The social-ecological system (SES) approach is fundamental for addressing global change challenges and to developing sustainability science. Over the last two decades, much progress has been made in translating this approach from theory to practice, although the knowledge generated is still sparse and difficult to compare. To better understand how SESs function across time, space, and scales, coordinated, long-term SES research and monitoring strategies under a common analytical framework are needed. For this purpose, the collection of standard datasets is a cornerstone, but we are still far from identifying and agreeing on the common core set of variables that should be used. In this study, based on literature reviews, expert workshops, and researcher perceptions collected through online surveys, we developed a reference list of 60 variables for the characterization and monitoring of SESs. The variables were embedded in a conceptual framework structured in 13 dimensions that were distributed throughout the three main components of the SES: the social system, the ecological system, and the interactions between them. In addition, the variables were prioritized according to relevance and consensus criteria identified in the survey responses. Variable relevance was positively correlated with consensus across respondents. This study brings new perspectives to address existing barriers in operationalizing lists of variables in the study of SESs, such as the applicability for place-based research, the capacity to deal with SES complexity, and the feasibility for long-term monitoring of social-ecological dynamics. This study may constitute a preliminary step to identifying essential variables for SESs. It will contribute toward promoting the systematic collection of data around most meaningful aspects of the SESs and to enhancing comparability across place-based research and long-term monitoring of complex SESs, and therefore, the production of generalizable knowledge.
Keywords: coupled human and natural systems; essential social-ecological variables; essential variables; long-term social-ecological research; LTSER; place-based social-ecological research; social-ecological dimensions; social-ecological interactions; social-ecological monitoring; social-ecological system framework; social-ecological system functioning