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Dialogues in Human Geography

2017, Vol. 7(2) 166185
Response assemblages and The Author(s) 2017
Reprints and permission:

their socioecological fit: sagepub.co.uk/journalsPermissions.nav

DOI: 10.1177/2043820617720079
Conceptualizing human
responses to environmental

Helen Briassoulis
University of the Aegean, Greece

Safeguarding the integrity of critical ecological functions that secure the continuous provision of ecosystem
services requires the assessment of the effectiveness of human responses to environmental degradation.
Narrowly defined response options, for example, isolated actions targeting the resources impacted or the
drivers and proximate causes of environmental degradation, together with attention to best practices and
proper policies, may not align with empirical evidence and scientific developments, demonstrating that
human responses are contextual and contingent. Embracing a nonreductionist ontology, this article pro-
poses that the response assemblage is a suitable analytic to represent responses-in-context. It redefines
the effectiveness of human responses to environmental degradation as the socioecological fit of the
response assemblage. Response assemblages (RAs) are geographically and historically unique, provisional
wholes emerging from processes of assembling heterogeneous biophysical and human components of a
sociospatial hierarchy into purposeful, place- and time-specific associations that are shaped by and shape
human responses. Their socioecological fit (SEFRA) concerns the degree to which the match among all
components furthers the maintenance of socioecological resilience. After reviewing the pertinent litera-
ture, the RA and its SEFRA are detailed by synthesizing assemblage theory and the problem of fit literature
within a Complex Adaptive system and Resilience perspective. Their implications for theorizing human
responses and their effectiveness, developing integrated methodologies, guiding decision and policy making,
as well as for future research, are discussed in conclusion.

assemblage, environmental degradation, human responses, ontology, socioecological fit, socioecological
resilience, socioecological systems

Corresponding author:
Management and policy interest in the effectiveness Helen Briassoulis, Department of Geography, University of the
of human responses to environmental degradation Aegean, Mytilini, Lesvos, 81100, Greece.
has produced a voluminous scientific literature. Email: e.briassouli@aegean.gr
Briassoulis 167

Effective responses foster desirable and avert unde- (2014), and several initiatives of the UN, OECD,
sirable impacts, thus safeguarding the integrity of and other international bodies. The tacit assumption
critical ecological and human functions that secure is that if the right incentives are provided, people
the uninterrupted provision of ecosystem services will pursue best practices that will effectively
and, consequently, enhance the sustainability of combat environmental degradation.
development at all levels (MEA, 2005a). From an Ample empirical evidence has shown, however,
institutionalist perspective, human responses to that response options, including best practices, do
environmental degradation (human responses hen- not always work as expected. Their outcomes are
ceforth) depend on institutions, that is, clusters of difficult to categorize, and their successful transfer
rights, rules and decision making procedures that to different contexts is challenging because both
give rise to a social practice, assign roles to partici- environmental degradation and human responses
pants in practice and guide interactions among occu- are contextual and contingent (Berkes and Folke,
pants of these roles (Young, 2008a: xxii) and 2000; Blaikie and Brookfield, 1987; Lejano and
include formal constraints (rules, laws, constitu- Shankar, 2013; Ostrom, 2007; Prince, 2010).
tions), informal constraints (norms of behavior, con- Depending on prevailing conditions, people may
ventions, and self-imposed codes of conduct) and choose to continue business as usual (no action),
their enforcement characteristics (Folke et al., to engage in more resource-intensive activities
1998: np). In this vein, the issue of the effectiveness (negative responses), or to undertake formal and/
of human responses aligns with the problem of fit, or informal actions to combat environmental
a term encompassing a wide-ranging theoretical and degradation (positive responses). Positive
empirical exploration of how the match between responses, those that succeed to produce desirable
institutions and their biophysical and social settings and forestall undesirable impacts, preserve the
determines their effectiveness (Folke et al., 1998; integrity of critical ecological functions, which is
Ostrom, 2007; Young, 2008a). The question that essential for the continuous provision of ecosystem
arises is thus the following: how to assess the fit services and, thus, contribute to sustainable devel-
of human responses to their socioecological setting opment (MEA, 2005b).
in order to support management, planning, and pol- The empirical evidence resonates with policy
icy decisions? This article posits that the answer and scientific developments pronouncing the end
critically hinges on the conceptualization, and more of One-Size-Fits-All (OSFA) solutions, recom-
specifically on the underlying ontology, of the mending instead participatory management and
object of analysis: human responses. governance modes, such as adaptive (co)manage-
Human responses are usually conceived nar- ment, and suggesting novel approaches to concep-
rowly as distinct, isolated response options (actions, tualize, theorize, and analyze environmental
practices, instruments) targeting directly the problems that abandon linear and espouse non-
resources impacted and/or the drivers and proximate linear thinking. The latter are exemplified by the
causes of environmental degradation, and involve ecosystem approach, the Complex Adaptive Sys-
five types of action: development, prevention, adap- tems (CAS) paradigm, Resilience Thinking, the
tation, mitigation, and restoration/rehabilitation Socio-Ecological Systems (SES) framework, as
(MEA, 2005b). Response options include tools of well as by the contextualist turn in the social
sustainable land management (SLM), environmen- sciences and multidisciplinary studies (Berkes
tal legislation, fiscal/economic instruments, and so et al., 2003; Folke et al., 2010; Gunderson and
on and are usually assumed to be homogeneously Holling, 2002; Lejano and Shankar, 2013; Ostrom,
distributed and uniformly implemented. The policy 2007; Walker et al., 2004; Young, 2008b).
and academic discourse predominantly focuses on These changes in scientific and policy outlook
best practices and proper policies; see, for exam- call for a broader conceptualization of human
ple, UNESCO (19942003), World Overview of responses. This is reflected in the Millennium Eco-
Conservation Approaches and Technologies system Assessments all-encompassing definition:
168 Dialogues in Human Geography 7(2)

