Early Institutional Theory in Political Science

Institutional approaches dominated political science in both Europe and America during the latter half of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th century. I concentrate on the American scene, but first call attention to the work of a well-known but neglected student of institutions and organizations: Alexis de Tocqueville. Living in pre- revolutionary France in the mid-19th century, Tocqueville took advan- tage of an opportunity to visit the United States in the early 1830s ostensibly to study prison systems but primarily because he wanted to observe firsthand the emergence of a fledgling democracy (Brogan 2006). Tocqueville is best known for his study of the contribution of voluntary associations to American democracy, but considered more broadly his writings may be seen as an important early instance of the analysis of organizations operating under diverse institutional contexts (Swedberg 2009) as well as the relation between culture and institu- tions under equilibrium/disequilibrium conditions (Meyer 2003). Tocqueville distinguished between institutions, primarily laws but including associated routines and habits, and moeurs (“mores”), refer- ring to norms, attitudes, and opinions. In his study of French aristocracy before the revolution, Tocqueville argues that the state’s emphasis on institutions prevented them from noting the extent to which mores had departed from and no longer supported law. It was only the revolution of 1789 that brought these state/societal frameworks closer together. The concentration of power in the state, Tocqueville argues, made citi- zens so reliant on state action that they forgot how to form associations to pursue their own interests (Tocqueville 1856/1998, 2001). By contrast, as Tocqueville famously pointed out, the weakness of the state during the 19th century in America created the environment within which a robust collection of bottom-up movements and associations emerged, comprising an active civic sector (Tocqueville 1835/2004).

In contrast to this relatively sophisticated use of comparative insti- tutional analysis, American political scientists, such as J. W. Burgess (1902), Woodrow Wilson (1889), and W. W. Willoughby (1896; 1904), pursued a more straightforward approach grounded in constitutional law and moral philosophy. In the heavy tomes produced by these scholars, careful attention was given to the legal framework and administrative arrangements characterizing particular governance (primarily nation-state) structures. Much of the work involved pains- taking historical examination of the origins, controversies, and com- promises producing specific regimes; some analyses were explicitly comparative, detailing how central problems or functions were vari- ously managed by diverse governance mechanisms. But the underly- ing tone of the work was normative: “In the mainstream of political science, description was overshadowed by moral philosophy” (Simon 1991: 57).

As depicted by Bill and Hardgrave (1981; see also Peters 1999), the institutional school that developed at the turn of the 20th century exhibited several defining features. First, it was preoccupied with formal structures and legal systems. “Emphasis was placed upon the orga- nized and evident institutions of government, and studies concen- trated almost exclusively upon constitutions, cabinets, parliaments, courts, and bureaucracies” (Bill and Hardgrave 1981: 3). Second, the approach emphasized detailed accounts of particular political systems, resulting in “configurative description”—intricate descriptive accounts of interlinked rules, rights, and procedures (Bill and Hardgrave 1981: 3). Third, the approach was conservative in the sense that it emphasized origins but not ongoing change. “Political institutions were examined in terms of an evolutionary development which found fulfillment in the immediate present. But while these institutions had a past, they apparently had no future” (p. 6). They were regarded as completed products. Fourth, the work was largely nontheoretical, primary atten- tion being given to historical reconstruction of specific institutional forms. Finally, the tone of these studies was more that associated with moral philosophy and less that of empirical science. These scholars devoted more attention to the explication of normative principles than to the formulation of testable propositions.

Although he acknowledges many of the same characteristics, Eckstein (1963) also insists that these early institutionalists did usher in the first crude form of positivism in political science. Unlike their own predecessors, primarily “historicists” who focused their interest on abstracted political systems derived from philosophical principles, they were looking at the real world, at hard facts:

Primitive, unadulterated positivism insists upon hard facts, indubitable and incontrovertible facts, as well as facts that speak for themselves—and what facts of politics are harder, as well as more self-explanatory than the facts found in formal legal codes? (Eckstein 1963: 10)

In addition, these scholars attended to the real world in yet another sense: They placed great emphasis on formal political institutions, on charters, legal codes, and administrative rules, in part because “the nineteenth century was a great age of constitution-making” (Eckstein 1963: 10).

Beginning during the mid-1930s and continuing through the 1960s, the institutional perspective was challenged and largely supplanted by the behavioralist approach (not to be confused with behaviorism in psychology), which attempted to sever the tie to moral philosophy and rebuild political science as a theoretically guided, empirical science (see Easton 1965). More important for our concerns, the behavioralist per- suasion diverted attention away from governmental structures to political behavior.

Behaviorists argued that, in order to understand politics and explain political outcomes, analysts should focus not on the formal attributes of government institutions but instead on informal dis- tributions of power, attitudes and political behavior. (Thelen and Steinmo 1992: 4)

Students of politics focused attention on voting behavior, party formation, and public opinion. Moreover, this reductionist shift in emphasis from rules and structures to behavior was accompanied by a more utilitarian orientation, viewing action as “the product of calcu- lated self-interest” and taking an instrumentalist view of politics, regarding the “allocation of resources as the central concern of political life” (March and Olsen 1984: 735). To study politics was to study Who Gets What, When, and How? (Lasswell 1936).

These theoretical strands associated with behavioralism have been reinforced and deepened by the “rational revolution” arising in the 1970s and 1980s. As I discuss in later chapters, the rational choice approach—based on the application of economic assumptions to politi- cal behavior—has brought about fundamental changes in political sci- ence. Peters (1999) suggests that the attributes characterizing both movements, behavioral and rational, include (1) an emphasis on more rigorous and deductive theory and methodology; (2) a bias against nor- mative, prescriptive approaches; (3) methodological individualism— the assumptions that individuals are the only actors and that they are motivated by individual utility maximization; and (4) “inputism”: a focus on societal inputs to the political system (e.g., votes, interest group pressures, money) to the exclusion of attention to the internal workings of the system—the institutional political structures—as they may affect outcomes.

The new institutionalism in political science developed in reaction to the excesses of the behavioralist revolution, although one major vari- ant employs rational choice approaches to account for the building and maintenance of institutions. Current institutionalists do not call for a return to “configurational history” but do seek to reestablish the importance of normative frameworks and rule systems in guiding, constraining, and empowering social and political behavior.

Source: Scott Richard (2013), Institutions and Organizations: Ideas, Interests, and Identities, SAGE Publications, Inc; Fourth edition.

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