The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Political Sociology (Amenta/The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Political Sociology) || Historical Institutionalism

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  • 5Historical Institutionalism

    Edwin Amenta

    Historical institutionalism is an approach to political analysis that focuses on big

    outcome-oriented questions about political phenomena and seeks to answer them with

    historical and conjunctural explanations centring on institutions. Historical institu-

    tionalist scholars also intervene in theoretical debates, often making mid-range political

    institutional arguments, and advance meta-theoretical debates, notably about the im-

    portance of path dependence. Historical institutionalist scholarship is catholic in meth-

    odology, but identies historical methods as particularly important. This scholarship

    should go further in addressing theoretical debates between sociological and political

    institutionalists, deploy ideas more in its claims and take further conceptual and

    methodological advantages of its historical approach.

    Historical institutionalism had its origins in comparative politics and in the

    intellectual movements to bring the state back in to the analysis of politics (Evans,Rueschemeyer and Skocpol 1985) and to analyze political outcomes with greater

    historical sophistication. The pioneering scholars were reacting against pluralism,

    Marxism, behaviourialism and rational choice modelling in political analysis, as wellas work that seemed a-historical (Hall and Taylor 1996; Campbell 2004). Historical

    institutionalism was named in the late 1980s (Steinmo, Thelen and Longstreth 1992),its initial proponents seeking to unify scholars who shared similar approaches to their

    work. They also shared some assumptions. Unlike rational choice perspectives in

    political science, historical institutionalism holds that institutions are not typicallycreated for functional reasons; instead, institutions often are results of large-scale and

    long-term processes that have little to dowithmodern political issues, and institutions

    often have routine if unintended consequences to them. In part for these reasons,historical institutionalists engage in historical research to trace the processes behind

    The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Political Sociology, First Edition. Edited by Edwin Amenta,Kate Nash, and Alan Scott. 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2012 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

  • the persistence of institutions and their inuence on policies and other political

    outcomes. Their standard research product is a book (or long journal article)

    addressing one or a small number of countries exhibiting a deep knowledge of themand the time period analyzed, and often seeking to explain divergent historical

    trajectories (see Amenta and Ramsey 2010).

    I begin by addressing general issues surrounding institutional theoretical claims andmove on to debates within historical institutionalism about how closely to align itself

    with political institutional explanations, path dependency as mode of argumentation,

    and the use of historical methods. Despite its origins in state-centred theory and itsefforts to be deeply historical, there remain disagreements within the group on its

    theoretical, meta-theoretical and methodological tenets and practices. Historical

    institutionalists do not necessarily rely on political institutionalist explanations, nordo their explanations always take a path-dependent or historicist form, nor do all

    engage in methods similar to historians. Along the way, I discuss some of the main

    achievements and promise of the perspective, as well as shortcomings, before makingsome suggestions for the future. To focus the discussion I often address research on

    comparative public social policy, with which the perspective has been closely


    Institutional Arguments and Historical Institutionalism

    Like other forms of institutionalism, historical institutionalists dene institutions asemergent, higher-order factors above the individual level that inuence political

    processes and outcomes and tend to produce regular patterns or stasis. Institutions

    constrain or constitute the interests and political participation of actors withoutrequiring repeated collective mobilization or authoritative intervention to achieve

    these regularities (Jepperson 1991: 145). Political institutionalists see institutions as

    formal or informal procedures, routines, norms and conventions in the organizationalstructure of the polity (see Amenta 2005), and often focus on states, electoral

    procedures, party systems and the like. Sociological institutionalists have a broader

    view of institutions, adding cognitive scripts, moral templates and symbol systems(Hall and Taylor 1996; Campbell 2004) that may reside at supra-state or supra-

    organizational levels (Amenta and Ramsey 2010). The inuence and durability of

    institutions is a function of the extent towhich they are inculcated in political actors atthe individual or organizational level, and involve material resources and networks

    (Clemens and Cook 1999).

