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Social-Ecological Systems Meta-Analysis Database: Theory

Polycentric comanagement

Variable relationship:

While they originated in different research communities, the theoretical arguments contained in discussions of comanagement-based and polycentric governance have increasingly become integrated and indistinguishable (see Huitema et al. 2009). As such, they are treated as one theory in this database.

Carlsson and Berkes (2005: 66) quote the World Bank (1998: 11) in defining co-management as "the sharing of responsibilities, rights and duties between the primary stakeholders, in particular, local communities and the nation state; a decentralized approach to decision-making that involves the local users in the decision-making process as equals with the nation-state."

Comanagement is associated with different regime types depending on the sector. In the forest sector, it is known as Joint Forest Management (JFM) (Kumar 2002). Comanagement is sometimes conflated with CBNRM, but it is distinct in that the communities involved share power to varying degrees with the state (Sen and Nielsen 1996), whereas in CBNRM, the communities have the majority of the authority over decision-making. A number of variables associated with successful community-based natural resource management have also been argued to play a role in comanagement. These include: clear social and property boundaries, leadership, and supportive regional and national policies. These variables are not included in this entry as specific to co-management.

Polycentric comanagement systems are somewhat but not completely decentralized (Centralization), with coordination both within and across levels (Horizontal Coordination; Multiple Levels). In that context, the allocation of real decision making power to communities (Commons Political Power; External Recognition; Participation in Rule Making) and the use of both traditional and scientific (Governance Knowledge Use) can balance the tendency of government to impose top-down scientific policies (see failure of centralization theory). This arrangement also ensures that local users comply with rules (Compliance), and provides the system with a level of institutional diversity (Institutional Diversity) that aids in its adaption to changing conditions and disturbances (Actor Adaptive Capacity) and tailor institutions to local contexts (Social-ecological Fit). All in all, polycentric comanagement results in the maintenance of the commons condition (Commons Condition Trend).

Scientific Field
Component Type(s)
Group of Local Resource User Groups, Government Agency


VariableRoleRole ExplanationValue
Governance knowledge useUnderlying independent variableOne of the strengths of comanagement is seen to be its inherent use of both scientific and traditional knowledge, each of which offers its own advantages for the effective management of a commons.Scientific knowledge and Local/traditional knowledge
Participation in rule makingUnderlying independent variableUsers who participate in the design of policies that affect their use of the resource gain ownership over those policies and therefore are more eager to follow the rules. The rules are also more likely to be legitimate and fit to local conditions, which increases their effectiveness.High
External recognitionUnderlying independent variableComanagement involves the recognition that local commons users have some local autonomy.Moderate to high
CentralizationUnderlying independent variableMuch of the attraction of comanagement comes from it being somewhat decentralized, which enables the participation of local commons users in decision-making.Somewhat decentralized
Commons political powerUnderlying independent variableAutonomy of local user groups to manage the resource witin their jurisdictions allows increasing fit to local conditionsHigh
Horizontal coordinationUnderlying independent variableJurisdictions that are coordinated with each other is is constitutive of polycentric ordersBoth formal and informal
Multiple levelsUnderlying independent variableThis theory presupposes the existence of a multi-level governance systemCoordination among multiple levels
Institutional diversityProximate independent variableDecentralization, combined with a degree of autonomy of local decision-making centers enables a level of institutional diversity across the system.High
Social-ecological fitIntermediate outcomeSocio-ecological fit increases the likelihood of sustainable use of resources, particularly in contexts of local diversity and changing environmental conditions.High
Actor adaptive capacityIntermediate outcomeHigh diversity and autonomy, along with their ability to coordinate actions and share experiences, enables subsystems to respond to changes and disturbances that they may face.High
ComplianceIntermediate outcomeWhen the ability of local commons users to construct their own rules is not threatened, they are more likely to comply with the institutional arrangements embodied in the comanagement arrangement.Yes
Commons condition trendFinal outcomeThe conditions of the resource improve as a result of polycentric co-management. Remained the same or Improved

Related Theories

TheoryRelationshipCharacterizing Variables
Failure of centralized controlrelated
External recognition and local autonomycontains
Crowding in and participationcontains
Nested governancecontains
Participatory management contains
Numeric managementrelated
Political decentralization and fitcontains

Related Studies


Armitage, Derek R., Ryan Plummer, Fikret Berkes, Robert I. Arthur, Anthony T. Charles, Iain J. Davidson-Hunt, Alan P. Diduck, Nancy C. Doubleday, Derek S. Johnson, Melissa Marschke, Patrick McConney, Evelyn W. Pinkerton, and Eva K. Wollenberg. 2008. Adaptive co-management for social–ecological complexity. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 7 (2):95-102.


Pomeroy, Robert S., Brenda M. Katon, and Ingvild Harkes. 2001. Conditions affecting the success of fisheries co-management: lessons from Asia. Marine Policy 25 (3):197-208.


Olsson, Per, Carl Folke, and Fikret Berkes. 2004. Adaptive Comanagement for Building Resilience in Social–Ecological Systems. Environmental Management 34 (1):75-90.


Andersson, Krister P, and Elinor Ostrom. 2008. "Analyzing decentralized resource regimes from a polycentric perspective."  Policy sciences 41 (1):71-93.


Carlsson, Lars, and Fikret Berkes. 2005. “Co-Management: Concepts and Methodological Implications.” Journal of Environmental Management 75 (1): 65–76.


Huitema, D., Mostert, E., Egas, W., Moellenkamp, S., Pahl-Wostl, C., Yalcin, R., 2009. Adaptive water governance: assessing the institutional prescriptions of adaptive (co-) management from a governance perspective and defining a research agenda. Ecol. Soc. 14, 26.


McGinnis, Michael D. 1999. "Introduction." In Polycentricity and Local Public Economies: Readings from the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, edited by McGinnis Michael D., 1-27. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.