. . . responses are defined as the whole range of human components from one or more levels (DeLanda,
actions, including policies, strategies, and interven- 2006b; Galaz et al., 2008; Janssen et al., 2006;
tions, to address specific issues, needs, opportunities, Walker and Cooper, 2011; Welsh, 2014). This arti-
or problems. A response typically involves a reaction cle argues that whole/panarchy and network ontol-
to a perceived problem. It can be individual or col- ogies are incompatible with the responses-in-
lective; it may be designed to answer one or many context concept and inadequate for the integrated,
needs; or it could be focused at different temporal, context-specific analysis of human responses.
spatial, or organizational scales. (MEA, 2005b: xv) Embracing a nonreductionist ontology, its modest
aim is, first, to propose and detail the response
The emphasis added underlines the recognition of assemblage as a suitable analytic to represent
the multifaceted, multilevel, contextual, and responses-in-context, and, second, to redefine the
dynamic nature of human responses, suggesting that fit of human responses to their socioecological set-
they might be better approached as responses-in- ting as the socioecological fit of the response
context, that is, place- and time-specific, planned/ assemblage, which will support an assessment of
formal, and/or unplanned/informal actions emer- response effectiveness. Toward this purpose, it
ging from multilevel human decisions to utilize synthesizes assemblage theory and the problem of
environmental and other resources to directly and fit literature (Folke et al., 2007; Young et al., 2008)
explicitly tackle environmental degradation and/or within a CAS/resilience perspective.
address other individual and collective socioeco- Assemblage, a concept and term long used in
nomic goals in affected areas. ecology, geology, archaeology, and the arts, has
This approach attends to the coevolutionary been employed, since the mid-1960s, in several
dynamics of SESs and dispenses with the need for other fields, such as geography, sociology, anthro-
fixed response typologies and the assumption that pology, political science, and urban and regional
affected populations are primarily interested in studies. Describing diverse, dissimilar phenomena,
environmental protection. Moreover, it accounts for all uses of the term share a common concern with
the vagaries of policy implementation that differ- the process of coming together of heterogeneous
entiate the instantiation of a particular response elements into dynamic, provisional, revisable wholes
option in the same place under changing circum- in a given context (Anderson and McFarlane, 2011;
stances or in different places under different condi- Anderson et al., 2012). Allen and Cochrane (2007)
tions. Thus, it encompasses the possibility of human discuss regional assemblages of power, Head
actions serving other purposes to alleviate environ- (2010) mentions adaptation assemblages, Dovey
mental degradation and of dedicated response (2012) analyzes complex adaptive assemblages in
options failing to produce desired outcomes. Also, urban Third World places, Sheppard (2011) refers
it necessitates rethinking best practices and their to livelihood assemblages, while Robbins and Marks
effectiveness as a question of fit, that is, how well- (2010) call assemblage geographies those forms of
adapted response options are to different socioeco- analysis and explanatory strategies developed around
logical settings. the notion of assemblage that are employed in
What then is the nature of the reconceptualized sociomaterial geography.
object of analysis, responses-in-context? This ques- DeLanda (2002, 2006a, 2006b, 2011), adopting
tion necessitates a discussion of suitable ontologies the epistemology of critical realism and building on
to support meaningful analysis and sensible policy the work of the French philosopher Deleuze, has
guidance. The rich past and current environmental concisely formulated the contemporary account of
literature treats the issue either implicitly or mini- assemblage theory to offer a nonreductionist
mally. Reductionist epistemologies conceive of ontology for the analysis of sociospatial phenom-
SESs as wholes (totalities) and panarchies, while ena. Assemblage theory, or, more broadly, assem-
nonreductionist epistemologies conceive of SESs as blage thinking, is a particular stream of relational
networks of interacting biophysical and human thinking that opposes taxonomic essentialism,
Briassoulis 169

rejects binaries, stresses the material aspects of phe- the assemblage, as the following discussion further
nomena, and supports a conception of a mind- details.
independent reality. It attempts to overcome the tra- Assemblages are compositions of diverse, onto-
ditional reductionist approaches to systems analysis logically heterogeneous, cofunctioning compo-
and to link the microlevel with the macro level nents, or actors, into some form of provisional,
through a nonhierarchical, flat ontology that stresses irreducible, decomposable whole that serves an
the emergent nature of fluid, multifunctional socio- overt or covert purpose. The form of this unity
spatial formations where each level of scale retains across differences, its durability, the human/nonhu-
a relative autonomy and can therefore be a legiti- man and material/immaterial elements involved,
mate unit of analysis (DeLanda, 2006b: 118). The and the types of relations among them are not a
next two sections briefly review the literature on priori fixed but remain deliberately open (Anderson
assemblages and the problem of fit. The fourth and and McFarlane, 2011; Bennett, 2005; DeLanda,
fifth sections detail the response assemblage (RA) 2006a, 2011). Assemblages are characterized by
and its socioecological fit (SEFRA), respectively. their style of structuration (Bennett, 2005), that
Implications for future research on theorizing is, their composition and processes of assembly.
human responses and their effectiveness, develop- Their components, such as persons, animals, plants,
ing integrated methodologies, and guiding decision- minerals, organizations, culture, and technology,
and policy making are discussed in the conclusion. have variable spatial and temporal extent and reach
and play material and expressive roles (Anderson
et al., 2012; Bennett, 2005; DeLanda, 2006a).
On assemblages Relationships of exteriority link the components
The constitution of complex SESs, comprising mul- of an assemblage because they are relatively auton-
tifarious biophysical and human components, is var- omous; a component may be detached from one
iously conceived, and depends upon, the assemblage and inserted into another (Anderson
epistemology and the associated view of space et al., 2012; DeLanda, 2006a). This contrasts to
adopted. Positivist, essentialist accounts conceive relationships of interiority characterizing positivism
of SESs as totalities (seamless wholes) possessing that views entities as organismic wholes, where the
a clear and distinct nature in absolute (geometric) or linkages between components form logically neces-
relative space. Nonpositivist, relational accounts sary relations which make the whole what it is
conceive of them as multiplicities defined by sets (DeLanda, 2006a: 11), as well as to social construc-
of entities that are not pregiven but continuously tivism, where components are determined by their
becoming from processes that mesh SES compo- position within a network (Anderson and McFar-
nents in a multidimensional, relational space that lane, 2011; Anderson et al., 2012). Assemblage
lacks a supplementary (higher) dimension impos- theory views the temporary, provisional, and fra-
ing an extrinsic coordinatization, and hence, an gile relationships among the heterogeneous com-
extrinsically defined unity; these entities are, thus, ponents as contingently obligatory (DeLanda,
natural and immanent (DeLanda, 2002: 12). 2006a), rendering an assemblage . . . a continuous
Drawing on social constructivism, actor network process of movement and transformation as rela-
theory conceives of them as networks, while assem- tions and terms change (Anderson et al., 2012:
blage theory, being akin to critical realism, con- 177). The likelihood and strength of the relation-
ceives them as assemblages (DeLanda, 2002, ships depend on the combining power (valency) of
2006a; Faras, 2011; Gale and Boterill, 2005). A the components (Dewsbury, 2011).
fundamental ontological difference between net- The processes of assembly of biophysical and
works and assemblages is that the former prioritize human (economic, social, cultural, institutional)
the network (its components/nodes obtain status components that bring assemblages into being or
only within the network), while assemblages assign pull them apart comprise (a) processes of (re)terri-
ontological autonomy to both the components and torialization and of coding that increase the degree
170 Dialogues in Human Geography 7(2)

