Defining tipping points for social-ecological systems scholarship - An interdisciplinary literature review

Manjana Milkoreit, Jennifer Hodbod, Jacopo Baggio, Karina Benessaiah, Rafael Calderón-Contreras, Jonathan F. Donges, Jean Denis Mathias, Juan Carlos Rocha, Michael Schoon, Saskia E. Werners

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

100 Scopus citations


The term tipping point has experienced explosive popularity across multiple disciplines over the last decade. Research on social-ecological systems (SES) has contributed to the growth and diversity of the term's use. The diverse uses of the term obscure potential differences between tipping behavior in natural and social systems, and issues of causality across natural and social system components in SES. This paper aims to create the foundation for a discussion within the SES research community about the appropriate use of the term tipping point, especially the relatively novel term 'social tipping point.' We review existing literature on tipping points and similar concepts (e.g. regime shifts, critical transitions) across all spheres of science published between 1960 and 2016 with a special focus on a recent and still small body of work on social tipping points. We combine quantitative and qualitative analyses in a bibliometric approach, rooted in an expert elicitation process. We find that the term tipping point became popular after the year 2000 - long after the terms regime shift and critical transition - across all spheres of science. We identify 23 distinct features of tipping point definitions and their prevalence across disciplines, but find no clear taxonomy of discipline-specific definitions. Building on the most frequently used features, we propose definitions for tipping points in general and social tipping points in SES in particular.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number033005
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2018


  • non-linear change
  • social tipping points
  • social-ecological systems
  • tipping points

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • Environmental Science(all)
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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