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date: 29 May 2020


Abstract and Keywords

Comparative institutional analysis begins with an analysis of how institutions shape forms of economic organization and the consequence of this for performance outcomes. It engages in this analysis by comparing firms, institutions, and processes in different societies. Comparative institutional analysis takes on board that societies are not hermetically sealed containers but rather are open systems where flows of capital, labour, ideas, technologies, etc. are to various degrees the norm. It also accepts that societies are internally diverse, with regional differences, and with institutions that are diverse and connected in a variety of tight and loose linkages. This book casts doubt over rationalistic models of institutional design, suggesting instead the need to take into account path dependencies, institutional complementarities, the unanticipated outcomes of action, and the susceptibility of change processes to unexpected contingent events.

Keywords: Comparative institutional analysis, economic organization, institutional design, path dependencies, institutional complementarities

Producing a handbook is in some ways an act of faith. It presumes that there exists a range of debates, concepts, and arguments that are sufficiently similar to each other (and different from other concerns) as to constitute a shared field of interest. It is therefore inevitably a boundary‐drawing exercise no matter how fuzzy those boundaries may sometimes appear. A handbook also presumes that there is an audience that will recognize this as a shared field and will use the resources which it contains in order to develop their own thinking and research. Given that the construction of a handbook is, however, ultimately the responsibility of the editors, it is important that the assumptions underpinning this project are laid out in more detail. This is the purpose of our introduction. We therefore focus on three key issues. What do we understand by the term ‘comparative institutional analysis’? Why did we think it was important to produce a handbook on this topic at this particular time? How did we decide on the structure of the Handbook and the nature of the contributions?

(p. 2) Comparative Institutional Analysis

It is increasingly accepted that ‘institutions matter’ for economic organization and outcomes, but such a phrase conceals a multitude of issues and perspectives. In the chapters that follow many of these complexities are revealed and discussed; we do not attempt to repeat them here but to provide an initial account of the approach to institutions taken in this Handbook.

The field in which we are interested can be defined in terms of how the forms, outcomes, and dynamics of economic organization (firms, networks, markets) are influenced and shaped by other social institutions (e.g. training systems, legal systems, political systems, educational systems, etc.) and with what consequences for economic growth, innovation, employment, and inequality. Institutions are usually defined by our contributors as being formal and informal rules, regulations, norms, and understandings that constrain and enable behaviour (e.g. Scott 2008; Campbell 2004).

The approach taken to these questions here is comparative and the central comparisons made are those between different societies. The reason for this level of comparison (as opposed to comparisons across regions or cities, or between sectors or firms, useful and essential as these are) is theoretically driven in that the sort of institutions in focus have been fundamentally shaped by and through processes at the level of the nation‐state. Nation‐states vary in their degree of centralization and in the strength of regional or other local ties. Nevertheless, since at least the time of Weber's definition of the state as the collectivity monopolizing the legitimate use of physical force within specific territorial boundaries, social scientists have been interested in nation‐states as being the most significant containers and producers of populations, economic organizations, and institutions (Hall, 1986, 1994; Mann, 1986, 1993). It is therefore not surprising that it is through national comparisons that much of this field has been defined (see, for example, classic contributions such as Bendix, 1956; Berger and Dore, 1996; Boyer and Drache, 1996; Boyer and Durand, 1997; Crouch, 1993; Crouch and Streeck, 1997; Hall and Soskice, 2001; Hamilton, 2006; Hollingsworth and Boyer, 1997; Hollingsworth, Schmitter, and Streeck, 1994; Lane, 1989, 1995; Maurice, Sellier, and Silvestre, 1986; Orrú, Biggart, and Hamilton, 1996; Shonfield, 1965; Sorge and Maurice, 2000; Streeck, 1992; Whitley, 1992 a, b, 1999, 2007; Whitley and Kristensen, 1996, 1997).

These comparisons serve at least two purposes. The first is that through comparisons we are able to understand more clearly any particular society and its economic performance by distinguishing its particular institutional structures, how these link together, and the impact that they have on firms and their competitive abilities in local and global markets. The second is that through comparisons, our understanding of processes of diffusion, learning, and emulation between societies become more sophisticated and complex. This is not to underestimate the methodological problems associated with comparative studies and drawing conclusions about which (p. 3) institutions are most significant, and for what aspects of firm behaviour, and with what impact on performance outcomes. What is a simple idea can rapidly become swamped by methodological problems associated with small number samples, with contamination effects (since societies are not self‐contained but intricately connected), with historically complex inter‐relationships, and with a morass of specific detail that makes broader conclusions extremely difficult to draw (see Kogut in this volume).

