The different schools of thought on institutionalism and their expanding definition of concepts Essay

In the field of comparative politics there has long suffered a skepticism that over time theories are subject to a degenerative process. What was once considered an innovative and applicable theoretical agenda becomes less relevant as real world events challenge and eventually nullify the theory altogether. In more recent years, however, many political researchers have observed that although these theories may become invalid over time, they provide a useful basis of comparison that result in the creation of new and updated theories. What makes political evolution so unique from physical evolution is that the former is influenced by the intentions of its predecessors and subjects1. For instance without Plato’s normative views on society there would be no need for Aristotle to develop a more realistic model, and the same can be said about Marx’s socialist theory challenging Adam Smith’s capitalist agenda.The political theory of institutionalism may also be viewed in the context of being a progressive research program.

This is evident by examining the different schools of thought on institutionalism and their expanding definition of concepts in order to capture real world events. Each theorist offers a sophisticated explanation of the way in which conceptions of class, historical contexts and elite preferences intersect with institutional structures2. More central to this paper than just a case study on different institutional theories, is the manner in which they have evolved over time dating back to Greek philosophers and ending with the modern “new-institutionalism” era of thinking.New institutionalism is a social theory that focuses on developing a sociological view of institutions on society. In the 1980’s new-institutionalism or “neo-institutionalism” came about as a revival of the focus on the study institutions as a lens for viewing work in a number of fields including economics, international relations and politics. This focus on institutions to understand policy, however was not unique to this time period as traditional institutionalism had been around since the first Greek philosophers. This form of “old-institutionalism” studied the legal and political structures within societies but lacked necessary comparative analysis, due to its normative style of viewing the world. In the post-World War two era theorists were witness to the “behavioral revolution” in political thought, which came about as a reaction to old institutionalism.

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Behavioralists argued that in order to understand political outcomes analysts should focus not on the formal attributes of government institutions, but instead on the informal distributions of power, attitudes and political behavior3.In contrast to what was perceived as the a-theoretical work of scholars in the traditional institutionalist field of research, the behavioralist project as a whole was explicitly theoretical. It fit into the post-war mentality that countries were not unique entities, and emphasized the need for “grand-theories” that encapsulated broad, cross-national research. Going beyond the idiosyncratic, country-specific categories of old institutionalism comparativists searched for widely applicable concepts and variables to guide cross national research4. The theories that came about highlighted similarities instead of differences despite each country having separate and unique institutional systems, and often countries were grouped into either industrialized or developing categories. In order to focus on the progressive nature of politics and the institutionalist theory we must note that institutions did not drop from the agenda during the behavioral revolution.

They continued to play a central role within political theory, but they were used to understand the larger theoretical project of the time. The mid-twentieth century was a time in which people sought to understand global politics versus state specific ones, and wanted broad cross national explanations to account for changing world events5. Given the emphasis of the behavioralist theory it seems inevitable that separate institutionalist critiques would come about.Rational choice theory and Structural theory of institutions criticized the restrictive scope of analysis that the behavioralist’s provided.

The “grand-theories” that dominated comparative politics in this period obscured the intermediate institutions that structure politics in different countries6. This critique of behavioralism also came about as the result of changing real-world events, mainly the economic shocks in the 1970’s due to raising oil prices, and an un-masking of national diversity impacting policy making. These events led to the search for explanatory factors to account for these outcomes and emphasized the progressive path that institutionalism was embarking upon.The foundation for New Institutionalism theory was to draw inspiration and insight from older traditions in politics and economics, but gave new attention to institutional variables.

The key to early new institutionalism was the notion that institutional factors can shape the objectives and distributions of power among political actors in a given polity. The view institutions as collections of rules, structures and standard operating procedures that have a partly autonomous role in political life. This emphasis on autonomy and the structure of a nations institutions is what the new institutionalists use as their theoretical base to explain why countries are so unique in terms of policy making. For example, why some countries have adopted national health insurance while others struggle to implement it can be traced back to the structure of their various institutions. As is well-known there are in fact two different approaches that have been assigned the label of “the new institutionalism.

