institution–ecosystem fit.

Scientific Field
Component Type(s)
Environmental Common, Governance System


VariableRoleRole ExplanationValue
Social-ecological fitProximate independent variableInstitutions that uncover the spatial scale and heterogeneity and key links of ecosystems are more likely to have expected effects on resource conditionsHigh
Commons condition trendFinal outcomeConservation management institutions are designed to maintain or improve resource conditions. Remained the Same or Improved

Related Theories

TheoryRelationshipCharacterizing Variables
Participatory management nested
External recognition and local autonomynested
Failure of centralized controlnested
Political decentralization and fitnested
Decentralization and elite capturenested
Community-based natural resource management (CBNRM)nested
Decentralization and leakagenested

Related Studies


Ostrom, Elinor. 1990. Governing the Commons. New York: Cambridge University Press.


Cox, Michael, Gwen Arnold, and Sergio Villamayor-Tomas. 2010. “A Review of Design Principles for Community-Based Natural Resource Management.” Ecology and Society 15 (4).


Young, Oran. 2002. The Institutional Dimensions of Environmental Change: Fit, Interplay, and Scale. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


Epstein, Graham, Jeremy Pittman, Steven M Alexander, Samantha Berdej, Thomas Dyck, Ursula Kreitmair, Kaitlyn J Raithwell, Sergio Villamayor-Tomas, Jessica Vogt, and Derek Armitage. 2015. “Institutional Fit and the Sustainability of Social–ecological Systems.” Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 14: 34–40.


Folke, Carl, Lowell Pritchard Jr., Fikret Berkes, Johan Colding, and Uno Svedin. 2007. “The Problem of Fit between Ecosystems and Institutions: Ten Years Later.” Ecology and Society 12 (1).