Nevertheless, the aspiration remains to produce an academically rigorous set of comparative studies revealing how social institutions affect economic organization and performance. Indeed, the aspiration is inevitable because the public policy arena is full of comparisons between countries. There are multiple systems of ranking the competitiveness of countries against each other (see Pedersen in this volume) in which institutional features are scored and compared. Country rankings can also be performed through international private institutions such as credit rating agencies (evaluating the security of sovereign debt), through international public institutions (World Bank and IMF evaluations of economic policy and growth prospects), and through international non‐governmental organizations (such as the World Economic Forum annual competitiveness reports). Such evaluations affect flows of investment, taxation levels, and employment levels inside countries. The globalization of the economy has made comparisons increasingly transparent and increasingly visible. In a world where much finance can flow across national boundaries with relative ease, governments feel that they are competing against each other in order to attract funds and in that way increase levels of employment, wages, conditions of work, and the standard of living. Increasingly governments recognize that reshaping their institutions is crucial to competing in this context. The sort of benchmarking and comparisons that occur at this level are, however, inevitably one‐dimensional. They are often highly misleading, because they are based on data that are easily available rather than on full research, and on over‐simplifications (e.g. the tendency of the OECD to see things in terms of states and markets only, and to be unable to deal with other institutions). They are also often based on the perspectives of dominant countries (e.g. the tendency to measure national innovation capacity by the number of patents registered in the USA). And, as the recent role of the ratings agencies in the financial crisis has shown, they are not always carefully conducted. How these institutions emerged, how they link together, and why they have particular sorts of impact are deeper questions, as is the question of how to reform institutions to improve performance (in reality and in benchmarking comparisons). We therefore live in a world of comparisons and it makes sense for academics to develop the theoretical frameworks, conceptual tools, and methodological techniques in order to conduct comparisons that go beyond static benchmarking and seek to penetrate to the heart of the relationship between institutions and economic organization.

However, as the previous discussion suggests, we also live in a world that is interconnected in multiple ways. Comparative institutional analysis has increasingly sought ways of conceptualizing that interconnectedness that does justice to the idea (p. 4) of institutional embeddedness and avoids the wilder flights of fancy that come from certain analyses of globalization. One way to understand this is to provide a more historical and global account of the emergence of societies and the development of institutions. This requires moving from embedding these developments in a wider international context and seeing the two as interdependent not separate. For example, up to the early modern period Europe was characterized by competing forms of political authority and efforts to create bounded states were made difficult by the existence of feudal rights, rights granted to towns and cities, and the power and authority of the clergy. At the same time, however, there were features of social life that were common across Europe and were reflected in a notion of a ‘Christian civilization’, particularly amongst the nobility and monarchies, the Church, and the small professional and educated class (Davies, 1996). Some of that commonality remains, for example, in the continued influence of Roman Law, and in the aspirations towards and symbols of European identity in the European Union. Institutions in different societies may have common roots; they may have co‐evolved through the diffusions of ideas, individuals, and technologies of governance. Similarly European countries created empires that created certain common forms in the Americas, in Africa, in parts of Asia, and in Australasia, as well as providing models to emulate and adapt in countries like Japan.

At the level of economic activity and trade, it is becoming increasingly clear that there was considerable interaction across huge distances from early on in human history and that these patterns of trade grew and shrank for various reasons to do with the technology of warfare and communication as well as the rise and fall of empires, states, and other forms of political authority (Bayly, 2004; Bernstein, 2008; Brook, 2008; Darwin, 2007; Greif, 2006). It is not necessary to subscribe to Wallerstein's world systems theory (Wallerstein, 2004) to agree that the national and the international are intricately related. Thus if states and national institutions are our primary units of comparison, we also have to recognize that their existence has always been embedded in wider world and continental systems. Whilst the current era of globalization may be qualitatively distinct in many ways, from another perspective it is perhaps the era of the all‐powerful nation‐state that is the historical anomaly and the more complex multi‐layering of political, social, and economic forms across different contexts is the ‘normal’ state of affairs viewed over the very long term.

