The paper analyzes how adaptability (adaptive capacity and adaptations) is constructed in the literature on resilience of social–ecological systems (SES). According to some critics, this literature views adaptability as the capacity of SES to self-organize in an autonomous harmonious consensus-building process, ignoring strategies, conflicting goals, and power issues. We assessed 183 papers, coding two dimensions of adaptability: autonomous vs. intentional and descriptive vs. normative. We found a plurality of framings, where 51% of the papers perceived adaptability as autonomous, but one-third constructed adaptability as intentional processes driven by stakeholders; where social learning and networking are often used as strategies for changing power structures and achieving sustainability transformations. For the other dimension, adaptability was used normatively in 59% of the assessed papers, but one-third used descriptive framings. We found no evidence that the SES literature in general assumes a priori that adaptations are harmonious consensus-building processes. It is, rather, conflicts that are assumed, not spelled out, and assertions of “desirable” that are often not clarified by reference to policy documents or explicit normative frameworks. We discuss alternative definitions of adaptability and transformability to clarify or avoid the notion of desirability. Complex adaptive systems framing often precludes analysis of agency, but lately self-organization and emergence have been used to study actors with intentions, strategies, and conflicting interests. Transformations and power structures are increasingly being addressed in the SES literature. We conclude that ontological clashes between social science and SES research have resulted in multiple constructive pathways.
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