In this Special Issue of the Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, we interrogate and evaluate the concept of institutional work in the domain of environmental governance, by bringing together diverse papers spanning a range of substantive and theoretical approaches. The papers apply the concept of institutional work across fields of regional development, water governance, climate change adaptation, and urban planning, and disciplines of planning, sociology, political science, geography, and anthropology. As a whole, the Special Issue contributes to a growing body of literature exploring the role of agency in processes of institutional change. This has implications for environmental governance scholarship, which emphasizes the role of institutions across all scales from local to global and to understanding transformations in governance systems within which institutional change plays a central role.
Papers in the Special Issue
The special issue begins with a paper by Raoul Beunen and James Patterson titled “Analysing institutional change in environmental governance: exploring the concept of ‘institutional work’”, which critically reflects on the notion of institutional work and its potential for contributing to understanding institutional change in environmental governance. It elaborates on the intellectual background of the concept beginning with its use in the domain of organisational studies, but then extends into some of the particularities of the domain of environmental governance. This leads to recommendations about how institutional work should be reconceptualised to encompass both purposive and non-purposive actions, and the effects of these actions.
Lotte Bontje, Sharlene Gomes, Zilin Wang and Jill Slinger, in their paper “A narrative perspective on institutional work in environmental governance – insights from a beach nourishment case study in Sweden” study the different narratives through which actors link discourses with institutions. These narratives reflect ideas about social-environmental issues, the relevance and impact of existing institutions, and the need for alternative ones. It shows how these different narratives function as institutional work.
Kristof Van Assche, Monica Gruezmacher and Leith Deacon, in their paper “Mapping institutional work as a method for local strategy; learning from boom/bust dynamics in the Canadian west” explore the theoretical and the practical relevance of institutional work for analysing complex landscape dynamics. They show that institutional work can be a useful analytical tool for researchers and practitioners alike, to inform strategising for institutional change.
Saskia Bisschops and Raoul Beunen, in their paper “A new role for citizens’ initiatives: the difficulties in co-creating institutional change in urban planning” apply institutional work to analyse how different forms of institutional work interact and how these interactions are shaped by various contingencies. They show that both purposive and non-purposive actions matter, and that attempts to change institutions might lead to a series of actions through which institutions are in fact maintained, rather than changed.
Emmy Bergsma, Mendel Giezen, Bart Schalkwijk and Chris Büscher, in their paper “Adapting to new realities: an analysis of institutional work in three cases of Dutch infrastructure planning” explore different institutional environments in which Dutch infrastructure planning organisations try to shape institutional change. Their paper points to the nested nature of institutions and shows how a focus on institutional work can increase the reflective capacity of both researchers and organisations.
Tanya Heikkila and Andrea Gerlak, in their paper “Working on learning: how the institutional rules of environmental governance matter” build on the idea of reflective capacity by exploring how rules structuring an environmental governance arena can enable or constrain institutional work. They analyse how formal and informal rules shape learning processes, and point to forms of institutional work that can help to foster learning.
Monica Vasile, in her paper “The enlivenment of institutions: emotional work and the emergence of contemporary land commons in the Carpathian Mountains” places emphasis on the role of emotion in institutional work. This shows how institutional changes emerge from the complex relations between actions and actors, in which institutional work is often non-purposive. It also brings attention to the histories of specific places and to the interplay between institutions and encompassing flows of narratives.
Chris Riedy, Jennifer Kent and Nivek Thompson, in their paper “Meaning work: reworking institutional meanings for environmental governance” further explore the importance of meaning making processes. They draw on two cases studies, one about local democratic innovation employed by Noosa Council in Queensland, Australia and another about the international campaign to divest from fossil fuels, to analyse the narratives that actors create and mobilise in order to promote institutional changes. They show that institutional work may in practice centre on ‘meaning work’.
Lastly, Jeremy Pittman, in his paper “The struggle for local autonomy in biodiversity conservation governance” explores the multi-level context of institutional work, focussing on actions through which local actors aim to create and maintain local autonomy. Analysing biodiversity conservation in the Canadian prairies, it shows how local actors struggle to find a balance between higher level rules and local practices. This brings attention to the multiple sets of (formal and informal) institutions that matter in a particular context, and that institutional work may involve actors within a single arena or across different levels.
Patterson, J. J., & Beunen, R. (2019). Institutional work in environmental governance. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management.
The special issue was edited by Raoul Beunen and James Patterson from the Open Universiteit, the Netherlands. It is part of the research project Learning and Innovation in Resilient Systems.