    Institutional theories posit two distinct forms of institutions inuence overpolitical action. Institutions can be constraining, superimposing conditions of pos-

    sibility formobilization, access and inuence and limiting some forms of action, while

    facilitating others. Theories of politicalmediation (Amenta et al. 2005) and politicalopportunity (Kriesi 2004) are institutional constraint arguments to the extent that

    they posit that political institutions limit the conditions under which organized

    interests mobilize and attain collective goods from the state. Another form ofinstitutional theorizing posits that institutions are constitutive, establishing the

    available and viable models and heuristics for political action, and evoke an imagery

    of cultural frameworks or toolkits. Political sociological state constructionist


  • theories of mobilization and identity formation are institutional constitutive argu-

    ments, proposing that the actions of states help to make cognitively plausible and

    morally justiable certain types of collective grievances, emotions, identities, ideol-ogies, associational ties, and actions (but not others) (Goodwin 2001: 3940).

    Sociological institutionalist theories of the inuence of epistemic communities on

    policy paradigms (Haas 1992) or of international non-governmental organizations(INGOs) on a world society (Meyer 1999) similarly propose that normative and

    cognitive institutions as embedded in networks of expertise constitute the moral and

    epistemological bases of policy formulation.Some historical institutionalists, notably Skocpol (1985), previously referred to

    themselves as state-centred scholars, and many historical institutionalists have a

    theoretical emphasis involving the constraining role of political institutions. But mosthave dropped the state-centred label, including Skocpol (1992), as they address

    political institutions beyond states. Among historical institutionalists, there are

    political institutionalists in the tradition of Tocqueville, Weber and Polanyi, andothers incorporatingMarxian ideas regarding institutions in the political economy. In

    each case these institutions may be treated and understood from both calculus and

    cultural approaches to action (Hall and Taylor 1996), similar to Webers classicalideal and material interests. Political institutionalists tend to view political actors as

    employing a logic of self-interest, whereas sociological institutionalists tend see them

    as working from a logic of appropriateness. Unlike rational choice institutionalists,sociological, historical and political institutionalists are deeply sociological in the

    sense of rejecting the idea that institutions are simply the result of strategic equilibria

    (Hall and Taylor 1996; Campbell 2004).In addition to its eclectic conceptualization of institutions (Hall and Taylor 1996;

    Pierson and Skocpol 2002; Campbell 2004; Amenta and Ramsey 2010; cf. Immergut

    1998), historical institutionalists provide explanations that tend to be multi-causal,thus promoting further theoretical eclecticism. Although historical institutionalists

    usually put forward theoretical arguments and entertain and appraise alternative

    explanations, they tend to seek complete explanations, rather than explaining themost variation with the most parsimonious model. As a result the explanations

    provided are usually congurational and implicate a conjunction of institutions,

    processes and events (Katznelson 1997). The congurational explanations typicallyinvolve the interactions of more than one institution, and different aspects of these

    institutions, aswell as possibly slow-moving processes and contingent factors (Pierson

    and Skocpol 2002). In these complete explanations, other elements from othertheoretical perspectives are added to institutions.

    Perhaps more important, because institutions tend toward stasis, explaininginstitutional change typically requires causal claims that go beyond institutions

    (Clemens and Cook 1999; Campbell 2004; Beland 2005). Historical institutionalists

    will often invoke the impetus of crises, the activity of socialmovements, the rise of newgovernments and the like in their multi-causal explanations for change (Amenta and

    Ramsey 2010). This usually involves some theorizing at the meso level of political

    organization, often involving the interaction of politically active groups with statebureaucrats and other actors, or some combination of theorizing at the macro and

    meso levels. The causal argumentation sometimes gets quite detailed at the organi-

    zational level.


