Historical institutionalism

Historical institutionalism

Historical institutionalism (HI) is a social science method that uses institutions in order to find sequences of social, political, economic behavior and change across time. It is a comparative approach to the study of all aspects of human organizations and does so by relying heavily on case studies.

Borrowing from Charles Tilly (1984), historical institutionalism is a method apt for measuring "big structures, large processes, and [making] huge comparisons".

Historical Institutionalism has generated some of the most important books in the fields of sociology, political science and economics. In fact, some of these studies have inspired policy and its scholars have received numerous awards. Although historical institutionalism proper is fairly new (circa 1979), it identifies with the great traditions in history, philosophy, politics, sociology and economics.

Old and new institutionalism

Institutions have been always central to social science but they have not been addressed with the same emphasis and manner in every epoch. Before and after the turn of the twentieth century, several scholars were writing about institutions, but they had not developed a theory of institutions yet. Most of these approaches relied heavily on the study of formal institutions (i.e. the law) (see hermeneutics). Moreover, they were highly normative and, thus, prescriptive (i.e. Weber prescribed the professionalization of bureaucracy in order to have a modern state). Institutionalist examples of this sort abound: Marx's arguments relied on "social classes", Weber on "bureaucracy", Durkheim on " the division of labor", Thorstein Veblen on "consumption". This is often called "old institutionalism".

During the 1950s, structural-functionalism blurred the study of institutions. They were more concerned about the variability of the modernization process across countries and about prescribing and generalizing at the systemic level rather than acknowledging the different paths that development can take. (i.e. Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba, "The Civic Culture").

The new institutionalism begins with the works of Samuel Huntington, "Political Order in Changing Societies"; Barrington Moore's, "Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy" , and more specifically Theda Skocpol’s, "States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia & China". These worth-reading books spawned the new research program.

As stated above, before HI arrived, institutions were only treated as the formal rules of behavior (i.e. the law). In contrast, historical institutionalism has loosened the definition of institutions. In this new approach, institutions can take the shape of a formal bureaucratic structure but also an ideology or an informal costume. The significance of this change of approach is that historical institutionalism denies that power and history have only one source as past approaches (i.e. the State) and has given agency to all kinds of social groups and behaviors (i.e. In "Weapons of the Weak" James Scott acknowledges the power of "gossip" in political life.) In emphasizing the participation of all kind of groups, not just elites or the state, historical institutionalism offers a dynamic approach to history.

Moreover, HI avoids prescription. On the contrary, since historical institutionalism is interested in the richness and different paths that a revolution or an economic reform can take given that different groups participate in each case, they are sensitive to the differences that can occur when following a particular political design (i.e. democracy). In that sense, it also avoids the teleological determinism of past approaches. For historical institutionalism, the actors both determined by and are producers of history.

The treatment of history

The concept that history moves forward and that there is a progression in time that leads from point A to point B, can be traced back to Hegel and Marx. However, historical institutionalists have revolutionized the way in which history is analyzed. They do not believe in the linearity of history as Hegel and others did. Instead, they choose to specify the conditions in which a particular trajectory in time was followed and not others. Thus, specifying the paths not taken is as important as specifying the actual trajectory of history.

As opposed to the old institutionalists, they accept the fact that history will not necessarily lead to a "happy" outcome (i.e. "communism or democracy as the end of history)".

The most basic concept with which historical institutionalist work is with the concept of path dependence. Theda Skocpol and Paul Pierson write that path dependence does not have yet a clear definition, but can express the idea that “outcomes at a ‘critical juncture’ trigger feedback mechanisms [negative or positive] that reinforce the recurrence of a particular pattern into the future.” In their view, the significance of path dependence is that:

:"once actors have ventured far down a particular path, they are likely to find it very difficult to reverse course…The “path not taken” or the political alternatives that were once quite plausible may become irretrievably lost. ‘Path dependence analysis’ highlights the role of what Arthur Stinchcombe has termed ‘historical causation’ in which dynamics triggered by an event or process at one point in time reproduce themselves, even in the absence of the recurrence of the original event or process". (Skocpol and Pierson, 2002: 665-6)

ome problems

Historical institutionalism is not a unified intellectual enterprise (see also new institutionalism). Some scholars are oriented towards treating history as the outcome of rational and purposeful behavior based on the idea of equilibrium (see rational choice). They rely heavily on quantitative approaches. Others, more qualitative oriented scholars, reject the idea of rationality and instead emphasize the idea that randomness and accidents matter in political and social outcomes. (see Steinmo 2001). There are unsolvable epistemological differences between both approaches (see Bates et.al., 1998). However given the historicity of both approaches, and given their focus on institutions, both can fall under "historical institutionalism" .
*It could be said that path dependence claims causality because every juncture must be considered causal to further developments. (i.e. Z couldn’t occur without W, X and Y) In that sense, it is more deterministic than statistical analysis because at the latter acknowledge only probabilistic relations among variables. “Correlation is not causation”.

*Path dependence, in the economic sense, is also subjective because it involves the judgment of the researcher in determining which historical conjunctures had an effect on the outcome why others don’t (selecting on the dependent variable). The subjectivity becomes accentuated because one can claim that the smallest historical even can shape the larger outcomes. (E.g. A man got drunk, the next morning he was involved in manufacturing 20 rifles that were sent to the same regiment and the rifles didn’t aim right and the battle was lost and then the war). Where should we trace the causal thread? How much history is needed?

*HI, on the qualitative side, implies a lot of research and the results may not be satisfactory. It is not clear that focusing on multiple equilibrium one can have a more clear picture in explaining the world. In that sense, it sacrifices elegance for richness. Richness in turn can also lead to impressionist assumptions (e.g. Skowronek in comparing different presidencies across time considering only some structural similarities and not others)

Major institutionalist figures and books

*Perry Anderson - "Lineages of the Absolutist State"
*Reinhard Bendix - "Nation Building and Citizenship: Studies of our Changing Social Order"
*Suzanne Berger - "Peasants Against Politics"
*Peter B Evans - "Embedded Autonomy"
*Alexander Gerschenkron - "Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective"
*Samuel Huntington - "Political Order in Changing Societies"
*Chalmers Johnson - "Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power"
*Peter Katzenstein - "Norms and National Security"
*Robert Keohane - "Power and Interdependence"
*Atul Kohli - "The State and Development in the Third World"
*Stephen Krasner - "Sovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy"
*Margaret Levi - "Consent, Dissent and Patriotism"
*Gregory Luebbert - "Liberalism Fascism and Social Democracy"
*Ian Lustick - "Unsettled States, Disputed Lands"
*Joel Migdal - "Strong Societies and Weak State"
*Barrington Moore - "Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy"
*Paul Pierson - "Politics in Time"
*Karl Polanyi - "The Great Transformation"
*Dietrich Rueschemeyer - "Capitalist Development and Democracy"
*James C. Scott - "Seeing like a State"
*Theda Skocpol - "States and Social Revolution"
*Thomas Ertman - "Birth of the Leviathan"
*Stephen Skowronek - "The Politics Presidents Make"
*Rogers Smith - "Civic Ideals"
*Sven Steinmo - Taxation and Democracy
*Katherine Thelen - "How Institutions Evolve?"
*Charles Tilly - "Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990-1992"
*Stephen Van Evera - "Causes of War"
*Daniel Ziblatt - "Structuring the State"
*John Zysman - Governments, Markets, and Growth: Financial Systems and Politics of Industrial Change
*Peter A. Hall - "Governing the Economy"


*Theda Skocpol, "Why I am an Historical-Institutionalist," "Polity" 28 (Fall 1995): 103-6

*Charles Tilly, Big structures, Large Processes, and Huge Comparisons", 1984.

*Pierson, Paul & Skocpol, Theda. 2002. “Historical Institutionalism in Contemporary Political Science”, in Ira Katznelson & Helen V. Milner (eds). Political Science: State of the Discipline. New York: W.W. Norton: 693-721.

*S. Steinmo, K. Thelen,and F. Longstreth, eds., "Structuring Politics: Historical Institutionalism in Comparative Analysis", (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992)

*Adam Przeworski, “Institutions Matter?” "Government and Opposition" 39, 4 (September 2004): 527-4

*Bates, Robert et al. "Analytic Narratives", Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

*Sven Steinmo, "The New Institutionalism" in Barry Clark and Joe Foweraker, eds., "The Encyclopedia of Democratic Thought", London: Routlege, (July, 2001)

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