of internal homogeneity (coherence) and/or the is not constrained by other forces (DeLanda, 2002:
sharpness of the boundaries of an assemblage and 15). DeLanda (2006a: 29) calls attractors universal
(b) processes of deterritorialization and of decoding singularities because they are singular or special
that disrupt its coherence and blur its boundaries. topological features that are shared by many differ-
The repeated occurrence of these processes ent systems. The set of all universal singularities
generates populations of assemblages, of unique, (attractors), called a diagram (Deleuze, 1988, cited
singular, historically contingent individuals. Onto- in DeLanda (2006a: 30), structures the possibility
logically, any assemblage is an individual singular- space of an assemblage and governs the recurrent
ity (DeLanda, 2006a, 2011) that possesses a assembly processes. Identifying the possibility
characteristic identity. space of assemblages, and thus, exploring their ten-
Assemblages and their components possess dencies, is purely an empirical matter (DeLanda,
properties, capacities, and tendencies. Properties are 2011).
local results of interactions between entities. They Real-world complex SESs have multidimen-
refer to actual states of affairs and they are given and sional possibility spaces, complex distributions
known (or knowable) (Anderson et al., 2012). The of attractors, and multidimensional basins of
properties of assemblages are not aggregations of attraction that can be considered as the locus of
the properties of their components but the result populations of RAs (individual singularities)
. . . of the actual exercise of their capacities. These emerging from processes of fitting together hetero-
capacities do depend on a components properties geneous components, copresent and cofunctioning
but cannot be reduced to them since they involve in particular historical contexts. SESs can be con-
references to the properties of other interacting enti- ceived as changing positions within a basin. Each
ties (DeLanda, 2006a: 10). position, that is, point (state) of the basin, is an
Capacities are powers an entity possesses, actual assemblage shaped at a particular conjunc-
regardless of whether these are exercised or not. ture in space and time by contingencies that influ-
They are open and unpredictable since there is no ence its style of structuration. Thresholds of
way to foretell how an entity may affect or be critical components, that is, tipping points between
affected by innumerable other entities with which basins of attraction, may force an SES into another
they associate (Anderson et al., 2012). The set of basin, characterized by assemblages with a differ-
possible capacities of the components, especially ent identity.
of critical/limiting components, constitutes the pos- Causality in assemblages is emergent and non-
sibility space of an assemblage which is paralleled linear, located not in a pre-given sovereign agent,
to the phase (or, state) space of dynamic systems but in interactive processes of assembly (Anderson
(DeLanda, 2002, 2006a). Critical components usu- et al., 2012: 180), and immanent, resting with the
ally change more slowly than other components; inherent capacities of critical components to be cau-
hence, the term slow variables is used in contrast sally affected and their thresholds (DeLanda, 2002,
to fast variables. Their number determines the 2006a). The emphasis of the analysis is on the actual
dimensions of the possibility space, that is, its mechanisms operating at a given spatial scale and
degrees of freedom. A basin of attraction, a region on explaining how the provisional formations
in the possibility (state) space in which an SES stays emerge through the non-deterministic enactment
for some time, constitutes all initial conditions that of practices of world-making (Anderson et al.,
will tend toward an attractor; that is, a final (mini- 2012: 181) that crucially link the microlevel with
mum) state to which different trajectories of the the macro level (Anderson and McFarlane, 2011;
SES, starting from some point in the basin, end up DeLanda, 2006a). A range of causal factors may
(DeLanda, 2002). Attractors represent patterns of produce different assemblages under different con-
behavior and reveal the long-term tendencies of an ditions (Anderson et al., 2012). DeLanda (2006a)
SES, the states which the system will sponta- calls redundant causality the existence of many
neously tend to adopt in the long run as long as it equivalent explanations.
Briassoulis 171

Once assemblages emerge they are real because attention to the dynamic, multilevel and emergent
they are causal agents capable of acting back on the constitution and evolution of open, self-organizing
materials out of which they are formed (DeLanda, SESs and phenomena, emphasizing their nonlinear
2006a: 35), enabling or constraining the relation- behavior, positive and negative feedbacks, coevolu-
ships among their components, affording them tion, agencystructure interactions, multiple equili-
opportunities and risks. The identity and agency of bria and thresholds. Assemblage theory elucidates
assemblages is distributive and composite due to the ontology of real-world complex SES as multi-
their style of structuration. The routinization and plicities defined by assemblages (individual singu-
habitual repetition of territorialization/coding pro- larities); they are thus the indispensable ontological
cesses stabilizes the identity of assemblages and foundation for their analysis and governance (Bonta
maintains it in the presence of destabilizing deterri- and Protevi, 2004; DeLanda, 2002, 2006a). Mean-
torialization/decoding processes. Conflict sharpens while, complexity theory provides a conceptual
their boundaries and identity (DeLanda, 2006a). language for understanding how assemblages work
Power distribution is decentralized because assem- over time (Dittmer, 2014: 391).
blage connotes not a central governing power, nor a The brief presentation of the main features of
power distributed equally, but power as plurality in assemblages shows that they differ from the other
transformation (Anderson and McFarlane, 2011: two SES ontologieswholes and networksin
125; Bennett, 2005). This . . . rethinking of agency several respects. Lacking a dedicated study, Table 1
provides a way of describing how different agents tentatively compares the three ontologies along
within the assemblage may possess different criteria reflecting their propensity to offer valid
resources and capacities to act . . . (Anderson representations of real-world SESs. On this basis,
et al., 2012: 180). it is argued that assemblages offer a suitable ontol-
The emergent, geographically and historically ogy to represent responses-in-context and guide
contingent socialspatial entities sustain over a cer- their analysis.
tain period before they change when their compo-
nents and/or their relationships change, suddenly or
gradually, under the influence of single or multiple, On the problem of fit
large or small, external or internal forces (Anderson Fit, an age-old concept, is used in two principal and
and McFarlane, 2011; Anderson et al., 2012; interrelated senses. The first refers to suitability for
DeLanda, 2006a). Some assemblages, at various a purpose, while the second refers to matching
spatial scales, may maintain a fairly stable socio- between two or more objects in terms of size and
spatial identity for long periods (DeLanda, 2006a). other characteristics (the hand-glove analogy); the
But durability in form does not imply fixity (Ander- purpose of fit is implicit in the latter (Folke et al.,
son et al., 2012). As Legg (2011: 129) notes, 1998, 2007; Hukkinen, 2012).
Deleuze also portrayed assemblages as leading to Although the notion of fit has long been implicit
order, striation, re-territorialisation, long-term in studies of humanenvironment interactions (e.g.
effects and scaling as much as to dis-order, smooth- Marsh, 1965), the seminal paper of Folke et al.
ing, de-territorialisation, short-term effects and (1998) on the problem of fit between ecosystems
de-scaling. and institutions marks the beginning of the contem-
The preceding presentation reveals the similari- porary discussion. They start from Young and
ties of assemblage theory with various articulations Underdals (1997) definition that the problem of fit
of complexity theory, such as the CAS paradigm, asserts that the effectiveness and the robustness of
resilience thinking, and the SES framework (Gun- social institutions are functions of the fit between
derson and Holling, 2002; Ostrom, 2007; Walker the institutions themselves and the biophysical and
and Salt, 2006), as each draw on the mathematics social domains in which they operate (quoted in
of nonlinear systems. The nonreductionist assem- Folke et al., 2007: np). They further explain that fit
blage, rooted in Deleuzean philosophy, draws concerns the linkages of institutions to functional
172 Dialogues in Human Geography 7(2)

Table 1. Comparison of the three ontologieswhole/panarchy, network, and assemblage.

