A system is a set of interacting or interdependent components forming an integrated whole” (Glaser, 2008). Often the goal of studying the components and their interrelations, is to understand and control the outcomes of a given system. For example nobel prize winner, Elinor Ostrom, was interested in “understanding of the processes that lead to improvements in or deterioration of natural resources”. One of her relevant contributions was the proposal of a common framework to classify the information of a system into subsystems, draw the relationships between these and study the outcomes. To be more specific, the framework proposed by Ostrom (figure 1) is a steady-state representation of four core subsystems which interact with each other to produce outcomes: (i) resource systems, (ii) resource units, (iii) governance system and (iv) users (Ostrom, 2009). The framework is useful for understanding specific social-ecological systems (SESs); defined as ‘a bio-geo physical’ unit and its associated social actors and institutions’.


Figure 1

SESs are both complex and adaptive, meaning that to understand their dynamics we will use an additional theoretical framework, this one developed by Gunderson and Holling in 2001. This framework is relevant because is explains how social-ecological systems “are interlinked in never-ending adaptive cycles of growth, accumulation, restructuring, and renewal” (Holling, 2001). The adaptive circle (figure 2) is divided into for quadrants called ecosystem functions (r, K, Ω, α) “with its properties of growth and accumulation on the one hand and of novelty and renewal on the other”. The three dimensions that determine where the “steady state system” is positioned within the adaptive cycle (i.e r, K, Ω, α) are (i) potential, (ii) connectedness and (iii) resilience. Potential, or wealth, sets limits for what is possible. It determines the number of alternative options for the future. Connectedness, or controllability, determines the degree to which a system can control its own destiny, as distinct from being caught by the whims of external variability. Resilience, as achieved by adaptive capacity, determines how vulnerable the system is to unexpected disturbances and surprises that can exceed or break that control. ” (Holling, 2001)

Figure 2

Although many scholars use the SESs to analyze and solve some of the most serious environmental problems, I will use this framework to analyze my kitchen just to give and example of how it can be used. First I will give and overview to my kitchen situation, and further on I will approach this situation as a SES by describing the subsystems and the dynamics.

The Overview

At the moment I live at a big student house, in Oestgeet, NL. A student house is a complex system: 25 people or so, all from different nationalities, sharing most of the facilities, with no written or formal rules. From know on I will only focus on which in my opinion is the best part of the house: the kitchen. The kitchen by itself is a socio-ecological system (SES).

The first time a student arrives at a student house owned by DUWO (student-housing company in NL) he or she is given a big box with common kitchen items (i.e. tableware, pan, pot, cutlery, etc.). In theory this items are for his or her use only and are supposedly enough to satisfy his or her kitchen needs. In practice, some private goods such as the kitchen items are turned into public goods. For example most of the people in the house look out for their personal kitchen items, by putting them into a personal box in the cupboard after using them while others just put and take kitchen stuff out of a common pile. Other example of transformation from private to public goods are the cleaning products (i.e. dish-soap, sponge, napkins, etc.) and the spices. On the other hand the main public goods are the electro-domestic appliances (i.e. refrigerator, toaster, kettle, etc.) and kitchen furniture (i.e. countertop, sink, garbage bin, oven, stove, etc.).

The main outcome of the kitchen is the (I) food. Of course cooking generates garbage (some which can be recycled) and dirtiness, both also considered outcomes but under a slightly different name: (ii) the kitchen state and (iii) the garbage and recycling.

The governance system consists mainly of self-organization. Most people go to the supermarket for their goods, cook for themselves and clean their kitchen items. Everybody cooks for themselves at their most-preferred eating schedule. When there is more than one person cooking, people coordinate to use the facilities without to much disturbance to the others. As for the cleaning, most people clean their plates after they are done, but they rarely clean the common areas of use such as the electro-domestic appliances or the kitchen furniture. Usually dirty kitchen items start accumulating after short periods of time and the common areas are most of the time also dirty. The cleaning of common areas and common goods is done voluntarily by a hand full of people (always the same people) that have lower tolerance for this dirtiness. This motion usually starts by the self initiative of one user and is sometimes followed by one or two more. Again, it is mostly self-organization. Some self-governance systems for cleaning have been tried, mostly by communicating through a social network (a facebook house page), but efforts are weak and no strong leadership is seen.

