Thematic Field

Polycentric Governance

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Global cooperation and polycentric governance (2018–2020)


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.

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