Global cooperation and polycentric governance (2018 – 2020)

Research > Thematic field

A major theme of the Centre’s research in the period 2018–2021 was the governance dimension of contemporary global cooperation. Researchers and fellows investigated the influence of governance arrangements on global issues and assessed the consequences that regulatory dynamics can have for the extents, the types, and the results of global cooperation. In examining governance dynamics around global cooperation, a special focus was placed on the often diffuse and decentralized as well as fluid and changeable character of contemporary regulation.

Today, sites for the governance of global challenges are 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 involved with governing a given global issue frequently have overlapping institutional mandates. As a result, multiple regulators often address the same problems in the same places. Additionally, hierarchies and lines of command among the various governance agencies can be ambiguous. Regulatory arrangements lack an ultimate arbiter comparable to a president or a parliament having the final authority in a nation-state.

The Centre described this transscalar, transsectoral, dispersed, variable, disorganized, intransparent, and leaderless mode of governance as ‘polycentrism’. In this context, the term did not follow the particular institutionalist sense in which it was developed by Elinor and Vincent Ostrom. Rather, it was taken as a generic label for the pattern of multi-sited regulation that prevails in most contemporary global affairs. The Centre distinguished four general ways to understand the forces which shape polycentric governance and its implications for global cooperation, namely the ‘legal’, ‘institutional’, ‘structural’, and ‘relational’ approach. To date, the study of polycentric governance has arguably suffered from fragmentation. Researchers continue to primarily work in isolation and focus on these individual approaches, separated by disciplinary boundaries and theoretical cleavages. The Centre facilitated a dialogue between these diverse perspectives with a resulting enrichment of knowledge for all.

In addition to the theoretical work just described, the Centre also conducted important empirical research on global cooperation and polycentric governance. This substantive analysis involved mapping out how polycentric governance is realized. For instance, research on global migration and internet governance explored what actors, networks, and deeper structures come together in the regulation of these issue areas. Furthermore, the Centre empirically examined some of the ‘dark sides’ of global cooperation, often linked to the consequences of polycentric governance and the normative questions that arise from them.

Key publications:

  • Aguerre, Carolina, Campbell-Verduyn, Malcolm and Scholte, Jan Aart (2024) (eds). Global Digital Data Governance: Polycentric Perspectives, Routledge Global Cooperation Series, Abingdon, Oxon/ New York, NY: Routledge, forthcoming.
  • Gadinger, Frank and Scholte, Jan Aart (2023) (eds). Polycentrism: How Governing Works Today, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Koinova, Maria., Deloffre, Maryam. Z., Gadinger, Frank, Mencutek, Zeynep Şahin, Scholte, Jan Aart and Steffek, Jens (2021). ‘It’s Ordered Chaos: What Really Makes Polycentrism Work’, International Studies Review, 23(4): 1988–2018.
  • Gadinger, Frank, Liste, Philip and Schneider, Nina (2023). ‘Dark Sides of Cooperation’, Global Cooperation Research – A Quarterly Magazine, 2023(1), available at: