Governing Power, Knowledge and Conflict in Complex Commons Systems

University dissertation from Chalmers University of Technology

Abstract: This thesis contributes theoretically and empirically to the research about complex commons governance systems that are characterized by numerous and diverse agents, complex distributions of power, incomplete and competing knowledge as well as diverse contestation and conflict processes. Governance refers to a system of public and/or private coordinating, steering and regulatory processes established and conducted for social (or collective) purposes. The thesis identifies challenges and responses for the governance of natural and digital commons systems based on case studies of Baltic Sea Fisheries, Wolf governance in Europe, an action research project in Polish fisheries and a meta-synthesis of the governance of Open Source Software. The analysis of the different governance systems is thereby guided by a universal governance framework enabling a comparative perspective. The findings suggest that while both hierarchical and self-governance can be successful, cases characterized by agents with diverse cognitive-normative frames and by high socio-ecological or socio-technical complexity tend to struggle to achieve the desired collective action outcomes. As a consequence both natural and digital commons systems appear to move towards middle-ground forms of co-governance attempting to combine hierarchical governance modes with means of participation and inclusion. The research shows that it is not participation per se, but its quality that is critical to overcome the struggles created through powers relations and competing knowledge claims. The findings support a process-oriented and context sensitive approach to participation, which has to be seen in the existing institutional and cultural landscape. Rather than a focus on consensus, well-designed communication processes fostering trust building, learning and capacity building are identified as key mechanisms. The thesis provides some guiding principles for participatory governance in environmental commons scenarios. Indicative evidence suggests those share important characteristics with success factors in digital commons governance. As theoretical contribution, the thesis enhances the development a unified conceptual framework for the analysis of different governance systems based on distinguishable categories of socio-organisational and cognitive-normative governance features. Through its universal applicability to governance analysis, the framework fosters the accumulation of a broad empirical base for theoretical development that is essential to cumulative science.

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