Neoinstitutionalism Research Paper

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This sample research paper on neoinstitutionalism features 5100+ words (19 pages), an outline, APA format in-text citations, and a bibliography with 41 sources.

Outline

I. Introduction

II. The Historical Roots of the New Institutionalism

A. The Traditionalists

B. The Behavioral Revolution

III. The New Institutionalism Emerges

A. A Return to the Law and Legal Analysis

B. The New Institutionalism in Comparative Politics

IV. Is There One Definition of a Political Institution?

V. Multiple Levels of Analysis

VI. Three Streams of New Institutionalism

A. Rational Choice Institutionalism

B. Sociological Institutionalism

C. Historical Institutionalism

VII. Conclusion

I. Introduction

Neoinstitutionalism, also known as the new institutionalism, has been one of the primary methodological approaches in political science in the United States since the late 1980s. This methodology is especially popular among scholars of U.S. politics, although it is growing in influence in the fields of comparative politics and international relations. The new institutionalism combines the interests of traditionalist scholars in studying formal institutional rules and structures with the focus of behavioralist scholars on examining the actions of individual political actors. The new institutionalism thus explores how institutional structures, rules, norms, and cultures constrain the choices and actions of individuals when they are part of a political institution. In other words, “The neo-institutionalist perspective combines the microlevel study of individual behavior with the macrolevel sensitivity to the institutional factors that help shape that behavior” (Miller, 1995, p. 6). The new institutionalism is a very influential postbehavioralist methodology today among political scientists in the United States and abroad.

II. The Historical Roots of the New Institutionalism

A. The Traditionalists

From the 1930s through the 1950s, traditionalist scholars dominated political science as a discipline, and especially political science as practiced in the United States. These scholars were most interested in examining the formal structures and rules that were the foundation of political and governmental institutions such as the executive branch, the legislative branch, and the judiciary. As Rhodes, Binder, and Rockman (2006) explain, “When political science emerged as a separate field, it emphasized the study of formal legal arrangements as its exclusive subject matter” (p. xii). These studies were often descriptive in nature, using mostly qualitative methods, and they usually did not use broad theories in order to ground their observations in a larger theoretical perspective. Often they were quite normative in their desire to describe how political institutions ought to function, as opposed to the empirical study of how things actually worked in practice. Rhodes et al. thus describe the traditionalist approach in this way:

The older studies of institutions were rooted in law and legal institutions, focusing not only on how “the rules” channeled behavior, but also on how and why the rules came into being in the first place, and, above all, whether or not the rules worked on behalf of the common good. (p. xii)

B. The Behavioral Revolution

Beginning in the 1960s, political scientists began to move away from focusing on political institutions and instead almost exclusively studied the actions of individual political actors. This so-called behavioral or behavioralist revolution thus focused on making the study of politics more scientific, and quantitative methods came to predominate in political science. The behavioralist revolution was especially critical for students of U.S. politics. Since good quantitative studies demanded large sample sizes, the more qualitative studies of single institutions and institutional rules waned in part because of their small sample sizes. For example, instead of studying the structures and rules of the courts, behavioralist political scientists studied specific decisions of individual judges. Or instead of studying the role of Congress in the broader system of government, behavioralists instead studied the choices made by individual members of Congress or by the voters in congressional elections. The hope was that political scientists would develop broad theoretical approaches that would be validated by quantitative empirical methods, thus moving political science away from the disciplines of history, law, and philosophy and instead bringing it closer to the scientific approaches of economics, sociology, and psychology. In some ways, the behavioralist revolution privileged those who wanted political science to be more like a hard science over those who favored so-called softer approaches to the study of politics. Behavioralists stressed rigorous empirical analysis of the behavior of individual political actors.

By the mid-1980s, many political scientists began to question whether the discipline should continue to ignore the traditionalist interest in political institutions but without abandoning what we had learned from the behavioralist approach in examining the choices of individuals. There was a worry that behavioralism could bring us only so far and that perhaps we had learned all we could from that approach. Therefore a so-called postbehavioralist movement arose within political science, designed in part to bring the study of institutions back into the discipline. It seemed natural to many scholars that political scientists would study political institutions again. As Rhodes et al. (2006) argue, “The study of political institutions is central to the identity of the discipline of political science” (p. xii).

