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Institutional Fragmentation

  • Fariborz Zelli
  • Philipp H. Pattberg
  • Fariborz Zelli
Publishing year: 2015
Language: English
Pages: 469-477
Publication/Series: Encyclopedia of Global Environmental Governance and Politics
Document type: Book chapter
Publisher: Edward Elgar Publishing

Abstract english

The body of literature on institutional fragmentation and interlinkages has become quite extensive over the last 10-15 years, especially in global environmental governance research. This common ground and the merits of existing scholarly approaches notwithstanding, there are still major new conceptual, theoretical and empirical grounds to be explored.
Conceptually, the literature could further go beyond additive accounts that are underspecified with regard to the quality of relations among various components of an institutional complex. Instead, more multi-criteria sets should be developed to assess and compare different degrees of fragmentation across environmental issue areas. Moreover, new methodical ground can be broken following the pioneering examples of different network approaches and mappings (Hollway 2013; Kim and Mackey 2013; Widerberg 2014).
Similarly, more can be done to root the study of institutional fragmentation and interlinkages theoretically (Chambers et al. 2008, p. 7; cf. O. Young 2008, p. 134). What Underdal (2006, p. 9) observed nearly ten years ago for research on interlinkages also goes for fragmentation research today: the focus of explanatory approaches has been so far ‘primarily on interaction at the level of specific regimes and less on links to the kind of basic ordering principles or norms highlighted in realist and sociological analyses of institutions.’ Indeed, some the most influential approaches in the literature on institutional complexity suffice with basic ideas about causal pathways while falling short of more fundamental theoretical approaches that relate to concepts of power, interests, knowledge, norms or other scope conditions (e.g. Keohane and Victor 2011).
Moreover, many studies still attend to the normative question whether a centralized or a polycentric global governance architecture is preferable (Biermann et al. 2009a; Ostrom 2010; Rayner 2010; Keohane and Victor 2011). This entangling of analytical and normative claims may have partly stood in the way of the development of more fundamental theoretical frameworks.
To be clear: I do not mean to build a strawman argument here. As shown, various authors have begun to address this research gap more systematically, notably Oberthür and Stokke (2011), Gehring and Faude (2013), Zürn and Faude (2013) Orsini et al. (2013) and Van de Graaf (2013) – based inter alia on neoliberal institutionalism, sociological differentiation theory or functionalist approaches.
As Zelli and van Asselt (2013) argue in the introductory article to a special issue on the institutional fragmentation of global environmental governance, causal explanations would not need to re-invent the wheel but could in part be derived from different strands of institutionalism and cooperation theory. This ‘institutionalism revisited’ could develop and examine assumptions that link the degree of fragmentation in a given issue area of environmental governance to, for instance: the constellation of power, drawing on neo-realist perspectives (cf. Benvenisti and Downs 2007); situation structures and constellations of interests, based on NEOLIBERAL INSTITUTIONALISM (cf. Rittberger and Zürn 1990; Van de Graaf 2013); major qualities of the issue area (e.g. the global or local nature of a good; the level of scientific certainty) and the question of institutional fit (O. Young 2002); conflicts among core norms or the contestation of discourses (Zelli et al. 2013; see also LIBERAL ENVIRONMENTALISM).
Finally, a whole set of empirical themes merits attention of future single case studies or comparative analyses across environmental domains, for example:
- the interactions between TRANSNATIONAL INSTITUTIONS and public institutions (Abbott 2014);
- the consequences of fragmentation for different types of non-state actors, including further in-depth studies about the legitimacy, accountability and inclusiveness of complex governance architectures (Karlsson-Vinkhuyzen and McGee 2013; Orsini 2013);
- the impact of fragmentation on the overall EFFECTIVENESS of a global governance architecture, by both QUALITATIVE COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS and QUANTITATIVE COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS, e.g. by adopting counter-factual approaches to an entire institutional complex (cf. Hovi et al. 2003; Stokke 2012);
- the suitability and effectiveness of specific management attempts like ORCHESTRATION (Abbott and Snidal 2010);
- the stability or fragility of institutional complexes, including the question whether they move towards a (new) division of labour (Gehring and Faude 2013) or rather towards new types of positional differences and conflicts (Zelli 2011).


  • Political Science
  • international organizations
  • institutions
  • UNEP
  • United Nations Environment Programme
  • WTO
  • World Bank
  • transnationalism
  • Public-Private Partnerships (PPP)
  • environmental governance
  • global governance
  • climate governance
  • Kyoto Protocol
  • institutional analysis
  • institutional theory
  • complexity
  • interplay


  • BECC
  • Miljöpolitik-lup-obsolete
  • ISBN: 9781782545781
Fariborz Zelli
E-mail: fariborz [dot] zelli [at] svet [dot] lu [dot] se

Senior lecturer

Department of Political Science

+46 46 222 47 64



Associate professor

Department of Political Science



Fariborz is director of the NAVIGOV project. He received the outstanding Ph.D. thesis award of the University of Tübingen and the award for outstanding teaching performance of the German state of Baden-Württemberg.

Ongoing research projects

Department of Political Science
Lund University
Visiting address: Paradisgatan 5H (House: Eden)
Postal address: Box 52, SE-221 00 LUND
Telephone: +46 46-222 89 52

Faculty of Social Sciences