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Governing through Network Activation: Strategies and Arenas

Following Burris (2004, 336), I define governance as “the management of the course of events in a social system.” Societies at all levels of analysis are the objects of governance, from the international society of states to a country’s national political elites to the collection of stakeholders in a micro-watershed. This definition highlights that governance is not merely a process resulting from structure; it contains agency. It involves the purposive efforts by both state and nonstate actors to “steer” society toward the pursuit of particular goals (Andonova et al. 2009; Brand 2005; Kjaer 2004). “Governors” use a wide variety of mechanisms—force, persuasion, economic pressure, and norm creation—to steer society and affect policy.

Inevitably, some people resist efforts to change policies and practices. Governance is therefore marked by contestation. To analyze this contestation, I draw on two insights from the social movement literature. First, analyzing actors’ strategies is a useful way to study the role of agency in relation to structure, which is necessary to capture the open-ended nature of contestation involved with sociopolitical change (Jasper 2004; 1997; Ganz 2000; 2003). Agency is fundamentally about choice, and strategies offer a concrete way to analyze choice. The second insight is that actors’ strategies, and thus contestation, are shaped by context.

I borrow Jasper’s (2004; 2006) concept of “arena” to conceptualize the context in which contestation over policy occurs. An arena “is a loosely delimited setting where the same open-ended bundle of rules and resources guide all social interactions” (Viterna 2013, 47). Societies at all levels—global, national, and local—contain multiple arenas in which policy can be contested. These include legal-political arenas, like national legislatures, courts, government bureaucracies, and the UN treaty system. But they also include social and economic arenas, including the media, the marketplace, and the streets.

Each arena has a unique set of rules and resources. Organizations are therefore better equipped to contest policy in some arenas than in others, and each arena privileges different organizations. For example, institutional power makes government officials and IGO representatives better equipped than local social movements to contest policy in national and international legal-political arenas like government bureaucracies and UN conventions. However, social movements and civic associations often have more power than national politicians or IGO representatives to influence events in the social arenas of rural communities.

Grassroots global governance involves the shifting of contestation over policy both within and across levels of analysis, first from global arenas to national and local arenas, and then from local arenas back to national and global arenas. The need to shift arenas—and the fact that rules, resources, and power relationships vary across arenas—means that transnational governance networks must incorporate a diverse array of actors able to exercise multiple forms of power in multiple arenas. Networks that do so can exploit more pathways of influence; when blocked in one arena they can shift to another. Network expansion is thus key to governance.

Because different arenas privilege different actors, the organization at the center of a transnational governance network—the one with the most power— shifts depending on the arena where global ideas are being contested. Since arenas of contestation vary across the three phases of grassroots global governance, so too do the organizations leading governance networks. As discussed below, grassroots actors become influential during phase 2 because they have the most power in the local arenas where global ideas are contested at that point. This insight, along with the fact that phase 2 is when global ideas get adapted through experimentation, partially explains how grassroots actors become influential global governors.

To analyze the relationship between arenas (structure), strategy (agency), and network expansion, I draw on nodal governance theory.[1] Nodal governance theory builds on network theory by looking not only at how ideas and resources transfer across network structures, but also the agency involved in converting these into action. Nodal governance theorists focus on the formal and informal organizations that constitute nodes in governance networks. As Burris et al. (2005) note, these organizations constitute the site of governance—the space where knowledge and resources are mobilized to exert influence on society.

In contrast to conventional ways of analyzing global governance arrangements, nodal governance theory does not distinguish organizations by type (e.g., government, corporation, or NGO) or scale (e.g., international, national, or local). Nor is any organizational type given analytical priority. Rather, what matter are organizations’ views on the issues they seek to govern, who they are connected to, and the resources and technologies they can wield to exert influence on other organizations through the network. This framework is useful since relationships in global governance networks often go far beyond the NGO activists and experts commonly associated with transnational advocacy networks. Moreover, as the following chapters illustrate, network members’ identities and relationships crosscut the categories used by conventional frameworks in ways that make differentiating among these categories problematic. Nodal governance theory provides a way out of this problem.

Organizations govern by projecting power across network ties to steer societies toward particular policy objectives. They use the resources and technologies at their disposal to pressure and persuade others to support their policy objectives. A main insight of nodal governance theory is that policy advocates may expand the range of their influence and govern indirectly by influencing the individuals and organizations accessible to them through networks, and who in turn have the power to govern others. They do this by: (l) constructing network ties with organizations and actors that have the potential to influence targeted populations; (2) working to change these actors’ way of thinking about the issues they seek to govern; and (3) persuading them to use their own resources (and those available to them through their network ties) to take action. Governance is therefore a process of network expansion and resource mobilization. I call this process “network activation"[2]

By governing indirectly, a relatively small number of organizations can spur a process of policy change. A metaphor from the game of pool illustrates the point. If the cue ball hits just one or two other balls, and those are in a position to impact several more, the act of hitting the cue ball can set in motion a chain reaction that fundamentally reshapes the game. Similarly, a small number of organizations can indirectly govern areas where they have little direct influence by influencing organizations accessible to them through their networks, and who in turn have the power to exert influence in those areas (or at least have the power to activate networks of actors that can exert influence in those areas). This insight has important implications for understanding how influence flows across arenas at different scales, whether from global to local or from local to global, and for understanding how grassroots actors become global governors.

There are two key elements to expanding governance networks through network activation. One is motivating organizations to join the governance network and contribute their resources, time, and energy to the cause. The second is enhancing the network’s capacity to combine the resources accessible

Structure of the Argument

Figure 2.2 Structure of the Argument.

to each network member and apply them to a particular purpose. Grassroots global governance theory argues that network members create the requisite motivation and capacity by employing various network activation strategies. These include: (1) strategic framing; (2) providing knowledge, technology, and resources; (3) building “knowledge communities” of like-minded experts and activists; (4) creating “linking institutions” that connect various stakeholders, concentrate the distinct resources available to each through their network ties, and provide a focal point for converting these into action; and (5) creating new governing institutions to steer society toward new policy goals.

Figure 2.2 illustrates the structure of my argument for how network activation strategies determine whether or not the grassroots global governance process endures or breaks down. These strategies allow transnational governance networks to expand by incorporating a diverse array of organizations able to influence contestation in different policy arenas at different levels of analysis. This, in turn, allows transnational governance networks to exert the pressure needed to overcome resistance at each phase of the grassroots global governance process, allowing the process to endure. The remainder of the chapter explains this argument in detail. I first discuss each network activation strategy in turn and then explain how different combinations determine whether the process endures or breaks down at various points.

  • [1] On nodal governance theory see Boutellier and van Steden (2011); Burris (2004); Burris et al.(2005); Drahos (2004); Hein et al. (2009); Shearing and Wood (2003); Wood et al. (2011).
  • [2] Nodal governance theorists typically refer to this as “nodal activation” (e.g., Burris et al. 2005).I use “network activation” for the sake of simplicity and clarity.
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