Thematic Field

Polycentric Governance

More information

Global Cooperation and polycentric governance
agenda 2018–2021

Stream Programme Overview

March 2018


This stream of KHK/CGCR work explores the governance dimension of contemporary global cooperation. Efforts to collaborate around global challenges take place in a context of governance: that is, rules and the regulatory arrangements through which social relations are ordered. The Centre investigates the workings of governance around global issues and assesses the consequences that regulatory dynamics can have for both the extents, the types and the results of global cooperation. Substantively this research is, like the rest of the Centre’s current work, particularly directed to four policy fields of climate change, Internet, migration, and peacebuilding.

In examining governance dynamics around global cooperation, the Centre is especially interested in the often diffuse/decentralized and fluid/changeable character of contemporary regulation. Sites for the governance of a global problem are today generally spread across geographical scales (local, national, regional and planetary) as well as across social sectors (public, private, and public-private combinations). Moreover, the many agencies which are involved with governing a given global issue frequently have overlapping institutional mandates, so that multiple regulators address the same problems in the same places. Hierarchies and lines of command among the various governance agencies can be ambiguous, too. The regulatory arrangement also lacks a final arbiter, in the way that a president or a parliament holds the last word in a nation-state.

The Centre describes this transscalar, transsectoral, dispersed, variable, messy, elusive, headless mode of governance with the term ‘polycentrism’. The word is invoked not in the particular institutionalist sense that was developed by Elinor and Vincent Ostrom (1961, 2010). Rather, it is taken as a generic label for the pattern of multi-sited regulation that prevails in most contemporary global affairs (cf. Scholte 2004).

In a nutshell, the Centre’s research on global cooperation and polycentric governance aims:

  1. to conceptualize regulatory processes around current global policy challenges
  2. to identify the forces which shape governance of contemporary global problems
  3. to map the regulatory complexes that pertain to particular global issues
  4. to assess the implications of polycentric governance for the extents and types of global cooperation today and moving forward

The three-year work programme, 2018–2021, is broadly sequential. It starts with a more conceptual and theoretical emphasis, followed by more empirical mapping and assessment. Of course in practice the theoretical and empirical work are more concurrent and interrelated than such an artificially neat distinction suggests.


Understood in a broad sense, the phrase ‘polycentric governance’ encompasses what other recent studies have termed as ‘actor-network’, ‘assemblage’, ‘complexity’, ‘cosmocracy’, ‘empire’, ‘fragmented architectures’, ‘fragmented sovereignty’, ‘global administrative law’, ‘global governmentality’, ‘hypercollective action’, ‘liquid authority’, ‘mobius-web governance’, ‘multilevel governance’, ‘multi-scalar meta-governance’, ‘network governance’, ‘new constitutionalism’, ‘new medievalism’, ‘quasi-constitutionalism’, ‘regime complex’ and ‘transgovernmental networks’. 

In their different ways, all of these notions suggest that governance in contemporary society lacks clearcut, stable, constitutionalized patterns of authority of the kind that have over previous centuries marked the modern state. Polycentric thinking analyses governance not in terms of individual institutions, but in terms of networks, complexes, and deeper power structures. In this regard, helpful insights may be drawn not only from disciplines which have traditionally focused on governance, such as international relations, law, and political science. Other contributing fields can include economics, geography, history, social anthropology, and sociology, as well as interdisciplinary endeavours in cultural studies, development studies, environmental studies, global studies, and systems analysis.

The Centre distinguishes four general ways to understand the forces which shape polycentric governance and its implications for global cooperation. These approaches are designated as ‘legal’, ‘institutional’, ‘structural’, and ‘relational’. To be sure, this fourfold distinction is drawn starkly for analytical convenience. In practice, each category encompasses considerable diversity, and some accounts of polycentrism can straddle several of the four tendencies. Nevertheless, this fourfold typology brings into focus some key ontological and methodological contrasts.

It should be underlined that the KHK/CGCR itself is not partial to one or the other explanatory account of polycentric governance. On the contrary, the Centre is open to a full spectrum of perspectives and in particular aims to encourage dialogue among them. Knowledge of polycentric governance has arguably suffered to date from a generally fractured situation where researchers respectively taking legal, institutional, structural or relational approaches have worked mainly in isolation, separated by disciplinary boundaries and theoretical cleavages. The Centre can bring the various lines of thinking on polycentric governance into conversation, with a resulting enrichment of knowledge for all.


Complementing, and informed by, the theoretical work just described, the Centre’s research on global cooperation and polycentric governance also has important empirical aspects. Part of this substantive analysis has the character of mapping: that is, to specify how, in concrete terms, polycentric governance is actualized. In other words, what actors, networks and deeper structures come together in the transscalar, transsectoral, diffuse, fluid, cluttered, headless regulation of specific issue-areas?

As noted earlier, the Centre is especially interested in the four substantive issues of climate change, Internet, migration, and peacebuilding. These policy fields – and in particular their relevance for global cooperation research – are described in more detail elsewhere on the Centre website. Here we can note that other research has already undertaken some mapping of polycentrism in these issue-areas. However, no previous work has made a systematic comparison of the concrete forms that polycentric governance takes across several global problem areas.


Also in the realm of empirical analysis, the Centre is interested in the consequences of polycentric governance (as diversely theorized and mapped above) for the extent, character, and outcomes of global cooperation. How does polycentrism affect the degree to which global cooperation is realized (or not)? How does polycentric governance influence the types and forms of global cooperation that occur (or not)? And what implications does polycentric governance have for the results of global cooperation, for example, in terms of problem-solving, participation, and the distribution of costs and benefits?

At this point these various opportunities and perils of polycentric governance are presented as possible outcomes. How far they actually occur in practice is a matter for careful empirical investigation, as the Centre will undertake especially in the later stages of this stream’s work.