Land system science and affiliated research linked to sustainability require improved understanding and theorization of land and its change as a social-ecological system (SES). The absence of a general land-use theory, anchored in the social subsystem but with explicit links to the environmental subsystem, hampers this effort. Drawing on land-use explanations, meta-analyses, and associated frameworks, we advance a broad framework structure of eight elements – aggregations of explanatory variables – with links to the biophysical subsystem, for systematic comparisons of extant explanations. Tests and models can be employed to identify which set of variables and their configurations provide robust explanations of across land uses, identifying the potential for theory development. The framework and its application are applicable to both top-down and bottom-up explanatory approaches employed in the social sciences. Links to the environmental subsystem invite future exploration of SES explanations that reach across the different dimensions of global change and sustainability science.