“Rational choice institutionalists such as Levi, North and Bates share with structural theorists such as Berger and Hall a concern with the question of how institutions shape political strategies and influence policy outcomes7. However important differences distinguish these two schools of thought. Rational choice theorists being their study with political actors as individuals who seek to maximize their preferences.

The role that institutions play in this theory is one that constrains the strategies of political actors in the pursuit of their needs. Therefore the central role of any political institution in most societies is how effectively they constrain political actors and their self-interests. Rational choice theorists also define institutions in terms of procedural rules that are capable of creating a predictable and stable set of policy outcomes that make collective action possible8. Obstacles to collective action occur when those whose interests are likely to be affected by action or inaction will fail to co-operate to secure collective benefits, these people are labeled “free-riders.”Another such obstacle can come about when political actors search for opportunities to rid themselves of responsibility and act solely on the behalf of their interests or those of their constituents. Solutions to these types of problems according to the rational choice theorists involve the establishment of institutions that set rules for the encouragement of collective action9.

This focus on rules within institutions is central to the rational choice argument, the normative goal is to design institutions that provide incentives for co-operation and reduce rewards for opportunistic behavior. The rational choice theory then looks at which countries have a solid set of institutional rules and use the results to account for policy differences between nation states.Rational choice theory even goes so far as to imply that once rules have been made and structures and in place the most important policy outcomes have been determined. It becomes evident that they view institutions as being able to constrain policy, but they do not determine it10. This is quite different from Structural theorists who argue that it is not simply the strategies but also the goals actors pursue that are shaped by the institutional context. Structural theorists want to progress this theory further and argue that institutions play a much greater role in shaping politics and political history than is suggested by the narrow rational choice model.The term “structural theory” is used to cover a wide array of intellectual currents that are united in the view that organizations have the ability to transform the values and preferences of those who work within them and those that are subject to them. Regardless of whether one takes a look at the macro-level of organization, or at the micro-level it is the structure between informal and formal rules and norms that structural theorists hope to update new institutionalism.

The theme of constitutionalism and its creation of the modern state is central to the comparative study of institutions. One of the key features of institutional design is the constitutions fragmentation of public authority. This means that in areas where separation of powers doctrine is entrenched in the constitution and public authority is dispersed between institutions, the States capacity for concerted action is diminished11.In his article on national health insurance programs author Sven Steinmo blames Madison’s system of checks and balances and fragmented political power in America for the lack of progressive health care reform.

This absence of State capacity is applied to various countries and can be used as a tool to test the effect of institutional configuration on policy. Structural theorists lack the kind of universal took kit and universally applicable concepts on which the rational choice and behavioralist models are based. Rather than deducing a hypothesis on the basis of global assumptions and prior analysis structural theorists develop their hypothesis more inductively using empirical materials12.This more inductive approach to institutionalism reflects a different approach that essentially rejects the idea that political behavior can be analyzed with the same techniques that may be used in economics or other fields of study. This reflects the ever-changing and progressive nature of political theory because the methods we use to analyze institutions and how they shape policy outcomes have become far more sophisticated over time. These broad cross national comparisons of the behavioralist era were valuable to political theory of that time and for new institutionalists, because we are able to learn from our mistakes. Political theorists realized that “grand-theorizing” could not alone explain institutional structures and policies in certain countries and as a result they formed new angles through which to better understand policy variations across countries.

In order to properly analyze any social, economic or political theory we must focus on the benefits and strengths as well as their relative weaknesses. Without meaning to slight the efforts of new institutionalists and their studies on the impact of institutions on public policy it is necessary to sound some cautionary notes. If progressivism within political theory does in fact occur as a result of ideas becoming outdated and invalid then the criticisms of new institutionalism may be important to determine which path the theory could follow in years to come. It is unlikely in any political theory that there ever exists a simple casual connection between institutional change and policy change13.

