Defining a cliché: Tipping point

In recent years, the term “tipping point” has gained major popularity as a way to describe a critical point in time where a change is about to take place. From climate change to gun control, several hot-button issues are often talked about in terms of reaching a tipping point.

But what exactly is a tipping point and when does it take place?

A group of researchers including Karina Benessaiah, a doctoral student with Arizona State University’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, set out to define the term in their paper “Defining tipping points for social-ecological systems scholarship – an interdisciplinary literature review,” which was recently published by Environmental Research Letters.

Their paper, which aims to establish the appropriate use of the term, reviewed 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. The researchers found 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.

"By providing a definition, we hope to spur more debate  among often disparate disciplines working on the notion of tipping points and thus further understand the dynamics at play," said Benessaiah.

Their research resulted in defining a tipping point as:

“A threshold at which small quantitative changes in the system trigger a non-linear change process that is driven by system internal feedback mechanisms and inevitably leads to a qualitatively different state of the system, which is often irreversible. This definition establishes a minimum set of four constitutive features of tipping points that apply across disciplines (multiple stable states, nonlinear change, feedbacks as driving mechanism, limited reversibility). If these four essential characteristics are given, the use of the term tipping point is justified.”

You can read their paper here.