dimension Whole/panarchy Network Assemblage

Epistemology Positivism, post-positivism Social constructivism Critical realism

View of reality Observable, measurable No real, mind-independent Mind-independent reality
Taxonomies Preexisting classes and scales General symmetry assumption: No symmetry assumptions,
No preexisting classes (e.g. classes given and emergent
nature, society, gender, and so
Conception of Absolute, geometric, relative Relational, multiplicity Relational, multiplicity
Scale Predefined, pregiven hierarchies Flat ontology, relationally Flat ontology, individual
constructed singularities, Scales assembled
relationally by particular
interested actors, but
unbounded and
dynamic . . . some
configurations crystallize
The nature of Reductionism, abstract Nonreductionism, human and Nonreductionism, relatively
actors and categories (essences), nonhuman actors have the autonomous actors,
their relationships of interiority, same ontological status and asymmetries between human
relationships logically necessary they are network effects; and nonhuman; human
relationships (systemic) acquire their form and reflexivity; humans reason,
attributes as a result of their have intentions, motives, and
relations with other actors in pursue interests, relationships
the network, relationships of of exteriority, contingently
interiority, network obligatory relationships
Agency Agency of the whole Agency of the network: Agency of wholes and parts,
Mediated achievement autonomy of the assemblage
relative to its components
History/ Externally given, exogenous Selectively considered in the Fully considered in the analysis of
context variables analysis of networks assemblages
Power No consideration Relational, practical, contingent Existing and emergent power
network; an achievement asymmetries
Methods of Quantitative Qualitative (ethnographic) Mixedquantitative and
analysis qualitative
Sources: Gale and Botterill (2005), Duim van der et al. (2013), DeLanda (2002, 2006a), Muller (2015), Bear (2012), Collinge (2006), Legg

diversity, key structuring processes, and ecosystem interpretations and operationalizations of human
resilience. The Institutional Dimensions of Global environment relationships. Most studies adopt the
Environmental Change program similarly defined match of characteristics sense and treat fit as a
fit as a matter of match or congruence between the more or less binary/dichotomous (fitmisfit), nor-
attributes of institutions and wider governance sys- mative notion with positive connotation (fit is
tems and the dynamics of biophysical systems good). Thus, an environmental governance system
(Galaz et al., 2008, Young, 2008a). is fit when there is compatible matching between
The literature on the problem of fit has exam- an institutional setting, associated ecosystem prop-
ined various types of institutions and several erties and properties of social-ecological relations,
Briassoulis 173

and when it performs well over the long run and relate in such a manner so as to produce a desirable
proves to be more resilient to shocks than a less outcome and that there really is no such thing as an
structured system (Hukkinen, 2012: np). overall fit of a system . . . . A system could be fit
Most empirical studies within this tradition focus with respect to one outcome and not to another. The
primarily on the impacts of environmental and commonly accepted criterion of fit is the preservation
resource institutions on ecosystems, with strong of socioecological resilience (SER) as reflected
emphasis on environmental management and insti- in proposed measures (Folke et al., 2007;
tutional design as well as with mechanisms and stra- Galaz et al., 2008).
tegies to cope with mismatches and achieve an The literature on fit, however, makes little or
optimal fit. The important role of social, economic, no reference to the ontology of the systems
cultural, and political institutions and factors, espe- studied, although its definition and operationali-
cially social learning and property rights, is duly zation inescapably reflects the pertinent under-
acknowledged. Both formal and informal institu- lying assumptions. A common tacit assumption
tions are examined, although the distinction is that the biophysical and the human systems
between the two is often blurred. A typology of fit are either interlinked or interconnected, that is,
has been developed, and the interrelated issues of they constitute either a network or a systemic
fit, interplay, and scale have been explored (Folke whole, respectively, with relationships of inter-
et al., 2007; Galaz et al., 2008; Young et al., 2008). iority linking their components (Holling et al.,
The gradual development and adoption of the 1998 cited in Ostrom, 2007; Folke et al., 2007;
CAS paradigm and resilience thinking, as well as Galaz et al., 2008).
the contextualist turn in humanenvironment Overall, a broader conception and a comprehen-
studies, have contributed fruitful analyses of less sive approach to the problem of fit and to socioeco-
studied, implicit, or neglected problems. The mul- logical management is called for to encompass the
tifaceted real-world context of humanenviron- material, physical, and spatial, together with the
ment interactions is better represented given that, socioeconomic aspects and dynamics of SESs, per-
by definition, the notion of fit is contextual (Folke ception of environmental problems, different actor
et al., 1998; Galaz et al., 2008; Haller et al., 2013; perspectives, power relationships and implementa-
Vatn and Vedeld, 2012). As Lejano and Shankar tion, that importantly judge the outcome of institu-
(2013: 89) note, Fit is an outcome of multiple tional interventions, among many others (DeCaro
processes: material exchange, political action, and and Stokes, 2013; Haller et al., 2013; Lebel et al.,
influences by the local culture; they offer a con- 2013; Lejano and Shankar, 2013; Vatn and Vedeld,
textualist definition of fit that accounts for program 2012). Interestingly, the contextualist analysis of fit
implementation: Institutional fit . . . is . . . emer- alludes to assemblages, using the term bricolage to
ging from an interplay between text (the constitu- describe the landscape of institutions (Vatn and
tive blueprint) and context (the specific setting). Vedeld, 2012). Lejano and Shankar (2013: 89) put
Similarly, Haller et al. (2013: np) observe, a pos- it succinctly:
itive fit to social-environmental systems has to be
adapted to key elements of the cultural landscape
Program proponents may combine elements of the
and ecosystem in place . . . and also to the political institutional design with other various elements and
landscape. The variability of fit, owing to stake- institutional models found in place (e.g., local prac-
holders framing of problems and solutions and to tices and institutions) . . . hybrid program designs and
contextual factors, is acknowledged (Lebel et al., institutional diversity result from the different ways
2013). Echoing the interpretation of fit as adaptation that program actors improvise their institutions. This
of an entity (or, act, etc.) to the environment as to be process of mixing and matching of elements will be
capable of surviving (Merriam-Webster), Cox referred to as bricolage. Here, parts of different insti-
(2012: np) notes that the existence of a fit between tutional blueprints may be mixed and matched into
two objects can be usefully thought to mean that they something altogether unique.
174 Dialogues in Human Geography 7(2)

Deleuze had also mused: The question [ . . . ] is administrators, formal and informal institutions, and
whether the pieces can fit together and at what response options. The latter are usually classified
price. Inevitably, there will be monstrous cross- according to spatial/organizational level (local, regional,
breeds (Deleuze and Guattari, 2003: 157, cited national, supranational, international), time frame
in Greenhough, 2011: 135). The following discus- (short-, medium-, long-term), institutional origin
sion aspires to demonstrate that reconceptualizing (planned/formal, unplanned/informal), and nature of
responses to environmental degradation as RAs intervention (type of instrument used) (MEA, 2005b).
support a more meaningful and comprehensive Table 2 presents selected response options classified
conception and analysis of fit that addresses sev- according to the latter two, most important, criteria.
eral open issues. The RA components have variable spatiotemporal
reach and membership. Some components may
extend beyond the focal (regional) level and last for
The Response Assemblage long either naturally or by design, such as climate and
An response assemblage (RA) is a geographically multilevel administrative structures; others, such as
and historically unique, provisional, open whole individuals, public officials, and business interests,
emerging from processes of assembling heteroge- originate in the local level but act at and represent,
neous, biophysical and human, material and imma- ephemerally or lastingly, the regional or higher lev-
terial, mobile and immobile components of a els, depending on their mandate.
sociospatial hierarchy into purposeful, place- and The RA components play both material and
time-specific associations that are shaped by and expressive roles. The biophysical components engage
shape particular human responses to environmental in biotic and abiotic processes (soil formation, water
degradation. It is a territorial assemblage defined at circulation, primary production, etc.) and, together
a focal level of interest and tied to a mother SES. with socioeconomic components, in economic pro-
The present discussion concerns the regional level, duction, distribution and consumption processes;
which has long been considered as the most relevant administrators, political parties, social groups, and
for humanenvironment studies and sustainable individuals engage in governance processes, and so
development decision-making (Folke et al., 2007; on. The landscape expresses the state of resources
Hardy and Lloyd, 1994; Lebel et al., 2013; Ostrom, (e.g. degraded), the level of development (e.g. poor),
2007). Regional RAs develop relationships among the effects of responses (e.g. mechanized agriculture
them on the same and across levels, both as distinct homogenizes landscapes), community values (e.g.
entities and through the cross-level relationships of traditional, modernizing, caring), and so on.
their components. The importance of the RA components is uneven
An RA possesses a distinctive style of structura- and varies over time. Certain critical components
tion, echoing the responses-in-context conception, (e.g. relief, culture, governance, political regime),
which is reflected in its land use/cover profile and the slow variables of an SES, play key, regulating
associated human responses and marks its identity roles, shaping the identity, conditioning the opera-
within a period. Selected biophysical and human tion, and steering the evolution of the RA while
(economic, sociocultural, institutional, political) faster changing variables (e.g. temperature, product
components include climate, geology, landforms, prices, leaders) may be influential in a period. Once
soil, water resources, biota, land cover, landscape; empirically identified, the number and capacities of
firms, economic sectors, financial resources, gen- critical components define the dimensions (degrees
eral and resource-specific technology; landesque of freedom) of the possibility space of an RA and the
capital, physical and social infrastructure, settle- distribution of attractors and the associated multi-
ments, monuments, land uses; individuals, social dimensional basins of attraction within it, thereby
and professional groups, organizations, human cap- revealing the tendencies of the RA, that is, the
ital, social capital, culture, political parties, politi- long-run, spontaneous repertoire of potential/feasi-
cal, business and civic leaders, administrative units, ble RAs (land use patterns and human responses)
Briassoulis 175