When any theorist be it institutionalist or behavioralist focuses on the consequences of changes in institutions they should avoid focusing on a single casual chain because there are often several paths from the cause to the effect. Institutions and policies are complex entities and it is na�ve to think they can fit perfectly into any one specific theory. Another criticism is that many of the changes that occur in institutions have nothing to do with policy as theorists tend to believe.

The changes more often that not are symbolic in nature and are inconsequential in terms of defining and realizing policy goals14. New institutionalism has a tendency to focus on individual actors and structure which can sometimes overlook institutions as ends in themselves, and not to judge them solely on their capacity to achieve a certain policy goal.Lastly, the effect of institutions on policy is almost always contingent, that is institutional changes produce policy changes under some circumstances but not others15. Theories that link institutional change to policy change are not of the universal, law-like variety. Most of the effects of institutions on policy will be conditional effects, that is they will exist only if the presence of other factors.

This accounts for the unique policy variations between countries, but lacks the confidence to predict events as they arise. Institutionalist theorists are able to analyze policy changes as they come about, but are unable to predict countries decisions to adopt or disregard particular policy issues.The field of comparative politics has long suffered a dilemma, comparativists search for continuing patterns of politics across nations and over time and to set these down in a limited number of propositions which can be systematically tested16. The assumption of most political research is that comparative inquiry will eventually lead to general statements about social phenomena. Since the earliest Greek philosophers the study of institutions has been offered as an explanation for political evolution and policy outcomes. Many of the modern theories discussed in this essay suggest that institutions can shape people’s ideas, attitudes and even preferences, which is important not only because it alters the constraints in which actors make strategic choices but because it can reshape the goals and ideas that animate political action17.In a more general context institutional theory is important to the study of politics because it demonstrates the progressive nature of political research and theoretical developments. With institutionalism as their core belief, groups of theorists since the early twentieth century have adopted new and innovative solutions to real world problems.

Behavioralism came about as a reaction to post-war society, and new institutionalism as a reaction to economic shocks and political turmoil in the 1970’s. Historical institutions have carved out an important theoretical understanding of general patterns throughout political history, and has served as a window into the ever progressing nature of modern political science.1 Thelen, Kathleen ; Steinmo, Sven. “Institutionalism in Comparative Politics” Structuring Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992) p. 27.2 Ibid. p. 27.

3 Thelen, Kathleen ; Steinmo, Sven. “Institutionalism in Comparative Politics” Structuring Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992) p. 4.4 Ibid. p. 5.

5 Thelen, Kathleen ; Steinmo, Sven. “Institutionalism in Comparative Politics” Structuring Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992) p. 4.6 Ibid. p. 5.

7 Thelen, Kathleen ; Steinmo, Sven. “Institutionalism in Comparative Politics” Structuring Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992) p. 7.8 Atkinson, Michael. “Public Policy and the New Institutionalism” Governing Canada: Institutions and Public Policy (Toronto: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich Canada, 1993) p. 27.9 Ibid.

p. 28.10 Thelen, Kathleen ; Steinmo, Sven. “Institutionalism in Comparative Politics” Structuring Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992) p. 13.11 Steinmo, Sven.

“It’s the Institutions, Stupid: Why Comprehensive National Health Insurance Always Fails in America” Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law 20(2). p. 363.12 Thelen, Kathleen ; Steinmo, Sven. “Institutionalism in Comparative Politics” Structuring Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992) p. 12.13 Thelen, Kathleen ; Steinmo, Sven. “Institutionalism in Comparative Politics” Structuring Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992) p.

21.14 Atkinson, Michael. “Public Policy and the New Institutionalism” Governing Canada: Institutions and Public Policy (Toronto: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich Canada, 1993) p. 22.15 Ibid. p. 24.

16 Thelen, Kathleen ; Steinmo, Sven. “Institutionalism in Comparative Politics” Structuring Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992) p. 26.

17 Ibid. p. 27.


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