III. The New Institutionalism Emerges

The new institutionalist approach has its roots in the early to mid-1980s. Often considered two of the leading founders of the new institutionalism, James G. March and Johan P. Olsen published a very influential piece in the American Political Science Review in 1984 titled “The New Institutionalism: Organizational Factors in Political Life,” followed by a book published in 1989 titled Rediscovering Institutions. They continued to argue for further institutional analysis in their 1995 book, Democratic Governance. In all these now classic pieces, these scholars argued the then radical position that political scientists needed to rediscover institutional analysis in order to understand better the behavior of individual political actors within political institutions. In other words, according to these authors, studying individual political behavior without examining institutional constraints on that behavior was giving scholars a skewed understanding of political reality. Thus, March and Olsen argued that studying institutions again would allow political scientists to discover more of the complexities of politics. As these authors have concluded in a more recent work, “Institutions empower and constrain actors differently and make them more or less capable of acting according to prescriptive rules and appropriateness” (March & Olsen, 2006, p. 3).

By the mid- to late 1990s, the new institutionalism came to be one of the dominant approaches in political science, especially among those who studied U.S. politics. Today it is also used by many scholars in comparative politics and in international relations as well. Referring to what was happening among scholars in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, Barry Weingast (2002) has stated, “Political science witnessed a revolution in the study of institutions” (p. 660). Institutional analysis was being used to study everything from the legislative process to effects of social movements and to the politics of the judiciary. The new institutionalist approach has become so influential that Pierson and Skocpol (2002) could claim that “we are all institutionalists now” (p. 706).

A. A Return to the Law and Legal Analysis

Since traditionalist political science had its roots in the approaches of law and philosophy, perhaps it is not surprising that many scholars in the field of judicial politics have strongly embraced the new institutionalism. While the behavioralists, using mostly quantitative methods, often studied the decision-making processes of individual judges, some political scientists continued to argue that legal rules, structures, and doctrines still mattered. After a long period in which the behavioralist approach dominated the study of judicial politics, Rogers Smith (1988) was one of the first to argue that public law scholars should use a more institutional approach. As Smith (2008) has argued in a more recent work, “It took no great insight to realize that these emphases on the importance of rules in bounding action and constituting actors, while simultaneously enabling rule-interpreters to make choices that shaped outcomes, might aid scholars of law and courts” (p. 48). In the late 1980s, many judicial politics scholars had already started using new institutionalist methods. By the late 1990s, the new institutionalism approach in judicial politics had become so popular that Howard Gillman and Cornell Clayton in 1999 edited two highly influential volumes of essays on new institutionalist studies of decision making on the U.S. Supreme Court. About this same time, new institutionalist approaches were also becoming popular for scholars of U.S. legislatures (Miller, 1995), of the U.S. presidency (Skowronek, 1993), of various aspects of comparative politics (Hall, 1986), and of international relations (Keck & Sikkink, 1998).

B. The New Institutionalism in Comparative Politics

Just as the new institutionalism was becoming important in the study of U.S. politics and law, it was also becoming a feature of much of the work in the study of comparative political institutions. In the late 1960s, Roy C. Macridis (1968) called on comparative politics scholars to abandon the traditionalist approach in that field, which he termed “parochial, monographic, descriptive, bound to the West, . . . excessively formalistic and legalistic, and insensitive to theory- building and theory-testing” (p. 79). His solution was an early call for postbehavioralist analysis of “governmental institutions and political elites, their role, their levels of performance and nonperformance” (p. 89). By this, he meant comparative scholars should focus on parliaments, the executive, the judiciary, the civil service, and other aspects of governmental institutions. Macridis’s efforts were in part a precursor of what happened in international relations in the early 1980s, when various scholars called for “bringing the state back in” to international theory building (Evans, Rueschemeyer, & Skocpol, 1985). Some of the new institutionalist analysis in comparative politics chose a “thin” approach, which looked at the role of institutions in various public policy issues in various settings. Others took a “thick” approach, which added governmental institutions to the previous analysis of other social structures, such as social movements, political coalitions, and ideological constraints within a society (Kohli et al., 1995). In other words, should the study of governmental institutions be separate from cultural studies or be used in combination with cultural approaches (Lecours, 2000)?

