Panarchy (What is it good for?)





        Pan             plus         Archy               =        ¡¿Huh?!                  translation
(pæn)                           (är-kē)                           (hʌ)                      pronunciation

Let’s get technical, technical

For all you word nerdspanarchy is the combining form of compounds Pan (all, inclusive, whole) and Archy (rule, government).

For the rest of us, panarchy is a term that encompasses everything, and assumes everything interacts or influences everything else. Still confused? That’s OK.

So, panarchy is … everything?

A panarchy is used to describe the many interacting components of a system. Perhaps the most important part is that each ‘level’ within the panarchy (system) can influence any other level. Image: [1].
How about this pretty figure? In this picture, three infinity signs (∞, lemniscates for the word nerds) are stacked on each other, and represent three ‘parts’ of a system.

Panarchy is used to describe a system within a system within a system within a system… as you probably already guessed, the number of infinity symbols we could draw to describe most any system is infinite (pun intended). Each of these systems (∞) is influenced by properties within itself AND by systems that are, for example, larger and/or smaller than itself. This means that not only can the largest ∞ affect those below, but the smallest ∞ can form grassroots to impact the larger ones!

Panarchy is used in studies of coupled natural-human systems to attempt to capture the processes within and among the many interacting components (∞).

How do you use it?

As an ecologist, panarchy is a useful way of thinking about what is driving the persistence and dynamics (or goings-on) in natural systems at large scales. I am highly interested in identifying AND understanding the drivers behind patterns and processes occurring at continental and global scales. To do this in a manner that is useful for society, however, I cannot limit the scope of my research and interests to a single spatial scale at some point in time.

I could easily and fairly simply identify patterns in natural systems at the global scale – so can satellites* – but identifying patterns does not help society understand if or how these patterns affect our ability to persist over time. To be successful, we must incorporate knowledge about the systems that lie within the systems that lie  within the systems within the… system of interest. Each of these systems are (1) influencing each other (just as the actions you take as an individual will, in many unpredictable and probability unnoticeable ways, influence me!) and (2) nested within some other system(s), thereby exchanging information and energy, influencing those systems both smaller and larger than itself. Some researchers have taken the early steps in trying to attach a meaningful number to parts of the panarchy (e.g., [2][3][4]).

* I don’t claim to be smarter than a satellite

Hungry for more information?

For anyone interested in diving a little deeper into panarchy, check out some of the references below [2-5]. They’re going to be a little dense — this is a tough concept to grasp. The Resilience Alliance and the Sustainable Scales Project has webpages and videos dedicated to explaining some of these hard-to-grasp concepts, and how they impact society.


[1]  Garmestani, A. S., and M. H. Benson. 2013. A framework for resilience-based governance of social-ecological systems. Ecology and Society 18(1): 9.

[2]  Allen, C.R., Angeler, D.G., Garmestani, A.S., Gunderson, L.H., & Holling, C.S. 2014. Panarchy: Theory and applications. Ecosystems, 17(4): 578-589.

[3]  Linkov, I., B. D. Trump, and C. Fox-Lent. 2016. “Resilience: Approaches to risk analysis and governance.” An edited collection of authored pieces comparing, contrasting, and integrating risk and resilience with an emphasis on ways to measure resilience.

[4]  Angeler D. G., Allen C. R., Garmestani A. S., Gunderson L. H., Hjerne O., Winder M. 2015. Quantifying the adaptive cycle. PLoS One 10:e0146053. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0146053


We know that that 2 + 2 = 4, and that it always = 4. By allowing for new and unknown answers (surpirses), panarchy theory, allows the possibility that 2 + 2 ≠ 4. 


Share this:
Jessica Burnett

Jessica Burnett

I am a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln studying indicators of changes in ecosystems and social-ecological systems at continental and sub-continental scales. I am particularly interested in using existing, long-term, and publicly-funded data sets to identify large-scale and long-term patterns in ecological communities and species.

Leave a Reply