Scale, Governance Coalitions, and the Branding of Collective Action: The Politics of Obesity in Pennsylvania

Open Access
Rios, Michael
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
March 13, 2006
Committee Members:
  • James Mc Carthy, Committee Chair
  • Chris Benner, Committee Member
  • Melissa Wright, Committee Member
  • Carolyn Elizabeth Sachs, Committee Member
  • James David Plumb, Committee Member
  • scale
  • governance
  • coalitions
  • collective action
  • obesity
Many geographers argue that scale, in addition to being a key concept in cartography, GIS, and other forms of geographic representation, is a critical dimension of processes of political and social change. This research focuses on how scale has been theorized in analyses of institutions and governance. While discussions of institutions have focused on regulatory networks, related processes, and the mutual constitution and evolution of economic, cultural, and political practices, previous studies have conceptualized institutions as regional or localized manifestations of regulation rather than as outcomes of strategic interactions at and among particular scales. Similarly, there has been little discussion of scale and its role in forms of collective action undertaken by state and non-state actors. This study contributes to this literature, then, by demonstrating how scale is used by social actors to mediate and restructure power relations. The study also provides an alternative conceptualization of the state and civil society, one that emphasizes complex relations within and between them, rather than simple oppositions. In the study, scale is used to describe the multiple forms of social activity imagined and produced in ways that assume, require, refer to, or seek particular geographical relationships. In describing the role of scale in structuring social activity, I draw attention to how social actors use multiple senses of scale in fluid, overlapping, and sometimes even contradictory ways. This perspective recognizes the agency of institutions and groups who strategically draw on geographical relationships to create particular political or social outcomes, whether quantifying the extent or significance of a phenomenon in areal terms, facilitating the coordination of local, regional, and supra-regional resources, or seizing opportunities at territorialized juridical levels of the state. The conception of scale in this manner has parallels with social ecology, inasmuch as scale links contextual factors such as community, environment, and public policy with collective action and behavioral change. In this dissertation I approach scale from an organizational perspective with respect to collective action to address my primary question: what is the significance of scale in the strategies pursued by governance coalitions? I define governance coalitions as alliances between multiple sectors and between politically recognized levels of jurisdiction. Their primary function is to facilitate interaction between policy and mobilization networks, while simultaneously coordinating the implementation of targeted action. The characteristics of governance coalitions include the reflexive participation of independent groups, despite the existence of mixed motives and competing interests. In using the case of the Pennsylvania Advocates for Nutrition and Activity, or PANA, I describe the role of scale in collective action between policy networks and community mobilization focused on obesity prevention. To situate the case study within methodological discussions of scale, I chose qualitative inquiry as the preferred approach to draw connections between theoretical constructs and empirical data. Key data sources included participant observations of coalition activities over four years, coalition documents and promotional materials, and key informant interviews with coalition members. In this study, I argue for the relevance of scale in analyses of governance coalitions for two separate, but related, reasons. First, governance coalitions are a contemporary expression of collective action aimed at changing political and social behavior. Second, a study of these cooperative mechanisms reveals more dynamic relationships between the state and civil society groups than has been recognized in previous studies. In both instances, scalar discourses play a critical role in structuring the social activity of organizational networks, leading to changes in institutional and social relations. The evidence presented in the study reveals that governance coalitions purposefully and strategically construct scale to mobilize limited resources across space and time, to create a collective identity among different interests, and to seize openings in the polity. I present a formal typological framework of scale to demonstrate the use of scalar representations to structure the issues and agendas of social actors in ways that facilitate collective action in response to the constraints and affordances available. However, the results of this research also expose important tensions in contemporary governance coalitions. One such tension is based on whether this form of collective action represents a marketization of social change or simply the socialization of marketing; another is whether they achieve political outcomes through an alignment with elites, or whether they simply are an alignment of elites. The first paradox focuses on the use of marketing approaches to collective action, and is revealed by the particular characteristics of PANA. The second paradox highlights the tensions that exist between different sectors and levels of coordination and mobilization, pointing to larger theoretical implications for state and civil society relations. While governance coalitions provide a potential mechanism to address social problems through democratic participation and decision-making, they are equally constrained by the encroachment of market forces in public policy discussions and structural inequalities that limit access to resources and the public sphere.