Global environmental developments such as climate change, decreasing stocks of natural resources, or loss of biodiversity are among the most crucial challenges that humanity was ever confronted with. Dealing with them is utterly complex: First, these developments mutually influence each other. Second, their effects travel over space: changes happening in remote regions have important consequences at home and vice versa. Third, these challenges concern both global and local levels, as well as their interaction. Fourth, these challenges have consequences well beyond the narrow environmental sector and generate socioeconomic and political pressures (such as migration, economic transformations, land use changes, digitization and the rapid development of new communication technologies, etc.), which then further reinforce the original challenges. The identification of new trajectories to tackle these challenges in terms of politics and governance is urgent. Recent conceptual and theoretical developments such as resilience, complex adaptive systems, telecoupling (Liu et al. 2013), collaborative governance (Ansell and Gash 2008), and many others, deliver frameworks for understanding the environmental challenges and the role of governance and politics to deal with them. A network approach is a promising element to complement these new concepts with existing governance concepts, and to make them more tangible and empirically observable.
The goal of this workshop is to identify how conceptual, theoretical and methodological innovations in network studies help to analyze and understand the politics and governance of these crucial environmental challenges.
In terms of governance and politics of the environmental challenges identified above, at least three general elements travel through the different theoretical frameworks:
- Cross-scale integration of actors. Governance responses to environmental challenges described above should aim at integrating different types of knowledge in decision-making, and promote collaboration between diverse actors as well as across multiple scales (Folke et al. 2005). Whereas the existence of horizontal, polycentric and collaborative governance is well established, the integration of different types of actors and knowledge across levels of decision-making, geographical areas, substantive issue sectors or types of knowledge is still a major challenge in actual governance settings. Polycentric and collaborative governance approaches emphasize processes of self-organization occurring at multiple formally independent decision-making centers and facilitating, e.g., coordination, resilience, and learning (Ostrom 2010; Lubell 2013). Similarly, institutional venues can create trust, mutual knowledge, learning that is needed for cross-scale integration and finally effective policy responses. Different types of venues influence the networking capacity of actors (Leifeld and Fischer 2015). Additionally, the rapid digitization of all aspects of society and the spread of communication technologies have created a new layer of constraints and opportunities for cross-scale coordination. Overall, theoretical arguments around polycentrism and cross-scale integration are not well connected, both in theoretical and empirical terms, to fields of network governance, policy networks, and network analysis (Galaz et al. 2012; Lubell 2013).
- Governance and ecological fit and misfit. The effectiveness of addressing the crucial environmental challenges is further contingent on the degree to which governance systems fit the characteristics of the biophysical and ecological systems where the challenges are arising (Ostrom 2009; Bodin and Tengö 2012). In socio-ecological networks, governance fit is achieved if the network structure of the governance system corresponds to the network structure of the ecological system. Unless the inevitable linkages between as well as within natural and social environments are taken into account, for example through the analysis of social-ecological networks, misfits between natural and social systems are likely to hamper successful policymaking. This concerns also relations between developing and developed countries that are subject to telecoupling phenomena. Telecoupling describes distant interactions and flows across distant regions, often concerning the vulnerable global South, occurring more quickly than before and posing unprecedented challenges to sustainability (Liu et al. 2013; Oberlack et al. 2018). Telecoupled processes create governance gaps if international or bilateral regulations and related governance institutions are not in agreement with the biophysical or economic relations between distant places. Digitization, again, influences these processes, as it could enhance collaboration at the grassroots level as well as across vast distances (Worthington 2014).
- Adaptive governance and change. Addressing the crucial environmental challenges needs governance institutions that are adaptive and flexible, given that the respective challenges develop over time at an increasingly rapid pace. These rapid developments lead to many uncertainties, as well as a need for a continuous evolution and updating of scientific and technological knowledge (Crona and Parker 2012). Resilience has been described as the capacity of a system to sustain itself when confronted with shocks and constant change. The process of digitization is expected to be of a major influence in this respect. Emerging digital governance can be seen itself as an adaptation to recent technological developments including big data analysis, open data, real-time government data-pooling, peer production, or crowdsourcing that have potential to offer not only new policy instruments, but also novel approaches to governance such as algorithmic or probabilistic policy-making (Margetts and Sutcliffe 2013). In contrast to its enormous potential, impacts of digitization on/for policy learning have been largely unaddressed so far, although they could provide tools for learning. This applies also to its prospective negative consequences, such as a growth of information asymmetries, social surveillance, and coercive modes of governance (Mantelero and Vaciago 2013; Margetts and Sutcliffe 2013) that would rather deepen existing inequalities across multiple scales.
