My research program draws heavily on sociology and social-ecological systems theory to analyse social dynamics in environmental systems and how they relate to climate adaptation and the sustainable use and governance of environmental resources. I have specialised expertise in social network science, and my research group and I work on highly interdisciplinary projects that draw on this expertise to elucidate how complex interactions between people and ecosystems can enable or inhibit sustainability outcomes. For example, we explore key issues such as: how social-ecological interactions drive environmental outcomes, how environmental knowledge spreads through society, and how social-ecological networks influence environmental behaviour. We also contribute to advancing network theory and methods. The bulk of our current work is focused on adaptation to climate change (and other shocks, such as COVID-19), with study sites in Australia, Kenya, and Papua New Guinea, but we have also worked on questions related to sustainable agriculture, illegal hunting, and large-scale environmental governance. We are committed to research impact and thus regularly work in collaborative, interdisciplinary teams and directly engage with policymakers and practitioners to work toward a sustainable future for both people and ecosystems.

My research program was recently summarized in the short video below:

Academy of Social Sciences in Australia Paul Bourke Award Winner video, 2021.

Our current research focuses on three broad themes:

(1) Adaptation, transformation, and resilience

Confronting the profound social, environmental, and climatic changes that threaten biodiversity and human welfare necessitates the capacity of people, communities, and institutions to adapt and potentially transform in order to secure a sustainable future. In this research theme, we draw on multiple strands of research related to adaptation, transformation, and resilience in asking critical questions such as: What factors drive or underpin human responses to environmental change (and in what context)? When can a response or action be considered transformative as opposed to adaptive? How are human responses to change underpinned by social-ecological feedbacks, and how can they potentially alter these feedbacks? What role does power play in shaping responses to change, and what does this mean for resilience (and for whom)?

Existing work in this theme attempts to contribute theoretical and conceptual clarity on the social dimensions of resilience in coupled human-natural systems (One Earth), the factors that underpin adaptive capacity (Nature Climate Change), and how social and ecological structures form the foundation for adaptation and transformation (Ecology & Society).

Six key domains of adaptive capacity. Figure developed in Cinner and Barnes 2019 One Earth identifying the assets that people can draw upon; the flexibility to change strategies; elements of social organization that shape processes of social influence and how people access information, resources, and support; learning to recognize and respond to change; socio-cognitive constructs that enable or constrain human behaviour, such as risk attitudes; and the agency or power to determine whether to change or not.

Ongoing empirical work in this theme funded by the Australian Research Council builds on themes 2 & 3 (see below) by drawing on dynamic social-ecological data to examine how social networks, social-ecological linkages, and power shape adaptive responses to climate change at multiple scales (i.e., individual-level, household-level, governance system-level). For example, in a recent paper, we used novel multilevel, social-ecological network modelling to examine how different domains of adaptive capacity—assets, flexibility, (social) organisation, learning, socio-cognitive constructs, and agency—are related to adaptive and transformative actions in response to climate change impacts. We found that social ties (organisation), perceived power (agency), and connections to the marine environment (learning) help and hinder people as they navigate climate change. Check out our video abstract below, our Behind the Paper blog, or read the full paper here in Nature Climate Change.

(2) Social networks and environmental outcomes

Understanding how social dynamics drive outcomes in environmental systems is critical to advancing global sustainability. To meet this challenge, this body of work focuses on basic theories of social organisation and how different patterns of social structure and social capital drive outcomes in environmental systems. Investigations into social organisation focus on different types of social networks at both small and large scales, include inquires related to network formation and function, and often focus on issues of sociocultural diversity. We investigate social, ecological, and economic outcomes at both the micro and macro level. Past projects have focused on cooperation and collaboration, ethnic diversity, collective action, fisher profitability, and shark bycatch. This work has been supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), NOAA’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, the Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research, and the ARC CoE for Coral Reef Studies, and has appeared in journals such as Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,Social NetworksEcology and SocietyEcological Economics, and Environmental Management. More recent work in this area focuses on social influence and diffusion (see our recent paper in Biological Conservation), and the role of social capital and social networks in supporting resilience (see our recent papers in Ecology and Society, Nature Climate Change, and One Earth).

Some of the contributions we have made in this theme are summarized in the short video below:

Australian Institute of Policy and Science Queensland Tall Poppy Award Winner video, 2020

(3) Social-ecological linkages and feedbacks 

This body of work extends theme 2 (above) to explicitly account for the linkages and feedbacks between social and ecological structures. In this era of unprecedented anthropogenic stress on natural capital essential for supporting human wellbeing, we must have a strong understanding of the linkages and feedbacks between people and nature. This challenge is particularly relevant for marine ecosystems such as coral reefs which continue to decline globally, threatening biodiversity and the basic life supporting services they provide to humanity (see our recent publication in Nature). In an effort toward meeting this challenge, I am involved in ongoing research initially funded by NSF that advances a novel interdisciplinary network modeling framework to assess how social-ecological interdependencies mediate outcomes in social-ecological systems. This project involves both theoretical and comparative empirical work, and involves a diverse array of collaborators from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, the Stockholm Resilience Center, CSIRO, University of Melbourne, University of Hawaii, Lancaster University, Exeter University, Conservation International, and the Wildlife Conservation Society. Empirical work from this project, covered by Forbes, provides evidence that social-ecological alignment – in this case, cooperative communication among fishers targeting the same fish species – can support improved reef ecosystem conditions.

Fig. 2 from Barnes et al. 2019 Nature Communications. A conceptual diagram illustrating key social processes theoretically supported by social–ecological network closure that may lead to improved ecological conditions in the commons. When direct resource competitors in settings characterized by strong and complex patterns of social–ecological interactions form cooperative communication ties, it lays the foundation for the emergence of trust, a shared vision, and sustained commitments regarding the management of shared resources. Two examples of such commitments include the development of conflict resolution mechanisms and agreement on rules. In this paper, we found suggestive evidence that these social interactions and processes can ultimately lead to improved ecological conditions.