Challenges that humanity face in the Anthropocene require new conceptual frameworks to better understand the linkages and feedbacks between society and nature. The ecosystem services framework constitutes a powerful approach for understanding human dependence on both natural and societal capital. Currently, new operational frameworks are needed for integrating ecosystem service science into decision making processes oriented to sustainability and social-ecological resilience. Here we first propose a set of Essential Social-Ecological Variables to characterize key processes and functioning of social-ecological systems (SES) at multiple spatial scales. Second, we identify Socio-Ecosystem Functional Types (SEFTs) based on these variables. Third, we discuss the potential that SEFTs offer for mapping land patches with similar patterns of ecosystem services provision and demand, and discuss the variables used in their definition. We consider three key functional aspects for such characterization: 1) social and ecological processes that determine key functions in SES; 2) diversity and quantity of ecosystem services supply and demand; and 3) spatial connection between service providing units and beneficiary areas. We conducted a systematic literature review, workshops and an expert online survey for selecting Essential Social-Ecological Variables. As a result, a new conceptual SES framework that integrates interactions between biophysical and social processes is proposed. Then, to identify Socio-Ecosystem Functional Types, we applied on these variables a principal component analysis, unsupervised classifications and clustering. Each SEFT provides an integrative functional characterization of both the biophysical and human components of SES that can be applied for Earth system and ecosystem services modelling, and for monitoring sustainability in the Anthropocene.