Experimental Institution Building: The Transnational Multi-Actor Governance Response to the Rana Plaza Disaster

Saturday, 4 July 2015: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
TW2.2.03 (Tower Two)
Jimmy Donaghey, University of Warwick, Coventry, United Kingdom
Juliane Reinecke, University of Warwick, Coventry, United Kingdom
In April 2013, the Rana Plaza building complex, which housed multiple apparel factories, collapsed, leaving 1129 victims dead with more than 2000 injured. This paper draws on the pragmatist approach to experimentalist governance to study the multi-actor governance response to the disaster, specifically the implementation of the Bangladesh “Accord for Building and Fire Safety” to develop a theoretical model of experimental institutional building in an industrial relations context.

While experimental governance focuses on the democratic functions of experiments in transnational governance (Dorf and Sabel, 1998; Sabel and Zeitlin, 2012), we study the organization dynamics of how experiments play out in concrete action contexts. As a novel and unprecedented agreement, the Accord can be regarded as a governance experiment in line with pragmatist sociologists who have argued that “social scientists…have our experiments arranged for us” in the field of social life rather than assembled by laboratory scientists (Small, 1921, p. 188). The Accord is an innovative multi-actor transnational response to a complex governance challenge, both in substance and structure. Unlike International Framework Agreements, Corporate Codes of Conduct or Voluntary Certification Standards, the Accord is a legally binding collective agreement across an innovative array of governance actors across multiple boundaries: global union federations, Bangladeshi trade unions, and a sector-spanning range of 180 ready-made garment retailers and brands from 20 countries, with four NGOs as “Witness Signatories” and the International Labour Organization (ILO) as independent chair.

We find that in the case, experimental institution building is based upon combining an uneasy mix between on the one hand imitation and innovation and on the other hand deliberate and emergent approaches. Based on the Bangladesh Accord, this paper has developed a theoretical model of experimental institution building. Experimentalist governance with its focus on pragmatist problem-solving has provided useful insights into explaining the emergence and institutional development of the Accord. However, we extend the existing literature on experimentalism in developing an organizational view on governance processes by focusing on how such experiments become translated into organisational practices. While political scientists have sought to establish the principles and design of experimental governance (e.g. Fung and Wright, 2003), our findings highlight that there is not a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Rather we developed a typology of different organizational forms which experimentalism can take in situated environments. In particular, our findings highlight the constitutive elements can combine to varying degrees of innovation and imitation, as well as differing greatly in terms of how deliberate the design was. 

Dorf, M. C., & Sabel, C. F. (1998). A constitution of democratic experimentalism. Columbia Law Review, 267-473.

Fung, A., & Wright, E. O. (2003). Deepening democracy. Deepening democracy.

Sabel, C. F., & Zeitlin, J. (2012). Experimentalism in the EU: Common ground and persistent differences. Regulation & Governance, 6(3), 410-426.

Small, Albion. 1921. “The Future of Sociology.” Publications of the American Sociological Society 16: 174–93