Pathways and mechanisms of global cooperation (2018 – 2020)

Research > Thematic field

Between 2018 and 2020, we focussed on ‘Pathways and Mechanisms of Global Cooperation’.

Global cooperation can only be sustainable if it unfolds as a process over time. Cooperation, in our understanding, involves extensive and intensive collaboration among two or more parties in addressing a collective problem of global scale. By sustainable we mean the creation of dependable patterns of cooperation that are robust in moments of crises. Studying both successful instances and failed attempts of cooperation and investigating how they in turn foster or hamper further cooperation helps to shed light on questions such as the durability, reversibility, linearity or changeability of global governance arrangements. When we observe these processes as patterns of cooperation between public, business and civil society actors, we aim for a systematic understanding of pathways, mechanisms and trajectories of global cooperation. By taking a systematic longitudinal perspective and theorizing which underlying mechanisms reinforce or undermine processes of cooperation in different local, national and regional settings, we also gain a better understanding of the evolution of complex and often polycentric global governance arrangements.

Therefore, common interests of the research group were theoretical, methodological and substantive issues related to the study of the temporality and dynamics of global cooperation. 

We theorized trajectories or pathways as temporal sequences which are connected with each other through causal mechanisms.. We aimed at identifying what types of positive or negative feedback generate upward spirals of sustained cooperation or downwards spirals of dissolution. We also looked into the roles which narratives, appeals to emotion and forms of collective sense making play in supporting or undermining pathways of global cooperation. Furthermore, we studied to what extent existing concepts from institutional theory, such as path dependency and path generation, can be applied to complex polycentric settings. Path dependency, in a broad sense, refers to the idea that events occurring at an earlier point in time will affect events occurring at a later point in time. In a stronger version, it characterizes historical sequences in which contingent events set institutional patterns with deterministic properties into motion. Path generation refers to the creation of a new path or a significant deviation from an existing path through the succession of small, sometimes apparently inconsequential steps, and the aggregation of multiple decision points over time. An important research question was whether these concepts are applicable to the study of global cooperation under strategic uncertainty or too deterministic to encompass the contingent and open-ended nature of patterns of cooperation in complex governance settings. Another key challenge was the advancement of concepts of pathways and trajectories in order to take account of such open-endedness and complexity.

Studying the temporal dimension of global cooperation also raises a number of methodological challenges: How we can make sense of interwoven, overlapping and multi-layered processes and their intended and unintended consequences; how existing longitudinal methods, including process tracing, sequence analysis and dynamic network analysis, can help us to systematize empirical cooperative processes. We also  explored negative cases for comparison to avoid positive bias and, more generally, to understand how we can encompass the temporality of such processes (which may be linear, cyclical, incremental, or erratic, slow or abrupt) with the help of social science and historical methods.

One particular focus was on the institutional, organizational and discursive mechanisms that shape global cooperation over time and examining how public, civil society and private actors are involved in these processes. An institutional perspective can help to understand how governance architectures evolve out of sustained patterns of cooperation, which in turn may foster or hinder future cooperation. Institutions, however, may also display inertia that undermines cooperation under changing context conditions, which in turn might evoke counter-mobilization for institutional reform, removal or replacement. Shifting the perspective to organization as a device for and form of cooperation, a range from formalized to informal arrangements come into view. This includes the emergence and disintegration of networks between private, civil society and public actors; the establishment and development of international and transnational organizations; and patterns of interaction in organizational fields. Observing conditions for organizational reproduction, transformation or dissolution tells us more about circumstances under which global cooperation can become sustainable or may fail. Finally, the role of collective sense making, narratives and affective foundations in creating or stabilizing cooperative endeavours is highly topical.