Standards are there to convince rather than to coerce. Is that enough, and who sets the goals in the first place?

Assistant professor Daria Gritsenko's recent article sheds light to the complex world of quality standards. Using shipping as an example, she aims to show how multiple and intricate their functions can be, and who stands behind them.

Daria Gritsenko's article "Quality standards in polycentric systems: A case of shipping" was recently published in  Geoforum, a leading international, inter-disciplinary journal publishing innovative research and commentary in human geography and related fields.

Could you briefly tell us what the article is about?

— This paper is about quality standards and their role in coordinating complex economic activities, such as shipping. From electric plugs to shoe sizes, standards are ubiquitous in our societies. What is interesting about standards is that they are not tied to formal authority and hence they are seeking to convince rather than to coerce the addressees. From previous research we know that quality standards may have different functions — and in this article we argue that there are connections between these functions. In fact, the most important thing about quality standards is exactly this multi-functionality. We use the case of shipping to demonstrate how standards facilitate quality shipping through coordination actions, organisations, and visions. 

How did you come to study this?

— I have been studying environmental governance in shipping for almost ten years and one question that I wanted to understand is how can a system with so many actors and rules deliver coherent outcomes. In other words, why do we have a certain degree of environmental quality in shipping when there is no single state, institution or organisation that can set rules and ensure their enforcement across jurisdictions. This is a very theoretical question, obviously, and my previous research approached it through multiple case-studies. In this article I draw theoretical conclusions upon a decade of empirical work. A fun fact: I actually co-authored this article with Prof. Michael Roe who was acting as opponent in my doctoral defense. In a way, it is a follow up on the discussion we had during the defense and later that evening in the traditional 'karonkka' party.

What are the main findings of your research?

— The main contribution of this work is theoretical. There is a popular conceptual approach to transnational environmental governance, called "polycentric governance", that has been developed mainly by the Nobel prize laureate Elinor Ostrom. Polycentric governance asserts that in complex settings, overlapping and duplicating authority can be a source of efficiency, rather than inefficiency. One open question in this theory is how such polycentric governance systems are coordinated. Our article offers a contribution to answering this question by pointing out the coordinating role of quality standards. 

From a more practical point of view, our analysis calls for re-assessment of the role quality standards play in transnational environmental governance. Counter to the arguments favoring the regulatory use of standards - naturally asking how to enhance the enforcement of quality standards -  we recognize the inherent limitations of standards as voluntary requirements and argue that the main value of quality standards is informative, integrative, and discursive. Quality standards describe desired practices, rather than what is actually practiced. As a result, requirements expressed through standards, unlike those postulated in the international legal agreements, reflect collective intentions of the actors involved in a certain economic activity.

From our perspective, there is real value in engaging wider stakeholders into ideation around quality standards. Quality standards are a "moving target" and that's exactly why they help coordinating complex economic activities.

Read the full article in Geoforum

About the author

Daria Gritsenko is the assistant professor in Digital Russia Studies, a new field of study that uses the theories and methodologies of data science to study the questions of social sciences and humanities in the context of Russian and Eastern European studies. She has previously focused on the questions of policymaking activities of private actors, environmental sustainability and large infrastructure governance, especially regarding transportation and energy.