Does Polycentricity Fit? Linking Social Fit With Polycentric Governance In a Large-Scale Marine Protected Area

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Coastal Sciences, Gulf Coast Research Laboratory


Ocean Science and Engineering


Scholars have theorized that polycentricity may produce benefits that promote effective, sustainable governance of complex social-ecological systems. Yet, little empirical research exists exploring whether and how these benefits emerge and what additional outcomes polycentric governance systems produce. This paper presents an empirical examination of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (PMNM), one of the longest-standing and largest marine protected areas in the world. Monument governance is structured as a polycentric system, including semi-autonomous decision-making groups and governance actors that interact across jurisdiction, geography, and decision-making levels. Through analysis of qualitative empirical data, we explore whether and how PMNM functions as theory predicts, with a particular focus on social fit and how it has evolved over time. Findings indicate that PMNM largely exhibits social fit for governance actors, and they add empirical support and additional nuance to theoretical understandings of functional polycentricity. Specifically, the case suggests additional contextual features that might promote social fit, including sufficient time and resources, clear communication and shared understanding, and socially astute and strategically savvy governance actors holding key governance positions. The article demonstrates that social fit can increase or decrease over time, and that different actors may perceive its presence and extent differently. These findings suggest avenues for additional research into how the enabling conditions of polycentric governance systems and the contextual features that enliven those systems in practice may interact and affect functionality and other outcomes.

Publication Title

Journal of Environmental Management



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