  • Because historical institutionalists do not form a theoretical school its practitioners

    do not always identify themselves as such. What is more, historical institutionalism is

    less signicant as an identity among political sociologists than among politicalscientists, where historical institutionalists seek to differentiate themselves from

    behaviourists and the rational choice scholars who also deploy the term institution-

    alism (Hall and Taylor 1996). Historical institutionalists are often located in the sub-disciplines of comparative politics and American politics, and within American

    politics in American political development or the politics and history section of the

    American Political Science Association. In US sociology, scholars identied oridentifying as historical institutionalists are usually connected to the American

    Sociological Association (ASA) sections on comparative and historical sociology and

    political sociology.But because most historical institutionalists rely on political institutional theory, it

    is worth briey comparing political and sociological institutionalist arguments. Like

    political institutionalists, most historical institutionalists tend to see political institu-tions as being distinctive and extremely inuential, and, far more than sociological

    institutionalists, they are concerned with issues of power. Most historical institution-

    alists also see political institutions at the country or state level as being constrainingand inuencing political outcomes; sociological institutionalists mainly see institu-

    tions as working at the supra-state level, constraining and inuencing all states. For

    this reason, unlike sociological institutionalists, historical institutionalists rarelyemphasize convergence in political processes and outcomes; instead they often argue

    that country-level political or economic institutions bring enduring differences across

    countries and over time, often transmuting global processes (see Campbell 2004).Historical institutionalist explanations usually involve showing that some structural

    and systemic political conditions or circumstances hindered a potential political

    change in one place and either aided or allowed the development in another, withenduring consequences for differences in political development; thus for historical and

    political institutionalists comparison usually means contrast, such as between

    successful and failed revolutions (Goldstone 2003), successful and failed transitionstodemocracy (Mahoney2003), andpolicy innovations and failures (Amenta 2003). In

    path-dependent arguments (see below), initial decisions about the creation of institu-

    tions shape all future possibilities for politics.

    Path Dependency and Historicism

    Among historical institutionalists there has been a turn toward a specic meta-theoretical approach to explanation, involving increased sensitivity to time order

    and path dependence (Abbott 1992; Grifn 1992; Pierson 2000), and a style of

    theoretical argument involving historicist causation (Stinchcombe 1968). In narra-tive causal accounts, as opposed to standard variable-based discussions, when

    something happens is key to its inuence in processes of major change (Grifn

    1992; Sewell 2006).Following the lead of institutional economics, many historical institutionalists

    argue that time matters by way of path dependence. Some key decision or action at a

    critical juncture or choice point brings about institutions with mechanisms that


  • provide increasing returns to action and self-reinforcing processes (Mahoney 2000;

    Pierson 2000). To use the social policy example again, once new policies are adopted

    and bureaucracies enforcing the policies and corporations adapting employee benetprogrammes form around them, politics changes in ways that tend to favour the new

    policies and disfavour previously plausible alternatives. Path dependence means that

    causes of the rise of these institutions will have a different inuence, possibly none atall, once the institutions are set in place. For example, Pierson (1994) argues that well-

    established social programmes in the United States and Britain deected attempts by

    right-wing regimes to destroy them, whereas right-wing regimes easily prevented orslowed the initial adoption of social programmes (Amenta 1998). Historical institu-

    tionalists address the issue of institutional change by seeking to identify both the

    critical juncture and the set of causes that determined the path chosen. Hypothesesabout critical junctures are closely tied to conjunctural causal analyses in which

    several conditions may need to occur simultaneously for a major institutional shift.

    Thus the meta-theoretical commitment to path-dependent approaches to explanationimplies an elective afnity to theoretical eclecticism.

    The most extreme versions of path-dependent arguments are ones that produce

    historical lock-in or self-reproducing sequences (Mahoney and Schenshul 2006);after a specic set of events some political alternatives are removed from the realm of

    possibility and reversing course may be exceedingly difcult. Lock-in occurs as

    political actors and the public reorient their lives signicantly around the policy andthere are increasing returns surrounding the policy (Pierson 1996). While locking in

    themselves, new policies can sometimes lock out other policies. Skocpol (1992) argues

    that the adoption in theUnited State of extensive nineteenth-centurymilitary pensionsmade it very difcult to adopt comprehensive soc...


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