Thus focusing our attention on how institutions are now being built at the transnational level is simply returning to something that was always there in one way or another. In sum, comparative institutional analysis does not mean ‘neglecting’ globalization in favour of nation‐states; on the contrary it means restoring the historical interconnectedness of societies to our analysis and analysing current efforts at transnational institution building and their inter‐relatedness to change in national institutions as part of our normal way of conceiving of how institutions matter.

It may be tempting to think, given all this discussion of states, empires, societies, etc. that comparative institutional analysis is inherently structural and determinist in its orientation, that it sees actors, individual and collective actors as ‘cultural dopes’, (p. 5) without agency, simply performing the structure. Clearly this takes us into the heart of one of the central debates in the social sciences, concerning the relationship between structure and agency. It would be foolish to claim that such a diverse field of study as comparative institutional analysis with researchers from so many different disciplines could even begin to agree on the terms of this debate, never mind how to resolve it. However, what we can claim is that this debate is fully present in comparative institutional analysis, that it permeates many empirical analyses and efforts at conceptual clarification as researchers seek to understand how actors can be both the products of structures and the origin of changes in structure. This debate repeatedly recurs in comparative institutional analysis as the chapters in this Handbook demonstrate.

Arguably we can go further and suggest that institutions are now less likely to be discussed as exogenous constraints on actors and more as resources, which actors can draw on to develop depending on the context. Further, it is increasingly clear that institutions in a society may offer different resources from those that seem dominant at a particular time, and it is through combining and reorganizing institutional resources that the possibility for institutional experimentation and change arises. Similarly, institutions require resources to survive and prosper and for various reasons such resources may be withdrawn or fail, leading to relative decline or possibly a new role for the institution; the relationship between religious institutions, secularization, and economic organizations would certainly be a case in point given the importance Weber placed on the elective affinity between the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In a context of flows and connectedness across national contexts, sometimes formalized into systems such as the EU or the WTO, it is clear that these issues of resources, constraints, and processes of recombination have become more intensive.

In summary, comparative institutional analysis as we define it in this book begins with an analysis of how institutions shape forms of economic organization and the consequence of this for performance outcomes. It engages in this analysis by comparing firms, institutions, and processes in different societies. It takes on board that societies are not hermetically sealed containers but rather are open systems where flows of capital, labour, ideas, technologies, etc. are to various degrees the norm. It also accepts that societies are internally diverse with regional differences, with institutions that are diverse and connected in a variety of tight and loose linkages. We therefore need to understand how these connections and flows inside and across societies are governed and managed through their embeddedness in the development of regional, national, international, and transnational institutions. These tasks require a longitudinal frame of analysis, a willingness to take history seriously (not just national histories but the newly emergent sub‐discipline of ‘global history’). Taking this perspective does not require a commitment to a determinist account of institutions, but on the contrary to understanding the tension between structure and agency in specific contexts where change is always a possibility and where collective and individual actors, particularly those driven by sharp survival imperatives (i.e. firms in competitive markets) look to build new (p. 6) practices, experiment with new frames and engage in institution‐building and the process of institutionalization.

Developing this approach means committing to a view of social sciences that is holistic, interdisciplinary, historical, and international in its scope. It is holistic in the sense that the different institutions inside societies cannot be studied in isolation. They are inter‐related and interdependent and, perhaps, complementary (see Crouch's chapter). It is interdisciplinary in the sense that it draws from sociology, political science, political economy, history, and other disciplines in order to provide an explanation for these complex processes. It is historical in that it searches for the roots of institutions in the interaction between social actors over time. It is international in scope because (a) it seeks to learn by comparisons across nation‐states and other salient units of analysis, (b) it takes seriously patterns of diffusion of ideas, practices, and institutions, and (c) it considers the role of international actors and international institutions. This approach, therefore, inevitably eschews the search for general universal laws about institutions and pursues instead the understanding of particular configurations of actors and institutions.