Table 2. Response options, an indicative list.

Nature of inter- Institutional origin of the response option

vention (type of
instrument) Plannedformal Unplannedinformal

Physical/ Land management practices, including SLM, Informal land management practices,
technological general works, environmental protection landesque capital improvements (e.g.
works, reforestation/afforestation terraces)
Financial/ Subsidies, loans, grants Customary, informal economic sanctions, land
economic PESs, charges, penalties; resource pricing transactions
(water, etc.); general and resource-specific
taxation; research funding
Social Social policy measures (employment, social Informal support groups and so on, informal
services, vocational training, etc.) social measures
Institutional/legal/ International level; international treaties,
administrative conventions, strategies; international bodies
(UN and other); international NGOs
Supranational level, EU legislation, strategies
Natura 2000 network, European NGOs,
multilevel governance networks
National-regional-local level, transcribed Informal institutions, customary land rights,
international and EU legislation, national action customary general and resource use rules,
plans for desertification, biodiversity, and so on; unplanned development (e.g. tourism,
nationalhorizontal and sectoralpolicies, urban), informal land care programs,
legislation, strategies, and so on informal social and environmental groups,
Spatial/land use, rural development, tourism, networks
and other plans; forest and protected areas
management plans; formal land and water
rights; administrativegeneral and sectoral
bodies and networks; national, regional, local
Research General, resource-related and environmental LEK
protection funded research
Education/ Voluntary measures (ecolabeling, environmental Informal awareness raising, informal education,
communication auditing, etc.), environmental awareness communication
raising, environmental education,
SLM: sustainable land management; PES: payments for ecosystem services; LEK: local environmental knowledge; UN: United Nations;
NGO: Non-Governmental Organization.

that may emerge as long as external forces do not Components are continuously added to or removed
constrain the SES. from an RA without necessarily being related to one
Relationships of exteriority link the components another, as when modern cultivation techniques are
of a regional RA generally. Components may exist utilized under the same administrative structure.
and function independently of one another (e.g. soil Certain relationships among components may be
and governance) and may have overlapping and logically necessary (e.g. in pristine areas, soil loss
crosscutting memberships; that is, they may belong is determined by rainfall, slope), but generally, rela-
to more than one assemblages defined for different tionships are contingently obligatory in a period
purposes. Farmers may belong to an agricultural RA (e.g. in cultivated areas, soil loss varies with land
and to a farmers union, another assemblage. management practices).
176 Dialogues in Human Geography 7(2)

Recurrent processes of territorialization and socioeconomic crises, tourism development) that

coding bring and hold the components of an RA further modify the RA.
together in a period. These include diverse, constant General and resource-related technology
biophysical processes and habitual human practices changenew cultivars, land and water management
that support ecological and socioeconomic func- techniques, agrochemicals, machinery, manufactur-
tions that secure the generation of ecosystem ser- ing technology, transport and communication infra-
vices and the satisfaction of human needs (food, structure, and so oninduces changes in several RA
energy, housing, education, recreation, etc.), goals, components and modifies economic, social, and cul-
and aspirations. Photosynthesis and water circula- tural relations; the boundaries of the RA; its rela-
tion are constant processes supporting primary pro- tionships with other RAs; and so on. Administrative
duction and regional water balance, respectively. changes (in jurisdictions and competences) often
Formal and informal routine practices and codes have deterritorializing/decoding effects as well.
of conduct maintain economic and sociocultural Response options, such as land and water man-
production, reproduction, consumption and agement practices, or policy formulation and imple-
exchange (i.e. the mode of production) as well as mentation, act both as territorialization/coding and
the use of natural and other resources, intersectoral as deterritorialization/decoding processes. Routine,
linkages, sociocultural and institutional relations, widespread, and commonly followed response
horizontal and cross-level linkages with other SESs options variously and idiosyncratically interweave
(e.g. workforce and product flows), and so on. The among them and with concurrent customary socio-
routine and habitual repetition of widely adopted economic and cultural practices, producing cohe-
land management, response options, production, sive RAs with a strong, characteristic identity and
consumption, and other processes stabilize and sharp boundaries (as evinced in closed, remote rural
maintain the identity of the RA within limits set SESs). Implementation of new economic, spatial,
by the capacities of critical components. social, and environmental policy measures, includ-
Meanwhile, deterritorialization and decoding ing best practices, may have deterritorializing
processes constantly and concurrently operate to, effects if they interfere with customary practices and
intentionally or unintentionally, disassemble the sociocultural norms or if the necessary implementa-
components, potentially destabilizing and/or trans- tion apparatus is missing. In this case, they may be
forming the RA. These may be endogenous and/or either rejected outright or they may modify the RA
exogenous, originating in changes (modification, components and their relationships, giving rise to
addition, removal) in the RA components and the new RAs, as when traditional agriculture becomes
relationships among them. Linkages to other RAs mechanized or when agricultural SESs turn into
(that also undergo transformations) can also be tourist areas.
altered, along with forces from other spatial levels, The recurrent processes of assembly generate
such as changes in climate, the economy, technol- populations of RAs (response multiplicities) that
ogy, society, culture, institutions (policies, in partic- represent alternative states of the SES as it moves
ular), and political regimes. Environmental within the multidimensional basin of attraction
degradation, once initiated, can be considered a bio- defined by the critical components in a period. The
physically and socioeconomically endogenous de- RAs that materialize, and the individual singulari-
territorializing/decoding process. Positive feedback ties that emerge, represent adaptations of the focal
mechanisms operate to intensify it if it is poorly (or SES, through place- and time-specific mechanisms,
un-) controlled. Beyond certain biophysical (e.g. to changes in the magnitude, influence and impor-
soil, water table) and/or socioeconomic (e.g. tance of fast variables in the period (e.g. crop prices,
population size, dependency ratio, crop prices, weather) and to historic contingencies (e.g. new
disposable income) thresholds, land abandonment funding, massive outmigration). The latter may also
and land use change processes set in, especially modify the critical components and the geometry of
under external conditions (e.g. urbanization, the basin. If thresholds associated with critical
Briassoulis 177

