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Fariborz Zelli

Fariborz Zelli

Professor | Principal Investigator BECC

Fariborz Zelli

Institutional Complexity and Political Agency in Polycentric Governance


  • Fariborz Zelli
  • Lasse Gerrits
  • Ina Möller
  • Oscar Widerberg

Summary, in Swedish

This chapter addresses the ways in which the complexity of global governance enables or constrains political agency. An increasingly complex global institutional system—with its growing level of unpredictability and uncertainties—challenges some of the classical institutionalist tenets in respect of conditions of power and agency. For instance, the capacities of central governance institutions and their key actors to shape other actors’ preferences and to bind them by lowering transaction costs may be significantly undermined by a growing number of institutional alternatives in their environment. This chapter therefore suggests that institutional complexity should be acknowledged theoretically as a structural characteristic inherent to polycentric global governance, which alters spaces for political agency. We hold that the ability to use these spaces depends inter alia upon core organizational and epistemic qualities of political actors. These include, for example, a central position or brokerage function in a policy network, or a relatively generalist and flexible knowledge of the governance system in question. Such qualities may serve different actors in attaining and upholding meaningful political agency under a state of complexity. With a view to the three core themes of this volume, we argue that these qualities may facilitate new forms of power (e.g. nodal power in a network), techniques (e.g. forum-shopping amongst institutional alternatives) and legitimacy (e.g. peer or mutual accountability) for navigating unpredictable and uncertain institutional systems. Examples from global environmental governance will be used to illustrate how these qualities are enacted.


  • Department of Political Science
  • BECC: Biodiversity and Ecosystem services in a Changing Climate
  • LU Profile Area: Nature-based future solutions

Publishing year







Polycentricity : How Governing Works Today

Document type

Book chapter


Oxford University Press


  • Political Science


  • polycentricity, institutional complexity, network analysis, agency, power, legitimacy




  • ISBN: 9780191957765