This article synthesizes and compares environmental governance theories. For each theory we outline its main tenets, claims, origin, and supporting literature. We then group the theories into focused versus combinatory frameworks for comparison. The analysis resonates with many types of ecosystems; however, to make it more tangible, we focus on coastal systems. First, we characterize coastal governance challenges and then later link salient research questions arising from these challenges to the theories that may be useful in answering them. Our discussion emphasizes the usefulness of having a diverse theoretical toolbox, and we argue that if governance analysts are more broadly informed about the theories available, they may more easily engage in open-minded interdisciplinary collaboration. The eight theories examined are the following: polycentricity, network governance, multilevel governance, collective action, governmentality (power / knowledge), adaptive governance, interactive governance theory (IGT), and evolutionary governance theory (EGT). Polycentricity and network governance both help examine the links or connections in governance processes. Polycentricity emphasizes structural configurations at a broader level, and network governance highlights agency and information flow within and between individuals or organizations. Collective action theory is helpful for examining community level governance, and helps analyze variables hindering or enabling self-organization and shared resource outcomes. In contrast, multilevel governance helps understand governance integration processes between localities, regions, and states across administrative, policy, or legal dimensions. Governmentality is helpful for understanding the role of discourse, power, knowledge, and narratives in governance, such as who creates them and who becomes governed by them with what effect. Adaptive governance helps analyze the links between context, change, and resilience. IGT helps examine the interdependencies between the systems being governed and the governing systems. EGT is helpful for unpacking how coevolutionary processes shape governance and the options for change.
Partelow, S., A. Schlüter, D. Armitage, M. Bavinck, K. Carlisle, R. Gruby, A.-K. Hornidge, M. Le Tissier, J. Pittman, A. M. Song, L. P. Sousa, N. Văidianu, and K. Van Assche. 2020. Environmental governance theories: a review and application to coastal systems. Ecology and Society 25(4):19.