A cleaning lady comes to clean during the weekend but only cleans the kitchen floor and disposes of the garbage. The DWUO company doesn’t act as an authority regarding cleaning or organization matters. Their job consists in fixing and repairing non-functional electro-domestic appliances and kitchen furniture.

Figure 3

The SES framework

Resource systems (RS)

Student house kitchen

Governance system (GS)

Self-organization: for cooking, cleaning and recycling

Self-governance: some unsuccessful trials to make formal rules, regarding cleaning and recycling. No trials to make rules in food preparation.

Government: Intervention when problems regarding inappropriate house hold garbage removal and bulky refuse and fire alarm activation.

Other external organizations DWUO and cleaning lady

Resource units (RU)

Private goods:


Cleaning products

Kitchen items

Public goods:

Electro-domestic appliances

Kitchen items

Kitchen furniture

Cleaning products


Users (U)

25 international students from the ages of 18 to 32

Outcomes (O)


Kitchen state

Garbage and recycling materials

The Adaptive Cycle framework

To localize in which part of the adaptive circle the SES is currently in we first have to describe the amount of potential or wealth, connectedness and resilience of the system. Since the SES (kitchen) has three main outcomes each one will be analyzed independently according to the three dimensions (See table 2).

Outcomes Potential (or wealth) Connectedness Resilience Quadrant (or Ecosystem function)
Food High potential, Accumulation of public and private kitchen items.

Accumulation of ingredients for private use.

High control,

High control over the production of food (i.e. buying, preparing, stroring…)

High resilience,

Alternative methods to solving unexpected food shortages, which involve house-mate solidarity or trading.

K (conservation)
Kitchen state Low potential,

No cleaning organization

No knowledge accumulation on organizational methods to clean

Medium control,

Mechanisms only rely on people cleaning after their own private goods, by a sense of ownership.

Little or no control on cleaning over public goods (i.e. kitchen furniture and kitchen common items)

Medium resilience,

Unexpected accumulation of dirty “common goods” is usually followed by people voluntarily cleaning our of their own will

Garbage and recycling High potential,

Capital for garbage disposal

Low potential for recycling

High control over garbage disposal (Cleaning lady)

Low control over taking recycling materials to a recycling center (users)

Low resilience,

Unexpected over accumulation of garbage is rarely followed by people voluntarily disposing it out.

K (garbage)

r (recycling)

The SES is mostly in the r and K quadrant of the adaptive cycle framework. The food production and the garbage disposal are at present in the quadrant K, associated with stability and capital accumulation. On the other hand cleaning and recycling are both in the r quadrant. They belong to this quadrant because they both require the administration of public goods, which are more costly because they require users to get together and agree on changes (Ostrom, 2009). A self-governance system requires certain characteristics that are not present in this SES, such as: respected leaders , shared moral and ethical standards , knowledge of the SES , importance of resource (or activities) to users , etc (Ostrom, 2009). These characteristics, which by nature, are not inherent to the kitchen student house (because of the multi international background, the lack of knowledge accumulation and the lack of hierarchy) will stand in the way of developing sustainable cleaning and recycling practices.


Anderson, Krister and Ostrom, Elinor. “Environmental Science & Policy.” Environmental Science & Policy. 41. (2008): 71-93. Web. 4 Nov. 2012.

Holling, C.S. “Understanding the Complexity of Economic, Ecological, and Social Systems ” Ecosystems. 4. (2001): 390-405. Web.

Human-Nature-Interaction in the Anthropocene..” Potential of Social-Ecological Systems Analysis. . N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Nov 2012. <>&gt;.

Ostrom, Elinor. “General Framework for Analyzing Sustainability of Social-Ecological Systems.” Science magazine. 24 2009: 419-422. Web. 4 Nov. 2012.


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