components (e.g. soil depth, population size, socio- Table 3. Definitions of properties.
cultural acceptance) are reached and crossed, the
Property Definition
SES undergoes transformation, moving to a differ-
ent basin with different characteristic RAs (different Potential available for Amounts of natural and human
land use/human responses patterns) (Bonta and Pro- change (potential) resources available in an SES
tevi, 2004; DeLanda, 2006a). A territory may host Robustness Strength of a system and its
many RAs contemporaneously and over time, elements to endure disruption
without suffering degradation
belonging to the same or to different basins of
or losing function
attraction within the same possibility space. For Diversity Variety, disparity of
example, an agricultural region may persist for cen- components, response
turies as such; it may have traditionally been culti- options
vated with cereals (attractor 1), mechanized Redundancy Existence of substitutes for RA
cultivation may have followed (attractor 2), trees components that support
may have partly or totally replaced cereals (attractor functioning in case of
3), while tourism pressures may be gradually driv-
Connectedness Linkages among RA components
ing agriculture out, converting the agricultural into a (positive/negative feedbacks)
tourist RA (new basin of attraction). on the same and across spatial
The immanent, nonlinear, and emergent causal- levels
ity of environmental degradation and of human Modularity Organization of components
responses analyzed in the environmental literature into groups. Within-groups
(e.g. Berkes and Folke, 2000; Berkes et al., 2003; are stronger than between-
group linkages
Blaikie and Brookfield, 1987), thus, owe to the style
Openness Degree to which an SES interacts
of structuration of RAs. The emergent RAs signal with higher and lower levels
how people have chosen to respond to environmen-
tal degradation over time within the constraints and SES: socioecological system; RA: response assemblage.
Sources: Berkes et al. (2003), Cabell and Oelofse (2012), Cum-
thresholds of critical RA components. Limited
ming et al. (2005), Anderies and Janssen (2013), Ostrom (2005),
knowledge of the complex mechanisms producing Alliance R (2007), Rosenfeld (2002), Stirling (2007), Walker et al.
RAs and of pertinent thresholds render their descrip- (2004).
tion and understanding knotty, favoring several
equivalent explanations of environmental degrada- specialized agriculture, milk processing and tourism
tion and of human responses; that is, redundant in its territory that effect internal differentiations
causality is possible or even inevitable. over time but do not disrupt its coherence and
RAs have fuzzy and variable spatial and tem- identity.
poral boundaries that expand, shrink, and change The components of RAs possess properties
shape, following changes in their multilevel compo- resulting from complex interactions among their
nents and processes of assembly (Allen and constituent elements as well as from interactions
Cochrane, 2007). Conflict may sharpen the bound- among them. The SES framework and the resilience
aries and identity of an RA, as in the case of neigh- literature give properties such as potential available
boring cultivated and grazing areas or of the urban for change, robustness, diversity, redundancy, con-
fringe. The RA life span may be short, as when a nectedness, modularity, and openness important
territory is temporarily under a short-lived produc- roles in environmental change processes (Table 3).
tion regime or protection status, or long, lasting for Response options often aim to affect certain RA
decades, as in the case of established agricultural, components and improve their properties (e.g. SLM
mining, or manufacturing regions. The durability of augments water and soil potential and redundancy)
an RA does not imply fixity because RA compo- or they may unknowingly worsen them (e.g.
nents are relatively autonomous. A pastoral RA mechanization reduces biological and socioeco-
(cattle raising) may gradually host small-scale, nomic diversity and redundancy).
178 Dialogues in Human Geography 7(2)

The properties of the RA as a whole are not tan- powerful leaders, extreme environmental and/or
tamount to an aggregation of the properties of its socioeconomic events) and strong agents of change
heterogeneous and unequally important compo- to effect sometimes desperately needed modifica-
nents. Instead, they emerge from contextual and tions of the effective composition and/or processes
contingent interactions among components, espe- of assembly that modify or transform RAs.
cially the critical ones, which exercise their capaci- Agency, identity, and power distribution in RAs
ties. Resilience thinking axiomatically proposes that are distributive and composite. Their manifestation
three principal system-level properties determine and effects depend on the relative importance, capa-
the ability of an SES to cope with various endogen- cities, and contingent combinations of biophysical
ous and/or exogenous disturbances and undergo and human RA components. Traditional grazing and
transitions from one state to another: resilience, associated ways of life in remote, mountainous, pas-
adaptability, and transformability (RAT for short). toral RAs endure as long as poor connections with
All three are expressed as capacities and they are surrounding and more distant areas persist. Once
place- and time-specific functions of the component connections start strengthening, the original agency
properties. Resilience is the capacity of the SES to and identity are variously challenged and modified.
absorb disturbance and reorganize while under- National and supranational administrative, policy
going change so as to retain essentially the same and political components, and processes of assem-
functions, structure, identity, and feedbacks. Poten- bly are often instrumental in maintaining or chang-
tial, robustness, redundancy, connectedness, and ing effective patterns of power distribution evinced
openness are component properties that importantly by persistent or altered land use patterns and human
shape resilience. Adaptability is the capacity of responses in RAs. Systematic or accidental strong
human actors in an SES to manage, intentionally links between national and local/regional leaders
or unintentionally, resilience. Diversity, modularity, favor the flow of financial resources to, sometimes
connectedness, and openness are important determi- chronically and persistently, disadvantaged regions,
nants of adaptability. Transformability, the capacity contributing to changes in existing RAs, if local
of actors to create a fundamentally new system culture permits. The new RAs often reflect the aims
when the existing one is deemed untenable, is of the national actors; one case in point is the pro-
importantly determined by the potential, redun- motion of renewable energy source projects in
dancy, diversity, modularity, connectedness, and remote rural areas that serve national/supranational
openness of RA components (Folke et al., 2010; energy planning goals.
Walker et al., 2004). RAT can thus be considered
as a reduced form of the multidimensional possibil-
The socio-ecological fit of the
ity space of an RA.
RAs possess agency because they act back on response assemblage
their components, either constraining their relation- Having reconceptualized human responses to envi-
ships, and thus, maintaining the RAs identity, or ronmental degradation as RAs, the issue of their
enabling them to transform, thus causing identity effectiveness can be redefined as the SEF of the
change. Established land management, resource RA (SEFRA), an all-embracing redefinition that
use, and sociocultural practices in agricultural, pas- may address more satisfactorily several current
toral, forest, tourist, and other RAs are usually issues surrounding the problem of fit.
observed by most human actors. In RAs with strong The RA notion concurs with the fit for purpose
identity, owing to extreme values of critical compo- sense of fit. SEFRA concerns the degree to which
nents (e.g. rough relief, water scarcity, and strong the match among all RA components, from the focal
culture), the role of agency is stronger, and innova- and other levels, serves the purpose for which it has
tions are difficult to introduce if they demand been constituted, which may not necessarily relate
serious behavioral change. It takes particular con- to combating environmental degradation. The
tingencies (e.g. favorable markets, external funding, socio-ecological fit (SEF) of particular response
Briassoulis 179

