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Max-Planck-Institut für Gesellschaftsforschung

The Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, a member institute of the Max Planck Society, is devoted to basic research in the social sciences. Its work focusses on the governance of advanced industrial societies in the face of internationalization and economic globalization, in particular on the changing roles and capacities of states and other corporate actors under conditions of international interdependence and supranational integration. In the analytical perspective of an actor-centered institutionalism, projects at the institute assess multi-level and multi-actor processes of decision-making, negotiation and coordination, and apply theory modules of evolutionary dynamics as well as political economy.

Devoted to international cooperation as the most promising organizational form of comparative research, the Institute gladly welcomes visitors doing research within its area of interest, whom it tries to provide with a working environment that is both productive and pleasant. The MPIfG also cooperates closely with a number of research institutes working in similar fields, among them:

The Research Program

The general theme of research at the institute is the conditions under which modern societies may be able to solve problems through collective action. The research program of the period from 1986-1995 focused on historically and internationally comparative studies of the interaction between political-administrative intervention and societal self-organization in selected sectors "close to the state" - namely in health care systems, organized research systems and large technical infrastructure systems, with a special emphasis on telecommunications. In the new program, the subjects of empirical research have changed in response to the growing importance of market interaction and international competition even in sectors that were formerly protected and tightly controlled by the authority of the nation state.
In telecommunications, for instance, privatization and deregulation have progressed widely. The same holds true for other sectors traditionally close to the state, such as air and rail transportation, road hauling, the electronic media and energy supply. Similarly, the influence of government policy on industrial research has declined. Looking back at the last decade, we find a growing importance of market coordination in almost all functional sectors. This can be attributed in part to changes in political ideologies and perceptions of reality. But it is also a response to actual constraints presented by European integration, economic globalization and international regime competition, which have tended to make "market-correcting" national systems of regulation appear to be liabilities for international competitiveness.

Real-world changes like these require a historically grounded definition of the questions guiding the institute´s second program period. While we continue to be interested in the problem-solving capacity of modern societies, we look at it within the context of historical conditions which

  • limit the effectiveness of merely national solutions

  • increase the importance of public and private transnational and supranational governance, and

  • increase the importance of interaction effects between national systems of governance. Against this background, the research program emphasizes three types of studies:

1. International and intersectoral comparisons of the functioning of national systems of governance and their response to changed external conditions. In internationally comparative studies, we try to find out whether national systems that used to be different from one another are in the process of converging into a uniform (or, at least, more uniform) pattern, or whether exogenously induced change leads to new, but still nationally different (and in this sense "path dependent") institutional configurations. Are these configurations functional equivalents with no effect on international competitiveness? Or are they assets, or liabilities? Intersectoral comparisons focus on the differences between sectors exposed to international competition and sectors that continue to be "protected," as well as on the interactions between these sectors.

In each dimension we analyze whether, how and to what extent different functions and structures of governance may be affected by external change. For example, one may hypothesize that today´s transformation of national regimes weakens primarily their redistributive and market-correcting capacities. There are also signs that more intense international competition has a particularly negative effect on the performance of sectoral self-organization. This might increase the relative importance of state regulation, albeit at a generally reduced level of intervention and within the limits drawn by international regime competition.

2. The operation, performance and democratic legitimacy of transnational and supranational governance systems, with a special emphasis on the European Union. Even though they are reducing national capacities to act, such systems are also supposed to perform governance functions the national level can no longer handle effectively. Here, too, we can build on work from our first program period.

Problems of interest intermediation are of particular interest at this level. As long as the "democratic deficit" of transnational institutions impedes progress towards majority decision-making, the problem-solving capacity of such institutions will tend to be limited to matters on which a broad consensus can be reached among participating states. Moreover, nationally influential non-state actors - and the interests they represent - will differ greatly in their capacity to organize and act at the transnational level. What we can expect, therefore, is a characteristic selectivity of interest intermediation in transnational regimes that may differ greatly from the distribution of influence in national governance systems.

3. The interplay between the institutions of multilevel governance systems. There is no reason to think that functions which are affected by economic competition at the national level will necessarily be performed at the European or international level, and vice versa. Instead, there is a possibility of competence gaps or competence conflicts, or of the immobilism of interlevel "joint decision traps." But it is also possible that a productive complementarity of competencies will develop that serves to increase the overall problem-solving capacity of mulitlevel governance. Which of these possibilities will prevail may well depend on the instruments applied. One of our main theoretical concerns is to develop methods for analyzing the compatibility and incompatibility of different types of regulation.

The emergence of transnational multilevel policy-making affects not only states but also systems of self-regulation in (civil) society. Differences in the capacity of interest groups to organize and act on the transnational level have an impact on the bias of transnational governance systems - which, in turn, may affect the structure and operation of national systems. Generally, multilevel governance creates new opportunities for actors to choose among arenas and levels of action. Internationalization enables governments and nationally organized interest groups to use their influence on international decisions for domestic purposes. In allowing them to delegate to higher levels problems that they are unwilling or unable to solve, it also facilitates blame avoidance by shifting responsibility for difficult issues to international or supranational decision-makers.

The institute´s research program attempts to clarify the conditions shaping the complex intertwining of public and private domestic policy, foreign policy and international relations. Empirical and theoretical projects are to contribute to a better understanding of the consequences for the problem-solving capacity of modern societies, for the mediation of interests, and for democratic legitimacy.


Max-Planck-Institut für Gesellschaftsforschung

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