The chapters in this Handbook therefore cast doubt over rationalistic models of institutional design, suggesting instead the need to take into account path dependencies, institutional complementarities, the unanticipated outcomes of action, and the susceptibility of change processes to unexpected contingent events. This is a difficult path to take. To some extent, it goes against some trends in social sciences towards increasing academic specialization, towards the advocacy of parsimonious models, towards formal hypothesis testing, towards the use of large databases of quantitative indicators generating mathematical modelling of social processes, firm behaviour, and markets. In contrast, it tends to embrace interdisciplinary dialogue, historically contextualized models, and empirical descriptions of fundamental socio‐economic processes.

Why Now?

Why is now a good time to produce a handbook of comparative institutional analysis? A handbook implies that there is firstly a sufficient body of knowledge and research in an area to merit the sort of effort at consolidation that a handbook implies, and secondly there is an audience interested in such an effort at consolidation.

To begin with, there is an acute awareness in the world today of the important impact that institutions have for economic performance. The Asian financial crisis in 1997 as well as the 2008 crisis in international financial markets, which stemmed from a rash of dubious investment practices, has drawn attention to how important institutions really are for governing economic activity. Indeed, as this volume goes to press policymakers are grappling with how all sorts of institutions should be (p. 7) changed in order to avoid further crises in the future, and whether these changes should be uniform across countries or not.

In relation to the field itself, we can see that whilst comparative institutional analysis has always played a central role in the social sciences, it is in the last two decades that the focus on the inter‐relationship between institutions, economic organization, and states has developed a significant distinctive trajectory in terms of empirical research, theoretical debates, and methodological rigour. As the chapters in this Handbook make clear substantial advances in our understanding have occurred during this period. Indeed, it would appear that momentum in this area has continued to build as new areas are opened up and developed. In our judgement, there are now deep and rich theoretical and empirical literatures on specific issues within the comparative institutionalist approach and it is therefore timely to ask leading scholars in these areas to take overviews of particular topics and provide a review of developments and perspectives on future issues.

This momentum reflects the growth of an international, interdisciplinary research community pursuing topics in this area and developing programmes of research and research training for younger scholars. In the European context, it is clear that from the 1980s, in particular, the growing influence of the European Union as an arena of policy, of funding for academic research, and of aspiration to nation‐states outside its boundaries has contributed to more intensive collaborations and debates on issues of comparative institutionalism. North American scholars have also been intensely involved in these events on two fronts—one in terms of the debate on developments in the European context and another in terms of tackling the entry of Asian societies into the global economy, ranging from Japan through the interest in the early 1990s in the Asian tigers, through to the hugely significant influence of China in the last ten to fifteen years, and the more recent rise of India.

This research community inevitably spreads across disciplinary areas—from politics to business and management to sociology in particular—and in such a broad field, connections may be lost or overlooked. This is another reason why a handbook such as this can perform such a useful service. The selection of authors reflects these different disciplinary backgrounds as well as different geographical origins. In this respect, we hope that this Handbook will not only consolidate knowledge in the area but also contribute to a consolidation of the community of scholars working on these themes, helping people see connections, which they had not previously considered, and providing a series of common reference points for discussion, debate, and teaching purposes.

Of course, there are still gaps—perspectives on Asian countries are mainly derived from scholars educated in Europe and the US even though increasing numbers of them originate from Asia. There remains very little work on Africa beyond the analysis of failed states and development studies, and the analysis of Latin American contexts is limited in spite of the interest particularly of US political scientists in this area. Nevertheless, there is no reason why in the next decade we cannot expect to see this field become even more internationalized and the range of examples and discussions to extend beyond Europe, East Asia, and the US; a development that can only be positive.

(p. 8) Why This Structure?

Finally, what choices lay behind the selection of chapters that now go to make up the Handbook? What became clear as the Handbook began to develop was that there were many common themes that were going to be explored from a variety of different angles and that the Handbook would be more valuable if it allowed authors to develop their chapters relatively freely once the overall topic had been agreed. As a result, we have produced something that differs in some respects from standard versions of a handbook in that rather than impose a tight word limit and a strict instruction regarding the content of the chapter, we identified broad areas of debate and research, we identified authors with expertise in the field, and we then allowed them to develop their chapter in detail through discussions with the editors. As a result, our chapters aim to offer substantially more than a simple literature review and guide to the reading. They aim to make contributions to the conceptual organization of the field and its future direction.

