We don’t need more frameworks, by Michael Cox

During our most recent episode with Frank van Laerhoven, we talked about the good that academics can do within the field of environmental governance. Frank expressed some concern about how much public benefit was being generated from his work, relative to maybe what could be. I have increasingly wondered about this for my own work, asking myself, where is the real social value? We talk so much about hard-to-measure, diffuse public goods in our writings, but are we doing the best we can do to generate these in those same writings?

I am so relieved that Biden won our election yesterday, and it reminded me of a piece written in the Washington Post about all of the books folks have written during the Trump presidency (Lozada 2020). My response to reading this was, okay, writers gonna write. We have this enormous problem and the response by many people will be to do more of what they have been doing all along. In the case of many people, it’s writing. That’s what I am doing right now.

This is the challenge of specialization: once someone becomes good at something and is paid to do it, it’s hard to convince them not to do it. And this is a problem even when it’s a potentially good thing they are doing. A big part of the issue with wildfire management in the Western U.S. is fire suppression, and one reason that it’s hard to move away from this because there is a fire fighting industry (not to use the term pejoratively). Fire fighting is heroic and valuable, but it also can represent a problematic approach to ecosystem management (“Fighting Fire with Fire” 2020).

I sometimes feel this way about aspects of my own corner of academia as well. I feel especially this way about our penchant for sometimes aggressively abstract prose, and our unending appetite for theoretical frameworks (Binder et al. 2013; Pulver et al. 2018). It seems like every few days or so on academic twitter there is an announcement of a new framework, and an accompanying call to better understand and address complexity: to change towards more social-ecological integration, change for societal transformation, change towards more adaptive approaches to governance. All of this is important to say; we need these things. But it has been said a lot. And I don’t think that continuing to pump out new box-and-arrow diagrams and accompanying pronouncements is going to get us to the places they evoke.

This is a specific example of a general trend which we’ve mentioned here before: the academic arms race, and the increasingly (I would say absurdly in many cases) high publication counts folks towards the top are accruing. This can set a perverse example of output maximization and expectation to do the same for the next generation of young scholars. And again, this is particularly ironic for our field, as much of the discourse levies critiques at management strategies geared towards maximizing outputs.

For folks lucky enough to keep working at a normal rate during the pandemic, I worry that the main response has been and will be to simply write more and submit more papers. Academics gonna academic. It’s our comfort zone and measuring rod of perceived worth. Like many trends during the pandemic, this arguably represents an exacerbation of inequalities that were already present before the pandemic, for example in relation to gender and associated childcare duties (Kim and Patterson 2020).

I think there are multiple reasons for the mountain of frameworks we are currently sitting on. First, I don’t think the relevant academic communities really know what they want from a framework, which makes it hard to settle on one. There are standard descriptions of what a framework should do: it should supply the concepts that a scientist will use and articulate their relationships. But we don’t have a discourse for how frameworks should be used in a given analysis and how we know a good or bad framework when we see one or use one. Relatedly, frameworks don’t come with instructions for how to use them as a piece of the scientific process. I know Ostrom’s (2007) social-ecological framework quite well, and it has been well documented that there is little consistency in how it is used (Partelow 2018). I think this is because Ostrom never supplied much guidance for how the framework should be used. I have always found the tiered language that Ostrom introduced to be confusing, and not well understood in applications. But people talk about it as if this isn’t the case. Notably this language is absent from the institutional analysis and development (IAD) framework, which is an obvious precursor to the later one.

Another reason I think we see so many frameworks is because in some ways developing them is easier than other work to be done, such as fieldwork, transdisciplinary engagement and programmatic development. Constructing them falls squarely in the space that many of us academics want to inhabit: deeply analytic, synthetic, and abstract, but with the ultimate goal to describe reality. Related to this, we all want to make our mark on the field, and a good way to do this is to develop a framework and promote its use by others.

One response to this problem is to fight the tendency to publish that extra article, and then another one, at the expense of other activities that don’t feed so directly into one’s google scholar identity or career advancement metrics. We also need to fight the tendency to rationalize the overproduction of concept pieces with the idea that academics’ niche is analytical and conceptual development, and the associated self-justifying notion that theoretical work is (1) extractable from applied learning, and (2) superior to it.

These are social challenges: we face a collective-action problem among scientists in making these changes. As in any social system, some have more than others in science. The weight of leading these changes should be disproportionately born by those in more secure and privileged positions, who are also the ones disproportionately benefiting from the prestige granted to them by the current system. But for all of us, I think now is as good a time as ever to ask ourselves where the social value is, and if we are contributing to it to promote needed change.


Binder, Claudia R., Jochen Hinkel, Pieter W. G. Bots, and Claudia Pahl-Wostl. 2013. “Comparison of Frameworks for Analyzing Social-Ecological Systems.” Ecology and Society 18 (4): 26.

“Fighting Fire with Fire.” 2020. How to Save a Planet. Gimlet.

Kim, Eunji, and Shawn Patterson. 2020. “The Pandemic and Gender Inequality in Academia.” https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3666587.

Lozada, Carlos. 2020. “The Most Essential Books of the Trump Era Are Barely about Trump at All.” The Washington Post, October 1, 2020.

Ostrom, Elinor. 2007. “A Diagnostic Approach for Going beyond Panaceas.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 104 (39): 15181–87.

Partelow, Stefan. 2018. “A Review of the Social-Ecological Systems Framework: Applications, Methods, Modifications, and Challenges.” Ecology and Society 23 (4). https://doi.org/10.5751/ES-10594-230436.

Pulver, Simone, Nicola Ulibarri, Kathryn Sobocinski, Steven Alexander, Michelle Johnson, Paul McCord, and Jampel Dell’Angelo. 2018. “Frontiers in Socio-Environmental Research: Components, Connections, Scale, and Context.” Ecology and Society 23 (3). https://doi.org/10.5751/ES-10280-230323.