Especially since the 1990s, new institutional analysis has been used in a variety of comparative politics arenas. One important work in this area was an edited volume titled Do Institutions Matter? Government Capabilities in the United States and Abroad (Weaver & Rockman, 1993). This book covered a wide range of issues, from specific public policies such as energy policy to foreign affairs and to separation-of-powers issues. Other scholars used new institutional approaches to study such public policies as health, welfare, and industrial development (Steinmo, Thelen, & Longstreth, 1992). Some scholars studied the role of governmental institutions in the economy more generally (see, e.g., Hall, 1986). Others studied the role of international organizations such as the European Union (Pierson, 1996). Other scholars studied comparative legislative institutions; comparative leadership, mostly in the executive branch of government; comparative courts; or comparative electoral systems. Other new institutionalist scholars studied topics that many do not immediately associate with political institutions, such as comparative revolutions or political conflict in general (Peters, Pierre, & King, 2005). Another set of scholars began to examine informal institutions, such as political norms and rules that are “created, communicated, and enforced outside of officially sanctioned channels” (Helmke & Levitsky, 2004, p. 725). These informal rules can have serious political ramifications in many societies. Other scholars are using new institutionalist analysis to examine concepts such as state formation.

IV. Is There One Definition of a Political Institution?

While many political scientists now use a new institutionalist approach, there has been little agreement among these scholars on a single precise definition of what constitutes a political institution. As Rhodes et al. (2006) note, “Despite the incredible growth in institutional studies in recent decades, we lack a singular definition of an institution on which students of politics can find wide agreement” (p. xiii). All seem to agree that a political institution is an entity of its own and that an institution is more than just the sum of the policy preferences of the individuals who comprise it. For example, Carey (2000) argues that political institutions “establish guidelines for deliberation, the aggregation of preferences into collective decisions, and the implementation of those decisions” (p. 735). And all seem to agree that an institution is a concept more than a place or a thing. Thus Rawls (1971) conceptualized political institutions as “an abstract object” realized in “thought and conduct” (p. 11). March and Olsen (2006) have provided this rather complicated definition of what they study:

An institution is a relatively enduring collection of rules and organized practices, embedded in structures of meaning and resources that are relatively invariant in the face of turnover of individuals and relatively resilient to the idiosyncratic preferences and expectations of individuals and changing external circumstances. (p. 3)

Thus, according to these scholars, “Institutions give order to social relations, reduce flexibility and variability in behavior, and restrict the possibilities of a one-sided pursuit of self-interest or drives” (March & Olsen, 2006, p. 7).

Although political scientists cannot seem to agree on a definition of an institution, it has been easier for many scholars to state what institutions are not. Thus Brigham (1987) has noted that “institutions are not simply robes and marble, nor are they contained in codes or documents” (p. 21). And Howard Gillman (1999), in his institutional approach to the study of decision making on the U.S. Supreme Court, titles one of his chapters “The Court as an Idea, not a Building (or a Game)” (p. 65).

V. Multiple Levels of Analysis

One of the advantages of new institutionalist approaches is the fact that the new institutionalism allowed scholars to use multiple levels of analysis simultaneously. The traditionalists focused mainly on macrolevel analysis, using institutions as the unit of analysis. Thus the traditionalists studied institutions qua institutions. The behavioralists, on the other hand, focused almost exclusively on microlevel analysis, because understanding the actions of individual political actors was their primary concern. The new institutionalists, however, said that scholars could and should examine multiple levels of analysis, often within the same research project. Thus, for example, for congressional scholars, the unit of analysis could be the individual member of Congress, or a congressional committee, or the party caucuses, or congressional leadership, or a chamber of Congress, or the Congress as a whole (Miller, 1995). This ability to examine multiple levels of analysis simultaneously also enabled new institutionalist scholars to explore the interactions between and among political institutions, giving rise to many studies concerning, for example, the relationship between U.S. legislatures and the courts (see, e.g., Miller & Barnes, 2004), between Congress and the presidency (see, e.g., Fisher, 1981), between the bureaucracy and the Congress (see, e.g., Ripley & Franklin, 1980), and so forth. As Scheingold (2008) concludes, one of the essential messages of these studies is “the fluid and reciprocal character of institutional interaction” (p. 742).