In terms of structure, we chose four very broad headings. The first part focuses on the nature of comparative institutional analysis, variants of institutional theory, issues of actors, institutional change and institutional complementarity, as well as methodological problems. It is primarily theoretical and conceptual in scope. It covers many of the definitional issues referred to earlier in this introduction, demonstrating the breadth and provenance of institutional theories (Djelic), the importance of historical and comparative perspectives (Thelen), the intricate relationship between institutions and actors (Jackson), the nature of institutional reproduction and change (Campbell), the problem of institutional complementarities (Crouch), and methodological issues and solutions in comparative studies (Kogut).

The second part focuses on key social institutions, understanding their emergence, and how they relate to economic organization and performance outcomes. In this section, the state is a central object of analysis and in particular its interaction with firms, markets, and other societal institutions. Weiss examines different models of the state and how states interact with the economy; a theme that is also taken up by Morgan in analysing markets and money as social institutions. In his chapter, Seabrooke examines how states and non‐state actors emerge in international regimes and transnational institutions and with what effect. In their chapter on law and economic organization, Morgan and Quack seek to show how the Weberian identification of law with the state needs to be rethought in the context of multi‐level fields of hard and soft law, where private actors and dynamic innovative law firms seek to establish new forms of authority and law. Deeg's discussion of financial systems also inevitably identifies how states and state regulation and reform impact on the organization of financial systems, with an impact on the financing of firms and through this on their strategy and structure. Casper's analysis of innovation shows the intricate ways in which firms, educational institutions, and states develop distinctive innovative competences and how these affect firm performance. Whitley shows that over time, distinctive competition models have emerged in particular (p. 9) institutional contexts and that the degree to which such models remain viable and/or capable of growth varies leaving firms, societies, and states with different problems of adjustment in the current period. Kenworthy provides an overview of the state of knowledge in terms of economic and performance outcomes between different societies and how these may be related to specific institutional features.

The third part focuses most directly on firms and the interrelationship between institutions and the structure and competences of firms. One of the key debates in this area concerns how institutions influence corporate governance and with what effect on firm strategy and structure. Goyer provides an account of this debate and draws on a wide range of empirical research to explore this issue. Whitley provides a focus on the relationship between key aspects of the internal structuring of firms and their institutional preconditions. He identifies different types of capitalism in which key institutions cohere in order to produce specific forms of economic organization with their own distinctive set of capabilities. Rubery concentrates on employment relationships and shows how these vary across contexts with impacts on how skill and production is organized. Herrigel and Zeitlin build on their recent work concerning the reorganization of firms in global supply chains. They show that the disaggregation of the firm and the reconstitution of supply chains create different sorts of networks of cooperation with an impact on innovation and competition.

The final part identifies areas in which comparative institutionalism is developing new insights. Two of these concern the analysis of societies beyond the core European, North American, and Asian examples. The first is the chapter by Szelenyi and Wilk which looks at institutional change in Eastern and Central Europe and raises questions concerning the inter‐relationship of political processes, welfare systems, and economic organization. The other is the chapter by Hall which examines failed states and what this tells us about the nature of institutions. In their chapter on financialization, Engelen and Konings look at the growth of financial markets and how the global nature of these markets affects national institutional systems. Finally, Pedersen examines how the discourse of institutional competitiveness has become itself institutionalized and with what effect.

In his Epilogue contribution, Wolfgang Streeck, a distinguished long‐time contributor to these debates, reflects on what he sees as the key challenges for the future for comparative institutional analysis.

Finally, it is important to note that this Handbook cannot in any way constitute the ‘last word’. On the contrary, whilst it is meant to deliver to the audience a sense of the achievements of this strand of research, it is also expected to leave a sense of the unfinished nature of this process. In a way, the Handbook has not succeeded if it does not leave some sense in the audience of a belief that there is more to say, more to research, and more to think about. There are many questions about institutions and economic organization that remain open, many new questions to be considered, and many new forms of comparison to be made. Similarly, at a time when simple models of markets are in crisis due to turmoil in the financial sector and its knock‐on effects elsewhere, it is more important than ever to emphasize the institutional underpinning (p. 10) of markets, the way they are shaped by social factors, and the role which conscious political action can play in this process. Engaging with the sort of comparative institutional analysis discussed in this Handbook offers access to such an understanding.


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