Understanding how individuals, communities, and populations vary in their vulnerability requires defining and identifying vulnerability with respect to a condition, and then developing robust methods to reliably measure vulnerability. In this study, we illustrate how a conceptual model translated via simulation can guide the real-world implementation of data collection and measurement of a model system. We present a generalizable statistical framework that specifies linkages among interacting social and biophysical components in complex landscapes to examine vulnerability. We use the simulated data to present a case study in which households are vulnerable to conditions of land function, which we define as the provision of goods and services from the surrounding environment. We use an example of a transboundary region of Southern Africa and apply a set of hypothesized, simulated data to illustrate how one might use the framework to assess vulnerability based on empirical data. We define vulnerability as the predisposition of being adversely affected by environmental variation and its impacts on land uses and their outcomes as exposure (E), mediated by sensitivity (S), and mitigated by adaptive capacity (AC). We argue that these are latent, or hidden, characteristics that can be measured through a set of observable indicators. Those indicators and the linkages between latent variables require model specification prior to data collection, critical for applying the type of modeling framework presented. We discuss the strength and directional pathways between land function and vulnerability components, and assess their implications for identifying potential leverage points within the system for the benefit of future policy and management decisions.
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