VI. Three Streams of New Institutionalism

One of the reasons that there is no single agreed-on definition of a political institution is that the new institutionalist approach is really an umbrella term for a wide variety of complementary but clearly different methodologies (see, e.g., Thelen, 1999). In their now classic discussion of the various strains of new institutionalist analysis within political science, Hall and Taylor (1996) argue that there are at least three branches of new institutionalism: rational choice institutionalism, sociological institutional ism, and historical institutionalism. Rational choice institutionalism has its roots in economics and formal modeling analysis. Sociological institutionalism has its roots in sociology, anthropology, and cultural studies. And historical institutionalism has its roots in the disciplines of history and law. Scholars such as Hay (2006) and Ansell (2006) want to further subdivide these three branches by inventing new labels such as constructionist institutionalism and net work institutionalism. Schmidt (2008) uses the term discursive institutionalism. But most scholars focus more on the three main streams of new institutionalist analysis.

A. Rational Choice Institutionalism

Rational choice institutionalism is one of the major approaches within the new institutionalist umbrella, with its roots in economic analysis and formal theory. A popular approach within this stream is the use of game theory to explain political decision making (see, e.g., Shepsle, 2006). Thus, according to Rhodes et al. (2006), “Rational-choice institutionalists think of institutions as a system of rules and incentives” (p. xiii). These rules are often contested so that one set of political actors can gain an advantage over a different group. Rhodes et al. continue:

Institutions in this sense provide arenas for conflict, and efforts to alter them stimulate conflict inasmuch as they change the rules of the game in such a way as to alter the allocation of advantages and disadvantages. From this vantage point rules are never neutral, but are instead part of a struggle between challengers and holders of power. (p. xiv)

Thus rational choice scholars often focus on a single institution in a specific time frame, although more and more are looking at institutions across time.

This conceptualization of institutions as arenas for game playing underlies much of the formal modeling done by rational choice scholars. Thus the rational choice scholars are simultaneously theoretical and empirical. The formal models produced by rational choice scholars attempt to simplify the political world in order to explain its essential features. According to Weingast (2002), these formal models allow rational choice scholars to study “how institutions constrain the sequence of interaction among the actors, the choices available to particular actors, the structure of information and hence beliefs of the actors, and the payoffs to individuals and groups” (p. 661). These models help answer questions such as why political institutions are needed in the first place, why they take on particular forms, and why they survive over time. This approach puts a great deal of stress on concepts such as efficiency and rationality of decision making. As Shepsle (2006) explains this approach, “The research program of rational choice institutionalism is founded on abstraction, simplification, analytical rigor, and an insistence on clean lines of analysis from basic axioms to analytical propositions to empirical implications” (p. 32).

A subset of rational choice institutionalism has come to be known as the strategic approach. This approach is especially popular among judicial scholars. Accepting the new institutionalist idea that institutions constrain the behavior of individual political actors, these scholars argue that individuals within political institutions often act strategically, thus anticipating the reactions of their colleagues to their decisions, as well as anticipating the reactions of other institutions to their decisions. Instead of pushing for their ultimate policy preferences, these actors temper their actions by anticipating the reactions of others. Thus their votes and actions are constrained by their understanding of institutional factors and by the anticipated reactions of other actors and other institutions to their decisions. As Hall and Taylor (1996) conclude, “One of the great contributions of rational choice institutionalism has been to emphasize the role of strategic interaction in the determination of political outcomes” (p. 945).

B. Sociological Institutionalism

A second branch of new institutionalist analysis is the sociological approach. It has its roots in organizational theory, anthropology, and cultural studies. This stream stresses the idea of institutional cultures. These scholars see institutional rules, norms, and structures not as inherently rational or dictated by efficiency concerns, but instead as culturally constructed. As Hall and Taylor (1996) explain, sociological institutionalists argue that “even the most seemingly bureaucratic of practices have to be explained in cultural terms” (p. 947). These scholars tend to define institutions more broadly than do scholars in the other two streams. These scholars tend to look at the role of myth and ceremony in creating institutional cultures, as well as the role of symbol systems, cognitive scripts, and moral templates. At times these scholars take on a normative approach to the study of political institutions, and they tend to blur the line between institutions and culture. Their work often focuses on questions of the social and cultural legitimacy of the organization and its participants. The pioneering work in this field was done by sociologists at Stanford University (see, e.g., Powell & DiMaggio, 1991). This branch of new institutionalist analysis is probably the least influential among contemporary political scientists, although many use the concepts of institutional culture and institutional will in their research projects.