As appears from these examples no unified theoretical framework addresses all challenges at the same time. Rather, various research perspectives such as resilience studies, complex adaptive systems, telecoupling, etc., that focus on substantively different domains, work with different theoretical arguments and use diverse methodological agendas ranging from field-based case studies through multivariate empirical analysis to computer simulations should be combined (Duit and Galaz 2008). The network approach (Bodin and Crona 2009) provides a promising way to conceptualize and analyze these various issues, in combination with different theories, substantive domains, and methods.
A network approach is per definition fit to grasp the interdependencies between the different elements across different scales and provides a shared cross-disciplinary language through which theoretical frameworks from other fields intersecting with environmental politics and governance can be effectively integrated. A network approach focuses on how individuals and organizations interact beyond formal and traditionally hierarchical political procedures. Such a perspective can include many different types of political actors (individuals, organizations and/or institutions), and network ties can consist of flows and exchanges of resources, information, as well as of conflict, collaboration and communication that may occur both on- and offline. It accommodates key theoretical ideas, such as self-organization (Lusher et al. 2012), micro-macro linkages, or structural dependence (Wellman 1983), that can foster our understanding of the cross-scale integration of actors, governance and ecological fit and misfit, or adaptive governance and change.
Topically, the network approach ranges from fruitful applications to telecoupling (Liu et al. 2013; Oberlack et al. 2018), social-ecological systems (Ostrom 2009; Bodin and Tengö 2012), and local natural resources management (Sandström and Carlsson 2008) through elite and policy processes networks (Parag 2005, Ingold and Fischer 2015), as well as social movements (Saunders 2014) to digitization and new communication technologies (Kane et al. 2014). The ability of the network approach to deal with the complex challenges related to the study of environmental politics is further fueled by a rapid development of methodological and conceptual development related to the analysis of networks, such as advanced statistical modeling techniques of multilevel or longitudinal networks, or the study of socio-ecological networks as bi-partite networks. However, a network perspective can accommodate also less standardized, mathematically non-formalized, approaches such as discourse analysis or ethnography that provide thick descriptions of network perceptions and interpretations through which actors position themselves in relation to their environment (Hauck et al. 2015). Thus, a network approach offers a more-than-ample methodological toolbox well suited for coping with the utterly complex challenges humanity is confronted with early in the 21th century.
This is, of course, relevant to not only the academic community but also to practitioners and various stakeholders involved in governance and politics around the new global environmental challenges. A number of specific instruments from large-scale arrangements such as international regimes to local measures such as citizen engagement mechanisms can contribute to a formation of integrated yet contextualized and adaptive governance frameworks enhancing a common understanding of stakeholders. The trend of digitization unlocks a potential that could be used to foster resilience and development of (not only) the global South.
To sum up, many theoretical and conceptual developments contribute to our understanding of how politics and governance can cope with the most pressing global environmental challenges. These concepts include three key elements from the point of view of governance and politics: the cross-scale integration of actors, governance and ecological fit and misfit, or adaptive governance and change. New developments in network approaches can contribute to analyzing these elements, and thus to better link the big theoretical developments to studies of governance and empirically applicable research designs. Some examples of key research questions are: What are institutional venue designs that successfully create cross-scale networks able to deal with environmental issues? To what degree does governance and ecological (mis)fit influence the quality of environmental outcomes? How do actors perceive the ecological dependencies or telecoupled processes, and how do these influence their networking behavior? And finally, what environmental and social outcomes stem from different types of networks?
Through dealing with these and other research questions, the workshop at the ECPR Joint Sessions will highlight and critically discuss new approaches to new challenges in networked environmental politics. It will allow identifying how new developments in network approaches – on the conceptual, theoretical as well as methodological levels –, and related research designs can improve our understanding of the most pressing global environmental challenges, the related complexities, and the constraints and opportunities of governance and politics to deal with these challenges. More concretely, the workshop will pursue three complementary goals, critical to push the field forward. A first outcome of the workshop will be the strengthening of the international network of scholars dealing with new approaches to new challenges in networked environmental politics, across a variety of disciplines related to the study of governance and politics. The workshop will provide the participants with opportunities to discuss recent research advances, search for new ones, learn from each other, and consider future avenues of innovative work. An ECPR Joint Session provides a unique opportunity to interact in a way that cannot be substituted by a standard conference format. A second outcome will be a joint publication in a journal special issue, depending on the papers and the interest of the paper authors. Among journals under consideration are Environmental Politics, Ecology & Society, or Global Environmental Change. A third outcome of the workshop will be the discussion of the potential for an international comparative study of new approaches to new challenges to networked environmental politics. With the notable exceptions of the COMPON and REDD+ projects (Broadbent 2016, Brockhaus and Di Gregorio 2014), surprisingly few comparative empirical studies exist on networked environmental politics.
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