Research Unit 1

The (Im)Possibility of Cooperation

More information on Unit 1

New Insights into the Foundations of Global Cooperation

Under conditions of ever growing interdependencies in many policy fields and the identification of common problems of global scope, cooperation has both become more necessary and perhaps also more challenging. Coordinating efforts to eradicate poverty, making sure that people in the world have enough to eat, ensuring equal education for girls and boys remain important tasks for global cooperation. Multiple global crises and problems require coordinated global approaches and actions to improve living conditions of people all over the world. With the transition from the Millennium Development Goals to the Sustainable Development Goals, global leaders have taken stock of past successes and future tasks. What has been achieved? What needs to be done to ensure a good future for humankind? Among these global problems that need to be addressed, climate change stands out as a prime example of the extent to which human beings impact on the earth system. Summits on climate change assemble scientists, activists and representatives of countries in the world, but often result in frustration. How can they be made successful? Taking this significant human impact as a point of intervention for enquiries into the possibility of cooperation, the role of human action is central. Both analytically and normatively, research in this research unit is thus focused on the role of meaningful human action.

Micro to Macro

Research Unit 1 ‘The (Im)Possibility of Cooperation’ contributes to fundamental research on the chances and limitations of (global) cooperation. In particular, knowledge about the evolution of human cooperation serves as an analytical heuristic to observe and understand patterns of cooperation. A central question for projects in this context is, whether and how cooperation can succeed under current and future conditions of complexity? Taking multidisciplinarity as a necessary precondition for successful answers to this question, projects within the scope of this research unit deal with different analytical levels and objects of analysis, ranging from individual to group level phenomena. Projects in this research area have contributed and should further contribute to insights into both micro- and macro-foundations of global cooperation, taking an approach that scales up insights taken from observations of micro-levels to the macro-level of negotiations and other human interactions.

Perceptions, trust, and different cultural backgrounds

Cooperation problems and social dilemmas have been addressed by disciplines ranging from psychology to political science and economics. Findings from the realms of evolutionary psychology, theoretical biology and anthropology have shown that the cooperative nature of human beings may have influenced the way humanity has evolved. In other words, individuals are not by nature set against cooperation with other individuals. Why then does cooperation, on the global level, so often fail? Building on these and insights from various other disciplines, cooperation in small groups and individual-level analyses becomes a key focus for analysis. For instance, projects from a variety of disciplines scrutinise the role perceptions, trust, rationality or fairness play in interactions. How do people from different cultural backgrounds evaluate fairness? How can we establish trust between people who seem to have little in common? These are some of the questions that point to the foundational nature of cooperative human behaviour.

Institutional designs for better access and inclusion

As yet, there is no shared global narrative of why and how humans should address global problems together. Global relations are still characterised by enduring inequality and often exclusionary governance forums. The gap between the global North and South is often mirrored in the way decision-making operates in global organisations. While global governance institutions are created to enable negotiations between individuals and states in many different fields, these organisations have also come under pressure for change. Particularly rising states and non-governmental actors demand stronger participation rights and criticise legitimacy deficits. Both micro-processes of negotiations and mechanisms of cooperation within these institutionalised settings are key research issues of research unit 1. How can institutional designs be improved to allow for better access and inclusion? What needs to be done to reduce inequalities between member states? The relevance of knowledge, culture, and institutional settings that enable or impede cooperation, including methodological challenges of research in this field, are crucial issues that need further analysis. 

New actors in a global public sphere

Finally, the social context of a historically emerging World Society needs to be taken into account. New actors have emerged, global decisions increasingly affect the lives of individuals all over the world and a global public now observes how leaders manage their affairs. This transnational dimension of cooperation can take different forms, including official (regional and global) organisations, informal clubs or expert networks, even the actions of individuals can have global impact. Cooperation can take many different forms, which we have only begun to understand. We find cooperation forums that are based on like-mindedness (like a shared religious faith or democratic constitution), the status of members as emerging powers (like the BRICS states) or on expertise in a given policy field such as biological diversity or intellectual property. Going beyond the mere observation of difference or even deviance from established models, the conditions of successful cooperation can be analysed in regional forums, informal summitry or transregional networks of expertise.