C. Historical Institutionalism

The third branch of new institutionalist analysis, historical institutionalism, has received a great deal of attention among political scientists, especially those who use more qualitative methodologies in studying U.S. politics. But it is also becoming more popular in comparative politics and in studies of international relations. In some ways, historical institutionalism is the hardest of the three branches to define because it includes so many different scholars and so many different methodological approaches. This branch includes an eclectic group of scholars with a wide variety of research agendas (see, e.g., Lecours, 2000; Thelen, 1999). Despite their differences, there are some common notions in this line of research. As Pierson and Skocpol (2002) argue, within this group of scholars, “Everyone seems to realize that theoretical eclecticism, multiple analytic techniques, and a broad comparative and historical purview work best” (p. 698).

Generally, historical institutionalists define political institutions broadly and are interested in changes in institutions over time. For example, Hall and Taylor (1996) argue that historical institutionalists define institutions as “the formal or informal procedures, routines, norms, and conventions embedded in the organizational structure of the polity or political economy” (p. 938). Rhodes et al. (2006) note that historical institutionalists “see institutions as continuities” (p. xv). Thus, according to these scholars, political institutions may be constitutional in nature, procedural, or programmatic. In comparative politics, the new institutionalist scholars compare policies not only across time but also across countries (Peters et al., 2005).

Historical institutionalists think a lot about decision trees and path dependence, terms of art meaning the effects that one decision has to limit the available future choices for any political actor or institution (see, e.g., Peters et al., 2005). While historical institutionalists clearly focus on institutional analysis, these scholars “rarely insist that institutions are the only causal force in politics” (Hall & Taylor, 1996, p. 942). Thus, for example, historical institutionalists acknowledge the importance of ideas in creating political change, as well the role of economic or cultural variables in political decision making. They also attempt to identify critical junctures in the political process, as well as the goals of political actors. Some of these studies are inherently comparative, whereas others focus on a single political institution. As Sanders (2006) argues, for historical institutionalists, “What is mainly of interest is the construction, maintenance, and adaptation of institutions” (p. 42).

While it is difficult to pinpoint a precise definition of the historical institutionalist approach, there are some common traits in this line of scholarship. Pierson and Skocpol (2002) have listed three important characteristics of this approach. First, they note that historical institutionalists “address big, substantive questions that are inherently of interest to broad publics as well as to fellow scholars” (p. 695). Thus the research puzzles of these scholars are often rooted in real-world political problems. Second, these historical institutionalists “take time seriously” (p. 695), and thus they can trace changes in politics and institutions over history. Extending the time frame that political scientists consider gives them more empirical data to analyze and allows an examination of events that occur rather rarely, such as democratization and revolutions. It also allows scholars to explore lengthy, largescale, but slow-moving social processes in which change often occurs only incrementally. Some of the focus of these scholars is thus on institutional development issues (see, e.g., Orren & Skowronek, 2002). Third, historical institutional scholars pay clear attention to the contexts and configurations that allow them to “hypothesize about the combined effects of institutions and processes” (Pierson & Skocpol, 2002, p. 696). In other words, historical institutionalists usually do not examine only one institution or process at a set point in time, but rather they tend to look at politics as a very complex set of processes and institutions that vary over time and that interact in interesting and unexpected ways. As Pierson and Skocpol (2002) conclude, “The focus is on explaining variations in important or surprising patterns, events, or arrangements—rather than on accounting for human behavior without regard to context or modeling very general processes presumed to apply at all times and places” (pp. 696–697).

VII. Conclusion

The new institutionalist approach in political science remains a very influential methodological tool. Many scholars consider themselves to be new institutionalists, and there is no one precise definition of what constitutes the new institutionalism. There are at least three streams within this broad approach, and some scholars borrow ideas and concepts from multiple streams in order to answer their research questions. The one thing that all these scholars have in common is that they take institutions seriously because they feel that political institutional factors constrain the choices of individual political actors. In other words, the new institutionalism in political science is a postbehavioralist methodological approach that stresses the importance of political institutions in furthering our understanding of politics and government.

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