options to their biophysical and human setting, in Traditional or modern resource use practices link
the matching among characteristics sense, is one resource users to local resources through specific
aspect of SEFRA. Given that response options are mechanisms that contribute to the maintenance of
RA components, it reflects the degree to which these their pattern, the constant use of particular response
further the purpose of the RA. options and, thus, of the RA.
The relative autonomy of the RA components Deterritorializing/decoding processes that mod-
and their contingently obligatory relationships ify the RA components and/or their relationships
imply that the existence and degree of match is con- produce changes in the match among them and,
textual and contingent, depending on their material thus, in SEFRA. When new policies are introduced,
and expressive roles as well as on changes in com- their effect depends on the implementation mechan-
ponents and their relationships. Certain compo- isms endorsed and followed. Lejano and Shankar
nents, especially some response options, may have (2013), drawing on organizational theory, identify
roles that either favor or block, inherently or by three main mechanisms employed for fitting a pro-
design, the relationships among biophysical and gram (text) to an area (context): specification and
human components on the focal or across levels. adaptation, improvisation, and bricolage. Depend-
The dominant power and sociocultural structures, ing on the mechanism, existing components are
either deliberately or due to negligence and indiffer- rearranged and/or modified, new ones may be
ence, may maintain weak or no relationships among added, old ones may be removed, and so on. In some
certain components (i.e. keep them strongly auton- cases, the match among components may
omous from each other). Development policies, strengthen, and the RA is modified (the SES moves
usually decided at higher levels, often ignore local to another place in the basin of attraction). In other
needs. Strong cultural biases impede the adoption of cases, the match may weaken or vanish, rendering
innovations locally. Centralized governance and the existing RA misfit. Sooner or later, the RA com-
compartmentalized administrative structures seri- ponents are reassembled to form a new RA with a
ously impede the integrated management of land different identity and acceptable fit (to some actors).
and water resources. Participatory and network gov- Thus, SEFRA is bound to change not only quantita-
ernance arrangements purport to encourage hori- tively but also qualitatively during the evolution of
zontal and vertical linkages among people, an SES. Land abandonment, an endogenous deterri-
resources, and so on that facilitate cooperation and torializing process, precipitates modifications or
policy integration (e.g. cross-compliance is a EU elimination of RA components (population decline,
(2015) agricultural policy mechanism designed to agesex structure change, outmigration, weakening
secure the adoption of sound environmental and of economic and social structure) that weaken their
land conservation practices by farmers in exchange relationships and, thus, SEFRA. Ensuing interven-
of direct payments). A thorough analysis of fit tions may restore the RA components and their rela-
should map the roles and relationships among the tionships, thus maintaining the RA within the same
heterogeneous RA components to spot and under- basin of attraction (same identity), or they may
stand the extent, intensity, and sources of fit and/or introduce new components and relationships, push-
misfit (which components match which ones, how ing the SES to another basin populated by RAs with
strongly, and why). different identity.
The processes of assembly in an RA provide The emergent, contingent, and contextual nature
another line of inquiry concerning SEFRA. At a of the RA, its distributive and composite agency,
minimum, the existence, however brief, of an RA and the relative autonomy of its components imply
means that certain territorializing processes secure that SEFRA is an emergent trait of the RA with a
an acceptable (to some actors) degree of match nonlinear, uncertain, and immanent causality struc-
among certain components that is necessary for the ture. The determinants of SEFRA rest with the
constitution of the RA as an individual singularity to inherent capacities of critical biophysical and/or
serve the purpose (reason) of its formation. human components RA components, associated
180 Dialogues in Human Geography 7(2)

thresholds that determine their capacities to be cau- universally accepted value of SEFRA; there may
sally related, and the recurrent processes of assem- be, instead, only consensus values. For some actors,
bly. If strong territorializing processes prevail, such the value of SER may indicate that the RA functions
as patronage and taut cultural practices, negative satisfactorily, securing its survival and welfare,
feedbacks will maintain the RA components and while for others, this may not be the case. If certain
their relationships, thus promoting the persistence response options persist and endure while the RA
of the current fit. If strong deterritorializing pro- changes, this may owe to their perceived high (but
cesses prevail, such as natural or technological dis- not necessarily beneficial) fit from the perspective
asters, regime changes, or socioeconomic crises, of those actors with the formal or informal power to
feedbacks may modify the RA components and their support them. Thus, the balance of power deter-
relationships and, consequently, alter SEFRA to the mines which view dominates and influences the
better or the worse. Moreover, as the degree of decisions taken for combating environmental degra-
SEFRA depends on the viewpoint of actors involved dation and steering the SES in the future.
and because data and information are unequally
available, more than one causal explanation of
SEFRA may exist; redundant causality applies to Concluding thoughts
SEFRA too. The main argument of this article was that the expli-
Adopting a resilience perspective, SEFRA indi- cit or tacit ontological assumptions underlying stud-
cates the degree to which the specific style of struc- ies of the effectiveness of human responses to
turation of the RA promotes the preservation of SER environmental degradation posit either seamless
within a time period. Therefore, in order to assess wholes or networks and do not concur with real-
SEFRA, it is first necessary to assess SER and then world circumstances. Embracing a nonreductionist
evaluate it against the preferred evaluation criteria ontology, it introduced and negotiated the notions of
of individual actors, both within and beyond an SES. the RA and its socio-ecological fit. Their implica-
An approach to assessing SER draws on the axio- tions and future research needs for theorizing human
matic proposition of resilience thinking mentioned responses and their effectiveness, for developing
before: SER is expressed through RAT which can be suitable integrated methodologies, and for guiding
approached as a synthesis of the properties and sensible problem solving and decision-making on
capacities of the critical RA components in a given apposite institutional design (policy and manage-
period. The multidimensional, provisional assess- ment) are outlined below.
ments of SER produced reflect the distributive and The greatest advantage and emancipating
composite nature of the RA. Thresholds associated power of the nonreductionist notion of assemblage
with critical components, if known or if they can be as an integrative and inclusive sociospatial construct
reliably approximated, might indicate limits to the is its high manipulability, which helps shed
value of SER under particular response regimes and, the monolithic approach to human responses to
thus, limits to SEFRA. Briassoulis (2015) has pro- environmental degradation and promote the
posed a methodology to assess SER and SEFRA responses-in-context conception. The RA draws
following this rationale. attention to the dynamic, multilevel, and emergent
The preceding discussion suggests that SEFRA is constitution and coevolutionary nature of open, self-
always tied to a particular RA and it does not have organizing, complex SESs as multiplicities defined
meaning outside of it. It is neither fixed nor prede- by assemblages, that is, provisional associations of
fined; it is dynamic while its spatiotemporal stabi- heterogeneous, relatively autonomous, material and
lity and durability vary with that of the RA. The immaterial, elements variously assembled to fulfill
greater the value of SEFRA (more components a purpose. Assemblage theory makes no a priori
match harmoniously), the greater the coherence, sta- assumptions about their final form; thus, variations
bility, and durability of the RA. Moreover, the mul- emerge from differences in the combining power of
titude of actors involved implies that there is no the components, surprises arise during
Briassoulis 181

