05 October 2020

PANARCHIC, a new SNSF project

In an interview with CIES, Prof. James Hollway talks about his new SNSF project, "PANARCHIC: Power and Networks and the Rate of Change in Institutional Complexes".



Prof. James Hollway, Associate Professor IR/PS, Associated Faculty at CIES

Interview with Prof. James Hollway, Assistant Professor of IR/PS,  CIES Associated Faculty 


Your new SNSF-funded project is entitled “PANARCHIC: Power and Networks and the Rate of Change in Institutional Complexes”. Can you break this down for us please?

Sure! The starting point of this project is that many internationally salient policy domains have attracted sets of interdependent actors and institutions, or what the literature calls institutional or regime complexes. Many scholars have identified such complexity in various domains, such as climate change, trade, or refugees, and studied its causes and consequences. However, to date, this literature has rarely compared these domains over time let alone across the domains themselves, and I think this has stymied further theoretical development. One of the main goals of this project is to provide data, methods, and theory to help us make sense of these contrasts.

Why is the rate of change of these complexes so interesting?

Good question. This project is particularly interested in how quickly institutional complexes change. Institutional complexes, like institutions, are constantly tugged in two competing directions. On the one hand, there is an expectation that institutions, especially formal institutions, have been set up to establish expectations that are resilient to continuous changes in government, leadership, and priorities around the world. On the other hand, there are many who would wish to create or disestablish, join or withdraw from, or reform institutions to reflect these changes more immediately. Trump is actually a fascinating example of this latter “transactional” attitude towards global governance: if an international institution isn’t satisfying current priorities, he expects that changes should be made immediately. In many respects, the prime challenge of governance is how to manage the speed of institutional change.

So how do power and networks play in to this?

So actually institutions can be both change accelerants and inhibitors. On the one hand, institutions can inhibit changes through socialisation and path-dependency, for example. On the other hand, institutions can accelerate further cooperation and conflict by lowering transaction costs and facilitating further interaction (as I outlined in Hollway 2020, see here for more details). Similarly, networks of institutions can accelerate changes by offering structural opportunities and tipping points (see Hollway et al 2020), but also inhibit changes by reinforcing norms and further embedding dependencies (see Hollway forthcoming). Running against this is the recognition that actors, especially international actors, are hardly equal. Some states are considerably more powerful than others, say the US vis-à-vis Switzerland, and could expect their desire for structural change to impact the network of international institutions more quickly. Here again there are two sets of expectations: while powerful actors may be able to make changes to the network of international institutions more quickly, they also usually have more to risk in periods of institutional instability and may thus prefer to employ resources to inhibit changes. The PANARCHIC project is chiefly interested in identifying when and how powerful actors and network structure affect how quickly institutions in different domains are created, joined, and reformed.

What is the structure of the project? How has COVID-19 affected your plans?

While COVID forced a few last minute changes over the summer, we are fortunate that this project was designed to rely on online resources for the most part to develop its three main pillars: data, method, and theory. The first big task has been to establish the protocols for developing comparative data on institutional complexes over time. The doctoral student working on the project, Henrique Sposito, and I started just last month but we’ve made excellent progress and there are some pretty exciting innovations to share reasonably soon. Once we’ve finished setting up the main infrastructure for the data pillar of the project, I’ll be looking to hire several masters students from different departments in the coming months to help collect, correct, and connect data on institutional complexes in different domains. The first big data package is on international environmental agreements, and from there we will be moving into trade and other domains. If anyone is interested in applying for one of these positions, please get in touch with me or Henrique for more information. We’ll also be establishing a website at and keeping it updated moving forward, so I hope people will check in from time to time. 

Interview by Céline Kahn, CIES Communication assistant