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Institutions and

Alistair Cole

The study of political institutions

The study of political institutions is arguably the major growth

area in contemporary political science. But it is not, by itself, very
Old institutional analysis lies at the very root of comparative
politics as it developed in the Anglo-American tradition in the late
nineteenth century
Describing political institutions in terms of their legal roles and
their formal competencies has a long pedigree, going back to the
study of American government in the 19th century (Woodrow
Old institutionalism focused on the study of public or
constitutional law and the formal operation of the key political
institutions. It displayed little interest in broader social behavior or
the impact of institutions on public policies.

Against institutionalism

Even old institutionalism had something to say, however.

There are a surprisingly limited number of formal political
institutions amongst the worlds nation-states
In most senses, modern regimes bear a striking resemblance to
ancient political systems in terms of their main institutions:
executives, civilian and military bureaucracies, judiciaries,
legislative assemblies, political factions and parties
From the 1960s onwards, there was a move away from
describing formal institutions, led by the behaviouralist
revolution in the United States. The behaviouralist revolution
took a number of forms: with structural functionalism, systems
theory and rational choice each in their distinctive ways
expressing the reaction against institutionalism.

The New institutionalism

New institutionalism was launched by political scientists March and

Olsen in 1984 as a reaction to behaviouralism and the growing influence of
rational choice theory.
New institutionalism focuses on the way in which institutions embody
values and power relationships (Hall and Taylor 1996; Lowndes 1996;
Lowndes, 2001).
New Institutionalism defines institutions themselves as an essential
variable in political outcomes.
March and Olsen(1984): new institutionalism stresses the relative
autonomy of political institutions. Institutions are neither a mirror of
society (the behavioural critique), nor merely the site for individual
strategies (as in the rational actor paradigm).
Institutions give meaning to interactions and provide the context within
which interactions take place.

Three main approaches

Three main approaches emerge from the

terminological morass: the logic of
appropriateness, a concern with the weight of
past decisions and processes of automatic
government, and the attempt to marry
methodological individualism and institutional

Three/four main approaches

Sociological or normative institutionalism emphasises the cultural context

within which organisations function and the values with which actors are

Historic institutionalism emphasises the importance of initial decisions

and choices of venues and introduces notions such as that of path

Rational choice institutionalism purports that institutions are only vested

with powers by individuals. To understand institutions we need first and
foremost to understand individual interactions, hence game theory.
Rational choice institutionalism involves more rational choice than
institutionalism, the research focus being upon how individuals can use
institutions to maximise their interest. Institutions, appreciated in an
instrumental way, can be important insofar as they can be designed to limit
the consequences of individual behaviour

Normative or sociological

Normative or sociological institutionalism refers to the codes of

appropriate behaviour that imbue actors in organisations.
Public officials act upon their perceptions of what is the correct code of
behaviour; and they will resist changes from within or outside challenge
understandings of appropriate behaviour especially when this is linked to
the exercise of a specific profession or corps.
Actors within organisations are bound by common values, which explains
not only their propensity to frustrate change, but also the capacity for
organisations to reproduce themselves.
Normative institutionalism thus frames institutions in terms of the belief
systems of actors, considered as members of a profession/corps/grade,
rather than as utility maximising individuals.
Its underlying assumption is that individuals within organisations are
conservative, fearful of change and resolute in defence of their interests.
Importance of professional ethicsand difficulties of implementation.

Historical institutionalism 1.

Need to understand the importance of history in general, and the history of

specific policy sectors or public policies in particular (Skocpol, Tilly, Elias,
Classic social science research is synchronic; it uses a range of possible
variables to explain a dependent variable. It can overlook the importance of
history. There are various ways of understanding history.
One is to emphasise the overarching historical context in the form of a
global rfrentiel that is not dissimilar to the scheme that developed by
Another is to focus on the sectoral level, and retrace the history of specific
public policies.
This sectoral analysis is that favoured by the historical institutionalist
school. Decisions set sectors on a given path, from which a shift is
extremely costly in terms past investment. Change can usually only occur
in the context of a paradigm shift

Historical institutionalism 2.

