Maria Koinova, Maryam Zarnegar Deloffre, Frank Gadinger, Zeynep Sahin Mencutek, Jan Aart Scholte and Jens Steffek (2021).  ‘It’s Ordered Chaos: What Really Makes Polycentrism Work’, International Studies Review, 0: 1-31.

Recently published in International Studies Review, this forum represents the product of sustained theoretical engagement by the Polycentric Governance Research Group at the Käte Hamburger Kolleg / Centre for Global Cooperation Research. Acting as a ‘corrective’ to the traditional view in IR scholarship that institutional arrangements are inherently ‘messy’ and ‘fragmented’ (3), the forum instead engages in the perceived chaos of contemporary governance and seeks to discern a kind of nuanced order at its core. Presented at the outset is the question, ‘how do we theorize this ordering?’ (3). It is clear that the answer includes at least a partial rejection of institutionalist, constructivist theorizing, but what should take its place?

The text is structured into contributions from its six authors, each exploring a different empirical setting while demonstrating the application of proposed tools and methods aimed at productive engagement with polycentric governance structures.

Beginning with a definition and brief history of the term ‘polycentrism’, the concept is presented as a certain refinement in IR that is particularly applicable to the web of embedded institutions, governments, organizations, etc. that make the modern world ‘work’. Literally indicating a ‘diffusion of order’ (3), the term accurately reflects this complexity. The titular ‘ordered chaos’ affirms that the perception of disarray only obscures order rather than rendering it incomprehensible. The authors argue that the current state of global governance requires a new theoretical foundation; they highlight in particular that the interplay and admixture of ‘official’ governance and what may be understood as de facto or ad hoc governance is the engine that actually drives diverse global regulatory processes. A widened, more nuanced analysis, focussing on practices, techniques, effects, (inter)relations, informality, and structures promises to bring the complexity of global governance into sharper focus.

Frank Gadinger (University of Duisburg-Essen) applies practice theory to the example of a counter piracy assemblage off the coast of Somalia. In this instance, ‘official’ channels of conventional governance failed to have a significant regulatory effect and left a gap which invited problems of security in the region. This gap was filled by a temporary array of disparate actors whose practices can be appraised in a polycentric context. According to Gadinger, studying the relationality of involved practices gives the most accurate insight into the functioning of this temporary solution. In this way, it is the ties (relations) between practices rather than the nodes (actors) that had an ordering effect (14). Gadinger also mentions a certain aspect of informality in the regulatory process, a point which Maria Koinova (University of Warwick) also takes up in her contribution to the forum.

Koinova’s piece, ‘Informality in the Polycentric Governance of Transit Migration and Diaspora Engagement’, focusses on sharpening our understanding of migrations that, in effect, are not governed directly by nation-states, but rather in informal ways by the communities themselves. In transit migration and diasporic communities, formal policies are often ‘ineffective … or little institutionalized’ (18). Looking specifically at the Middle East and Balkan regions, Koinova explains that in place of formal policies, rules of behaviour are instituted implicitly by migrants as a reaction to either under-regulation, or dysfunctional policies. We see here again a gap forming at the limit of formal efficiency, which is filled by informal practices, often origination in the sending states. ‘Repeated informal relationships’, Koinova writes, ‘create durable interaction modes, interdependencies, adaptation, and implicit organization among actors at different scales, thereby establishing governance that is not written in explicit rules’ (19).

Zeynep Sahin Mencutek (Bonn International Centre for Conflict Studies) also uses migration as an empirical illustration in her text, ‘Techniques in the Polycentric Governing of Irregular Migration’, but uses the case study to explore the term ‘techniques’ as it relates to polycentric governance. ‘I define techniques both as the operational components of practices and the means for translating policy ideas in discursive, material, or institutional forms…techniques are a repertoire of possible action, flowing from policies, strategies, and practices’ (15). Techniques go hand-in-hand with both practice theory and informality, and can be used as a tool to ‘identify micro “organizing frames” in the “ordered chaos” of polycentrism’ (18). Viewed as the tangible, material elements that facilitate practices, techniques can be assessed by empirical observation of adaptation to and employment of tools such as digital databases and algorithms.

Picking up on the digital dimension of polycentric governance, Jan Aart Scholte (Leiden University) explores Internet Governance as a fruitful example of how gaps in formal policy first manifest, and then are filled by norms, practices, and underlying order. ‘Governance of this global digital communications network is paradigmatically polycentric’ (22), he writes, adding that the multiple sites and constitutive networks on which the internet is based are inherently resistant to traditional systems of governance and can, at first glance, seem incomprehensible. To discern order in this complex system, Scholte suggests that institutional analysis needs to be supplemented with structural analysis in order to obtain a fuller understanding of its polycentric mode of operation (25).

Though the merits of polycentric modes of analysis are continually reinforced throughout the text, the authors of the forum also do not shy away from identifying its limitations. Jens Steffek (Technical University of Darmstadt) , for example, affirms in his contribution that norms have a certain agency and influence of their own, but admits that understanding how and by what mechanisms they function still requires the typical, actor-focused engagement offered by IR constructivism. Similarly, Maryam Zarnegar Deloffre (George Washington University) argues that norms ‘produce regulatory effects in polycentric contexts’ (9), but the exact mechanism for understanding the diffusion of these norms from NGOs to other actors seems to lie outside the purview of the polycentric perspective.

Review: Andrew Costigan

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