The notion of social ecology draws from the Aristotelian concept of eudaimonia (often translated as flourishing), that property of one's life when considered in its whole. That is, the virtues of the good life go beyond any single set of norms or constructs. A modern definition of social ecology understands it as the interactions within the social, institutional, and cultural contexts of people-environment relations that make up well-being. This approach adopts an explicitly systemic approach in focusing on the interdependencies of social systems. Thus, such an approach focuses on the possibility that the foundations of ecological crises can lie in social structures, or that civil war can originate from environmental scarcity, or the multiple cause-and-effect relationships linking SES status and health. These phenomena beg for approaches that are cognizant of system complexity.

At its core, Social Ecology's motivating philosophy is a pragmatic one --the most persistent ills of society (sprawl, malnutrition, deforestation, urban violence, waterborne disease, obesity, housing insecurity, and countless others) seem to resist the prescriptions emerging from uni-disciplinary research. Social ecology often focuses on the centrality of context in understanding these phenomena --context, or place, remains despite the popular wisdom that the globalized world is now everywhere flat.

Is social ecology the study of everything? No, but it is a manner of studying things. Thus, it concerns how the different objects of study relate to, bump into, and change each other such that the social phenomenon cannot be attributed to any of its objects. As a noted theorist said, "one must think relationally". Without pretending to be able to model systems comprehensively, one must respect the complexity of integrated systems, and this requires a multiplicity of perspectives even to study relatively bounded phenomena.

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