Governance is just another increasingly common word

Tom Pepinsky has written a fascinating paper claiming that colonial era Chinese migration to certain locales in Indonesia accounts for variation over space in governance that country today. Yet it is very clearly stated that the nature of governance explained is not “good governance” but “accommodative governance.”

After having written such a paper, he reflects in this post on whether or not governance is or is not “a thing.” In the comments, Dart-throwing Chimp blog author Jay Ulfelder references a couple of works by Francis Fukuyama on these questions.

As noted by everyone, clarity is critical. As Pepinsky writes,

to make such a claim, we must show that governance can be defined, conceptualized, and measured in non-trivial and non-tautologous ways.

One difference that I can see already is that Fukuyama focuses on

As a starting point, I am going to arbitrarily define governance as a government’s ability to make and enforce rules, and to deliver services, regardless of whether that government is democratic or subject to the rule of law.

whereas Pepinsky is evaluating potential causes of citizen assessments of governance in his paper. That is, rather than looking from the top down, Pepinsky is working from the bottom up. This fits with a related idea (scroll down) from my colleague Irfan Nooruddin:

Three main weaknesses bedevil governance scholarship. First, definitions of good governance too often include the policy outcomes to be explained, leading to tautology, and are unhealthily preoccupied with corruption. Second, proponents of governance reform advocate apolitical/efficient/technocratic expertise over (admittedly messy) contested political practice. Thus, we talk about governance reform independent of larger political reform, and laud efficiency improvements without discussing their distributional implications. Finally, by ignoring political process in favor of policy outcome, we reduce citizens to objects of governance. To understand governance as a political phenomenon, we must understand how citizens experience the state, to whom they turn when government officials are unhelpful, and whether they feel capable of holding accountable those appointed to serve them. Thus, rather than top-down elite-driven consensus about what constitutes good governance, I urge more citizen-centered theorizing about what constitutes governance.

We must be careful about our terms as politics seems to worm its way inside nearly everything. Transparency here remains critical for improving understanding. Tossing around the word governance without clarity obscures more than it illuminates, particularly when doing so skyrockets.



One response to “Governance is just another increasingly common word”

  1. Great post, Jeremy. As I told Tom, I’ve come to the conceptualization of governance from an Ostrom-ian perspective (also, I’m a polycentric governance theorist, so I see governance as a process of devolution and a multilevel approach to policy-making rather than as a hierarchical model). That said, I too am struggling with a definition of governance because, like Tom, I want causal mechanisms, quantification, etc. I am at this moment grappling with whether to calculate a polycentricity score for water management in Mexico. I also agree with Stacy VanDeveer when he says that there is no single definition of governance. But we can grapple with trying to come to terms with one.

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