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Environmental governance theories: a review and application to coastal systems

Stefan Partelow, Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research (ZMT), Bremen, Germany
Achim Schlüter, Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research (ZMT), Bremen, Germany; Jacobs University, Bremen, Germany
Derek Armitage, School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability, University of Waterloo, Canada
Maarten Bavinck, Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research, University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands; UiT Arctic University of Norway
Keith Carlisle, Human Dimensions of Natural Resources, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO, USA
Rebecca L. Gruby, Human Dimensions of Natural Resources, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO, USA
Anna-Katharina Hornidge, German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE), Germany; University of Bonn, Germany
Martin Le Tissier, MaREI, the SFI Research Centre for Energy, Climate and Marine, Environmental Research Institute, University College Cork, Ireland
Jeremy B. Pittman, Faculty of Environment, University of Waterloo, Canada
Andrew M. Song, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Technology Sydney, Australia
Lisa P. Sousa, Centre for Environmental and Marine Studies (CESAM), Department of Environment and Planning, University of Aveiro, Portugal
Natașa Văidianu, Faculty of Natural Sciences and Agricultural Sciences, Ovidius University of Constanta, Romania; Interdisciplinary Center for Advanced Research on Territorial Dynamics, University of Bucharest, Romania
Kristof Van Assche, Department of Earth & Atmospheric Science, University of Alberta, Canada


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This article synthesizes and compares environmental governance theories. For each theory we outline its main tenets, claims, origin, and supporting literature. We then group the theories into focused versus combinatory frameworks for comparison. The analysis resonates with many types of ecosystems; however, to make it more tangible, we focus on coastal systems. First, we characterize coastal governance challenges and then later link salient research questions arising from these challenges to the theories that may be useful in answering them. Our discussion emphasizes the usefulness of having a diverse theoretical toolbox, and we argue that if governance analysts are more broadly informed about the theories available, they may more easily engage in open-minded interdisciplinary collaboration. The eight theories examined are the following: polycentricity, network governance, multilevel governance, collective action, governmentality (power / knowledge), adaptive governance, interactive governance theory (IGT), and evolutionary governance theory (EGT). Polycentricity and network governance both help examine the links or connections in governance processes. Polycentricity emphasizes structural configurations at a broader level, and network governance highlights agency and information flow within and between individuals or organizations. Collective action theory is helpful for examining community level governance, and helps analyze variables hindering or enabling self-organization and shared resource outcomes. In contrast, multilevel governance helps understand governance integration processes between localities, regions, and states across administrative, policy, or legal dimensions. Governmentality is helpful for understanding the role of discourse, power, knowledge, and narratives in governance, such as who creates them and who becomes governed by them with what effect. Adaptive governance helps analyze the links between context, change, and resilience. IGT helps examine the interdependencies between the systems being governed and the governing systems. EGT is helpful for unpacking how coevolutionary processes shape governance and the options for change.

Key words

collaborative governance; comanagement; land-sea; marine; natural resource governance; natural resource management; transdisciplinarity; watershed; wetland

Copyright © 2020 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087