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Social-Ecological Systems Meta-Analysis Database: Theory

Failure of centralized control

Variable relationship:

Many scholars suggest that centralized governance systems (Centralization) have negative impacts on social and ecological outcomes when they systematically favor limited institutional options (Institutional Diversity) and scientific and engineering/oriented knowledge and solutions (Governance Knowledge Use) over traditional knowledge (External Recognition). Much of this negative influence results from the focus on relatively few, or in many cases only one, metric for success (Metric Diversity). Such an imbalance of knowledge is sometimes characterized as an emphasis on efficiency and optimization at the expense of recognizing diversity and complexity. When only one aspect of a commons system is managed, everything else that is not managed may deteriorate over time (Commons Condition Trend).

Acheson (2006, 124) describes this situation as a governmental failure: "In large numbers of cases, government efforts to manage resources fail because of the mistakes made by scientists and engineers. In the modern world, an aura of certainty and infallibility has come to surround science and scientists. Their advice is sought on all kinds of matters, and it is usually accepted because it is difficult for laypeople to challenge them. Unfortunately, the science involved in resource management is plagued with problems, making scientists all too fallible. When those advising government policy makers make mistakes, the results can be disastrous."

For specific examples, McPhee (1975) describes the limits of centralized government in the U.S. Government's efforts to control the Mississippi River, while Scott (1998), Lansing (2012), and Easterly (2014) describe this phenomenon in the context of development work, which also frequently involves environmental governance issues. Additionally, Scott (1998) describes the tendency of centralized governance to "sedentarize" local populations in order to make them more amenable to centralized control. This phenomenon can also be maladaptive if the former systems were transhumance-based (see theory with that name).

Scientific Field
Component Type(s)
Government Agency


VariableRoleRole ExplanationValue
CentralizationUnderlying independent variableA highly centralized governance system, with authority distributed among a relatively small number of actors and organizations, and with these actors having authority over a large environmental area, is seen to greatly increase the changes that the target systems will be analytically simplified and subject to "scientific" management.Highly centralized
External recognitionProximate independent variableThe emphasis on scientific knowledge and bureaucratic experts can frequently coincide with a loss of autonomy and dis-empowerment of local resource users.Low - no autonomy
Governance knowledge useProximate independent variablePart of the reason that centralized control can fail is that it exclusively focuses on scientific knowledge, to the exclusion of local traditional knowledge about commons dynamics.Scientific
Institutional diversityProximate independent variableIt is often argued that centralized governance leads to homogenized responses to environmental (or social) problems. While in some situations this may be seen as an advantage, in the context of this theory it is seen to exacerbate the problems associated with centralized governance by not adequately adapting to local conditions.Low
Metric diversityProximate independent variableTarget systems are frequently analytically simplified by the centralized governance system, which manages them for very few, frequently only one, performance metric. This metric then becomes the primary, or only, lens through which the system is viewed and evaluated.Low
Social-ecological fitIntermediate outcomeAs a result of low institutional diversity, exclusive use of scientific knowledge, and local disempowerment, the institutions implemented by the centralized system frequently are inappropriate for local ecological conditions.Low
Actor traditional knowledgeFinal outcomeAs a result of their integration into a governance system based primarily or exclusively on scientific knowledge, there is a tendency for local resource users to become "deskilled" losing their traditional knowledge Low
Commons condition trendFinal outcomeThe declining in commons condition results from several processes. First, when only one aspect of a system is governed, this aspect is maintained frequently at the expense of the more general functionality of the target system. Over time these peripheral processes and functions deteriorate, making it more and more difficult to maintain the primary target of governance as well. Second, poor social-ecological fit can frequently lead to ecological deterioration as well.Worsened
Commons user mobilityFinal outcomeCommons users are frequently sedentarized as a result of centralized state intervention in order to make them more legible and amenable to centralized governance.Low

Related Theories

TheoryRelationshipCharacterizing Variables
Numeric managementcontradictory
Parametric managementrelated
Community-based natural resource management (CBNRM)related
Critique of fortress conservationrelated
Social-ecological fit theorycontains
External recognition and local autonomyrelated
Polycentric comanagementrelated
Centralization and corruptionrelated
Centralized conservationcontradictory
Political decentralization and fitrelated
Technical solutions and shifting the burdenrelated

Related Studies


Holling, C.S., Meffe, G.K., 1996. Command and control and the pathology of natural resource management. Conserv. Biol. 10.


Acheson, James M. 2006. Institutional Failure in Resource Management. Annual Review of Anthropology 35 (1): 117-134.


Lansing, J. S. 2012. Perfect order: Recognizing complexity in Bali. Princeton University Press.


Berkes, Fikret. 2002. “Cross-Scale Institutional Linkages: Perspectives from the Bottom Up.” In The Drama of the Commons, edited by & E. U. Weber E. Ostrom, T. Dietz, N. Dolsak, P. C. Stern, S. Stonich, 293–323. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.


Scott, J.C., 1998. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT.


Easterly, William. 2014. The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor. Basic Books New York.


McPhee, John. 1989. The Control of Nature. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.