In the HI approach, the heritage is identified as the principal independent

variable (Rose, Collier notably). Rose (1991) argues strongly that policy
choices are limited by past choices. Incumbent governments can not ignore
past commitments that are given substance by complex legal systems and
pre-existing institutions and actor configurations.
The vast bulk of laws in operation at any one time are not those
implemented by the incumbent government.
In a similar argument, Weaver speaks of automatic government and doubts
the capacity of governments to implement change.
Policy programmes pursue their autonomous development irrespective of
the activities of governments in power. The field of social welfare is
especially prone to this type of analysis.

Historical institutionalism and path


According to the concept of path dependency, initial decisions are crucial

because they tie in future decisions.
In a colourful image, Pierson (1996) introduces the notion of increasing
returns to describe this process. Past experiences are predictable, whereas
change is unpredictable. There are strong incentives not to change direction
once decisions have been taken at critical junctures. Policy continuity can
be very effective and it provides optimum returns over the long run.
The model of historical institutionalism as presented by Pierson can
support a bureaucratic model of politics. Decision-making involves a
process of sedimentation, as successive layers of decisions are made.
Welfare policies.
Though sub-optimal in some senses, such decision-making reduces
uncertainty, hence is acceptable to most actors. Policy networks embrace
stability rather than change. Taken literally, this rather static portrayal
underplays the prospects for policy change
Solutions are satisficing that is, the first solution that broadly obtains
Rationality is bounded

Rational choice institutionalism

RC institutionalism attempts to marry methodological

individualism and institutional design (Ostrom)
Rational choice focuses on methodological individualism,
rather than collective, or middle level aggregates.
For RC, to understand institutions we need first and foremost
to understand individual interactions, specifically the games
people play.
Rational Choice institutionalism: a market doctrine? Political
economists refuse to recognise the State, assume individual is
an egotistical, self-interested actor
Rational choice institutionalism involves more rational choice
than institutionalism
The research focus: how to design institutions in an
instrumental way, so that they can be designed to limit the
consequences of utility maximising individual behaviour
Lies behind creation of NPM and agency mode of

Where has the State gone?

These three institutionalisms either ignore or minimise the

state: HI = sectoral; RI = individual; NI = organisational
Empirical Reality since the 1980s, state in retreat as a result of:

Theoretical Approaches:

Convergence to one neo-liberal model (state disappears)

Divergence (state still exists)

Frameworks for Analysis:

forces of globalization: economics, institutions, ideas

state policies: liberalization, deregulation, privatization

1980s state comes back in only to fade out again with two new
Rational Choice (RI)
Historical (HI)

The latest Theoretical Approach: Varieties of Capitalism

Divergence down to firm-centered varieties (state marginalized)

Liberal Market Economies (LMEs); Coordinated Market Economies (CMEs)

Combines HI and RI

A Third Variety of Capitalism

Different countries: France, Italy, Spain, S. Korea, Taiwan..

Differing role of state

LME, liberal; CME, enabling; SME, influencing

Differing logic of coordination

LME adjustment driven by financial markets, led by firms acting

CME adjustment led by firms and jointly negotiated by business,
labour and the State
SME adjustment led by business where it exercises autonomy; but
state driven where state sees need to reshape economic environment.

Discursive institutionalism: a new


Associated with Vivien Schmidt, Claudio

How do States legitimise change? Role of
legitimising discourses and how discourses are
embedded in institutions/states
Forms of acclimatised governance...
Forms of enduring hierarchy above the role of
meso-level institutions (which ties in common
HI, RI and NI)


Hall and Taylor (1996) identify three new institutionalisms that they label
as historical, sociological and rational choice institutionalism.
Guy Peters (1999) goes further and identifies six varieties of new
To add to the confusion, the labels change from author to author: what
March and Olsen or Hall and Taylor label as sociological institutionalism,
for example, is more accurately branded as normative institutionalism by
Guy Peters.
But new institutionalism has the great merit of focussing attention upon
rules, organs of state, middle level or aggregate analysis, as well as the
actors/elites that inhabit the organisations of government.
It rehabilitates the importance of meaning also central to political