Using social-network research to improve outcomes in natural resource management Academic Article uri icon


  • The conservation and management of natural resources operates in social-ecological systems in which resource users are embedded in social and environmental contexts that influence their management decisions. Characterizing social networks of resource users can be used to inform understanding of social influences on decision making, and social network analysis (SNA) has emerged as a useful technique to explore these relationships. We synthesized how SNA has been used in 85 studies of natural resource management. We considered how social networks and social processes (e.g., interactions between individuals) influence each other and in turn influence social outcomes (e.g., decisions or actions) that affect environmental outcomes (e.g., improved condition). Descriptive methods were used in 58% of the studies to characterize social processes, and 42% of the studies compared multiple networks or multiple points in time to assess social or environmental outcomes. In 4 studies, authors assessed network interventions intended to affect social processes or environmental outcomes. The heterogeneity in case studies, methods, and analyses preclude general lessons. Thus, to structure and further learning about the role of social networks in achieving environmental outcomes, we created a typology that deconstructs social processes, social outcomes, and environmental outcomes into themes and options of social and ecological measures within each. We suggest shifts in research foci toward intervention studies to aid in understanding causality and inform the design of conservation initiatives. There is a need to develop clearer justification and guidance around the proliferation of network measures. The use of SNA in natural resource management is expanding rapidly; thus, now is the time for the conservation community to build a more rigorous evidence base to demonstrate the extent to which social networks can play a role in achieving desired social and environmental outcomes.

publication date

  • 2019