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Historical institutionalism (HI) is a social science method that uses institutions 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.
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 approach. 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). 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 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 custom. 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 (e.g. 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 institutionalists, actors are both produced by, and are producers of, history.
The treatment of history
Unlike most western scholars who preceded them, including classical liberals, classical Marxists, empiricists, dialectical thinkers and positivists, historical institutionalists do not accept that history necessarily develops in a straightforward, linear fashion. Instead, they examine the conditions under which a particular trajectory was followed and not others, a phenomenon that Gabriel Almond refers to as the "historical cure". As a consequence, specifying why particular paths were not taken is as important as specifying the actual trajectory of history.
The most basic concept with which historical institutionalists work is 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".
A related crux of historical institutionalism is that temporal sequences matter: outcomes depend upon the timing of exogenous factors (such as inter-state competition or economic crisis) in relation to particular institutional configurations (such as the level of bureaucratic professionalism or degree of state autonomy from class forces). For example, Theda Skocpol suggests that the democratic outcome of the English Civil War was a result of the fact that the comparatively weak English Crown lacked the military capacity to fight the landed upper-class. In contrast, the rise of rapid industrialization and fascism in Prussia when faced with international security threats was because the Prussian state was a “highly bureaucratic and centralized agrarian state” composed by “men closely ties to landed notables”. Thomas Ertman, in his account of state building in medieval and early modern Europe, argues that variations in the type of regime built in Europe during this period can be traced to one macro-international factor and two historical institutional factors. At the macro-structural level, the “timing of the onset of sustained geopolitical competition” created an atmosphere of insecurity that appeared best addressed by consolidating state power. The timing of the onset of competition is critical for Ertman’s explanation. States that faced competitive pressures early had to consolidate through patrimonial structures, since the development of modern bureaucratic techniques had not yet arrived. States faced with competitive pressures later could on the other hand, could take advantage of advancements in training and knowledge to promote a more technical oriented civil service.
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. There are unsolvable epistemological differences between both approaches. 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 event 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 scholars and books
- Perry Anderson - Lineages of the Absolutist State
- Kenneth A. Armstrong and Simon Bulmer - The governance of the Single European Market
- 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
- Peter A. Hall - Governing the Economy
- Samuel Huntington - Political Order in Changing Societies
- Chalmers Johnson - Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power
- Peter Katzenstein - Cultural 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 Revolutions
- Thomas Ertman - Birth of the Leviathan
- Stephen Skowronek - The Politics Presidents Make
- Rogers Smith - Civic Ideals
- Sven Steinmo - Taxation and Democracy
- Kathleen 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
- Charles Tilly. (1984). "Big structures, Large Processes, and Huge Comparisons".
- Almond, Gabriel. (1956). "Comparative Political Systems." Journal of Politics, 18, pp. 391-409
- 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.
- Skocpol, Theda. (1973). A Critical Review of Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. “Politics and Society”, 4(1), pp. 1-34.
- Ertman, Thomas. (1997). “Birth of the Leviathan: Building States and Regimes in Medieval and Early Modern Europe”. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Whitehead, Richard. (2002, October). “In Debate: The Casual Focus of Historical Institutionalism”. Paper presented at Temple University course seminar on Authoritarian Regimes, Philadelphia, PA.
- S. Steinmo, K. Thelen,and F. Longstreth, eds., Structuring Politics: Historical Institutionalism in Comparative Analysis, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992)
- Bates, Robert et al. Analytic Narratives, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press