Critiquing the state in governance research

This spring I attended two international meetings of social scientists interested broadly in governance and climate change issues. Despite their common themes, the meetings couldn’t have been more different: one meeting drew heavily on critical theory and focused on local-scale and non-state actors and processes while the other meeting was populated with policy research that counted and categorized national policy initiatives with little in the way of evaluation. I found myself feeling frustrated. The literature on governance emphasizes all things new: new paradigms, new spaces, new actors, new relationships, new interdisciplinary tools and new linkages. But are we as a research community keeping up and “walking the walk”?

One of the core differences I observed between the two communities (I will refer to them as geography and policy science as shorthand) is the treatment of the State. The geographers seemed suspicious of the State and wary of giving it too much legitimacy and primacy, while the policy science community was primarily interested in the actions of the State but seemed hesitant to evaluate the sources and consequences of those actions. The result is that, at the extremes, the State is either marginalized and demonized by default or it becomes a black box that produces analyzable documents. We could see this as a division of labor; but the linkages between these two perspectives may have significant potential for governance research.

We know that governance is simultaneously local and global and happening within and outside of the State’s realm; governance is simultaneously political, bureaucratic, and personal. The water sector provides excellent examples of each of these dimensions with community-based irrigation schemes, the World Water Forum, court battles over stream flows, corporate initiatives for conservation, legislated standard setting, enforcement of water rights, and household water use behaviors.

Geography and critical theory show us that critique is an important feature of governance research and perhaps there is a need to better incorporate tools of evaluation such as policy analysis, triangulation, and process tracing. Policy science research demonstrates the continuing efforts of the State to set priorities, distribute funding, and generate and enforce rights. Governance research has the potential to locate the State – without necessarily privileging the State – and to evaluate outcomes in ways that provide meaningful feedback to scholars and practitioners.

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