implementation of remedial solutions, and structur- approaches to the study of the effectiveness of
ing effects result from prevalent power relation- human responses. An assemblage-based analysis
ships. By embodying the fit for purpose sense, organizes the thick description and analysis of
the RA facilitates the comprehensive treatment of human responses in a focal SES and the associated
the socio-ecological fit of responses-in-context, sociospatial hierarchy over a study period around
that is, of SEFRA. The emphasis on the composite the following issues: (a) characteristic RAs formed
and distributive identity and agency of RAs facili- (responses-in-context); (b) style of structuration of
tates nondeterministic, immanent, multiple causal the RAscomponents, processes of assembly, and
explanations of environmental degradation and of mechanisms of emergence; (c) roles of and relation-
SEFRA. This acknowledges the changing and dif- ships among components; (d) possibility space,
fering roles of human and nonhuman components attractors and basins of attraction, and thresholds
and their relationships, that is, of the style of struc- of critical components; (e) place of RAs within
turation of the RA, over time. basins and apposite contingencies; (f) properties,
SEFRA is broader than the original fit between capacities, and tendencies of the RA(s); (g) synth-
ecosystems and institutions and subsequent versions esis of properties to assess SER; and (h) actor-
(Folke et al., 2007; Galaz et al., 2008) because it specific criteria to evaluate SER and derive SEFRA.
treats institutions from any level as RA components An assemblage-based analysis supports the explana-
and not as external to the socioecological setting with tion of the effectiveness of human responses as
which the RA coevolves. It concerns the roles of and rarely owing to a single component but emerging
relationships among all RA components without pri- from contingent causal associations among RA
vileging the ecological/environmental-related ones components, constrained by their capacities and
and environmental policies/institutions or by nar- limited by thresholds of critical components.
rowly focusing on selected socioeconomic issues Future research is called for to elaborate
(e.g. livelihoods). SEFRA is emergent, distributive, integrated assessment methodologies for an
and composite, with variable spatiotemporal stability assemblage-based analysis of the effectiveness of
and durability. It is specific to a particular RA human responses that accommodate different scien-
because actors differ in their knowledge, understand- tific and actor perspectives and handle present and
ing, and perception of environmental degradation, future uncertainty to support decision- and policy
and because their values, priorities, and roles within making. This necessitates the synthesis of current
the RA, as well as their intent and power to act and diagnostic approaches and types of reasoning, a
assess it, also differ. Lasting RAs and human combination of quantitative and qualitative tech-
responses persist because powerful and privileged niques, and the design of innovative tools to obtain
actors find them highly fit for their purposes. dynamic representations of RAs, among many oth-
Future research on theorizing RAs and SEFRA may ers (Briassoulis, 2015; DeLanda, 2002, 2006a,
move in several directions. A comprehensive compar- 2011; Epstein and Vogt, 2011; Ostrom 2007, Plum-
ison among the whole, network and assemblage ontol- mer and Armitage, 2007; Young, 2008b).
ogies will help ascertain the suitability of the RA for An assemblage-based approach introduces an
conceptualizing and analyzing responses-in-context. outlook to environmental problem-solving,
The articulation of micro- and macro-theories from the decision-making, and policy guidance that diverges
natural and the social sciences will elucidate the style from reductionist, positivist approaches assuming
of structuration, the mechanisms of RA emergence, wholes or constructivist approaches assuming net-
and other RA traits in diverse empirical settings. The works. The former presumes that SESs are tightly
relationship of the RA to modes of production is par- connected, pregiven, mechanistic wholes where
ticularly worth exploring (Chari, 2009). proper external interventions, which often empha-
The most significant methodological implication size certain aspects of an SES, will effectively com-
of the RA is that it constitutes the meaningful object bat environmental degradation. The latter, although
of reference and basis for synthesizing various acknowledging the open and fluid nature of SESs,
182 Dialogues in Human Geography 7(2)

deny the relative autonomy and downplay the diagram of the RA may exist, but the dynamics of
agency of individual components that, through SESs and the constant processes of assembly may
their presence or absence, may prove critical deter- hinder their ex ante identification and materializa-
minants of effective interventions. Within an RA tion. An assemblage-based approach offers the
approach, decision-making is immanent to the RA appropriate ontological framing of adaptive man-
because formal and informal institutions and the agement, whether de jure, planned and institutiona-
governance structure are RA components. lized, or de facto, informally practiced, as a
Pertinent policy implications are provisionally reasonable environmental management strategy
summarized below. (Berkes and Folke, 2000; Berkes et al., 2003).
The effectiveness of any proposed intervention Assemblage-based adaptive management directs
on RA components and/or their relationships is attention to the analysis of past and current RAs in
uncertain because they are relatively autonomous an SES aiming to foster, through continuous experi-
and their capacities are not completely known a mentation, the emergence of ORAs under uncertain
priori; they are revealed from their contingent and futures. The latter may be simple modifications of
contextual interactions with other components. current RAs to better fit changing conditions (adap-
Moreover, the agency of the RA may block reme- tation) or more thorough transformations, bringing
dial efforts if they diverge from current practices the SES to basins of attraction populated by differ-
as exemplified by the difficulties of introducing ent RAs. Elaborating the details of assemblage-
environmental management innovations in sev- based adaptive management is an important future
eral settings. research direction.
The dynamic, distributive, and composite nature Finally, empirical applications of the
of RAs suggests that there is no ideal starting point assemblage-based approach to diverse affected
for designing effective or optimal human responses regions are indispensable for developing and testing
or optimal RAs (ORAs). Interventions targeting one theoretical propositions, assessing methodologies
component (e.g. soil or water) may or may not yield and techniques, determining the role of decisions
desirable outcomes because changes in other com- and policies in the formation of both temporary and
ponents and their interactions, as well as influences lasting RAs and, eventually, evaluating the useful-
from other levels during implementation and unpre- ness of the approach as an environmental govern-
dictable contingencies, condition their effects. ance support framework. Extending its application
Interventions concerning other goals may uninten- to other sociospatial phenomena will test its broader
tionally help combat environmental degradation. utility for spatial analysis and decision support.
Socioecologically fit human responses can be
achieved not from interventions on environmental Acknowledgements
resources through environmental institutions but The author would like to thank assistant professor Vassilis
also, and perhaps more often, from interventions Detsis, Harokopion University, Athens, Greece, for his
on any RA component and/or process of assembly valuable comments on drafts of this article.
that modify either the geometry of effective basins
of attraction and/or the place of an SES within them. Declaration of Conflicting Interests
An assemblage-based approach to environmental The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest
decision-making thus abandons the idea of best with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publica-
practices, opting instead for the design of tempo- tion of this article.
rary, consensus ORAs; that is, provisional associa-
tions among existing, modified, and proposed Funding
components (e.g. new response options) of an SES The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial
that a majority of actors consider fit to effectively support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of
preserve SER under alternative futures. Theoreti- this article: This work was supported by the project LED-
cally, ideal best practices corresponding to the DRA funded by the Environment Programme, Management
Briassoulis 183

of Natural Resources, DG Research and Innovation under Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers
grant 243857 (1 April 201031 March 2014). NS 31: 244251.
Cox M (2012) Diagnosing institutional fit: a formal per-
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