We use a general quantitative framework – the Price equation – to partition phenotypic responses to environmental change into separate physiological, evolutionary and ecological components. We demonstrate how these responses, which potentially occur over different timescales and are usually studied in isolation, can be combined in an additive way; and we discuss the main advantages of doing this. We illustrate our approach using two worked examples, concerning the emergence of toxin resistance within microbial communities, and the estimation of carbon uptake by marine phytoplankton in high-CO2 environments. We find that this approach allows us to exclude particular mechanistic hypotheses with regard to community-level transformations, and to identify specific instances where appropriate data are lacking. Thus Price’s equation provides not only a powerful conceptual aid, but also a means for testing hypotheses and for directing empirical research programmes.