Historical institutionalism

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Historical institutionalism
Sven Steinmo

Historical institutionalism is neither a particular theory nor a specific method. It is best understood as an approach to studying politics and social change. This approach is distinguished from other social science approaches by its attention to real-world empirical questions, its historical orientation and its attention to the ways in whichinstitutions structure and shape behaviour and outcomes. Although the term ‘historical institutionalism’ was not coined until the early 1990s,1 the approach is far from new. Many of the most interesting and important studies of politics – from Karl Polanyi’s classic Great Transformations, to Theda Skocpol’s States and Social Revolutions and Philippe Schmitter’s Still a Century of Corporatism? – wouldclearly be categorized as historical institutionalist were they written today.2 The best way to explain historical institutionalism (HI) is to situate this approach in a historical and comparative context, showing where the approach originated and how it is different from other approaches in the social sciences. In short, what follows is an HI account of historical institutionalism. The chapterconcludes with a discussion of the implications of this approach for our understanding of political and social science as ‘science’.

Institutional theory is as old as the study of politics. Plato and Aristotle to Locke, Hobbes and James Madison long ago understood the importance of political institutions for structuring political behaviour. Plato’s Republic is a comparison of differentforms of government in which he tries to understand how institutions shape political behaviour. Aristotle’s Politics continues the
This chapter grew out of a series of conversations with Ellen Immergut and Bo Rothstein. Their contributions are found throughout this text, although all errors remain mine. I would also like to thank John Campbell, Carl Dahlstrom, Peter Mair, Mark Thatcher and KathleenThelen for insightful and very helpful comments on an early draft.



Historical institutionalism

study of political institutions: he specifically examined institutional structures because he believed they shaped political incentives and normative values. Although rarely credited as the political theorists they clearly were, the founders of the American republic were interested inprecisely the same sets of questions. Madison’s ‘science of politics’ is a study of how different institutional arrangements will encourage and/or discourage different types of political action. As the social sciences started to emerge as a modern academic discipline in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, these classical traditions had a great impact (Almond 1996). Both in Europe and inthe United States, students of politics were specifically concerned with the relationship between constitutional design and political (and even moral) behaviour. Indeed, much of what could be called early political science was about how to design perfect constitutions. This was an era of massive political and social upheaval when scholars were sometimes even invited to design institutions thatcould help build better societies. Perhaps the most famous case (and worst disaster) was Weimar Germany. After the defeat of the Kaiser, constitutional architects attempted to design what they believed to be the world’s most perfect democracy. This historic occasion provided a nearly unique opportunity to apply ‘political science’ to the real world. The new German Republic, it was firmly believed,would be a model democracy that others would soon emulate. Unfortunately, things did not quite work out that way. The failure of Weimar democracy led to increased disaffection with institutional analysis. This disaffection grew to scepticism – if not hostility – in the post-war years. While prior to the war one could imagine that democracy could be built with proper institutions, as we moved past the...
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