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date: 17 February 2020

Old Institutionalisms an Overview

Abstract and Keywords

This article looks at the study of political institutions. It defines and gives examples of four different traditions in the study of political institutions: modernist-empiricist, idealist, formal-legal, and socialist. The main goal of the article is to show there are several long-standing traditions in the study of institutions in the Anglo-American world, and to illustrate that variety worldwide.

Keywords: political institutions, traditions, modernist-empiricist, idealist, formal-legal, socialist

1 Introduction

Over the past decade, the narrative of the “new institutionalism” has been touted as the new paradigm for political science. For example, Goodin and Klingemann (1996) claim that political science has an overarching intellectual agenda based on rational choice analysis and the new institutionalism. That is one set of approaches, one research agenda, and specific to American political science. The focus of this chapter is broader; it looks at the study of political institutions, whenever, wherever. I define and give examples of four different traditions in the study of political institutions: modernist-empiricist, formal-legal, idealist, and socialist. My aims are simple: to show there are several long-standing traditions in the study of institutions in the Anglo-American world, and to illustrate that variety worldwide.

I have a second, equally important objective. It is a taken for granted assumption that the rise of the “new institutionalism” replaced the “old institutionalism.” Old institutionalism is not limited to formal-legal analysis. It encompasses all the traditions discussed below. I argue there is life in all these old dogs. Moreover, (p. 142) formal-legal analysis is not dead. Rather I argue it is a defining starting point in the study of political institutions. The distinctive contribution of political science to the study of institutions is the analysis of the historical evolution of formal-legal institutions and the ideas embedded in them. The “new institutionalisms” announced the rediscovery by American modernist-empiricist political scientists of this theme, and they offer sophisticated variations on it, but it is still the starting point.

I cannot cover the many traditions of political science worldwide, so I focus on the two most similar countries—the UK and the USA. If I can show different traditions in the Anglo-Saxon world, then my argument will travel well beyond it. To show that potential, I provide brief examples of the study of political institutions in Australia, France, and the Muslim world. I offer a narrative that is just one among several of possible narratives. I set my narrative of traditions side-by-side with the narratives elsewhere in Part II. The aim is to decenter the dominant Anglo-American tradition found in many “state of the art” assessments.

2 Traditions in the Study of Political Institutions

A tradition is a set of understandings someone receives during socialization. A certain relationship should exist between beliefs and practices if they are to make up a tradition. First, the relevant beliefs and practices should have passed from generation to generation. Second, traditions should embody appropriate conceptual links. The beliefs and practices that one generation passes on to another should display minimal consistency.

This stress on the constructed nature of traditions should make us wary of essentialists who equate traditions with fixed essences to which they credit variations. For example, Greenleaf (1983, 15–20), following Dicey (1914, 62–9), describes the British political tradition as the dialectic between libertarianism and collectivism. But Green-leaf’s categories of individualism and collectivism are too ahistorical. Although they come into being in the nineteenth century, after that they remain static. They act as fixed ideal types into which individual thinkers and texts are then forced. At the heart of the notion of tradition used in this chapter is the idea of agents using their reason to modify their contingent heritage (see Bevir and Rhodes 2003, 2006). So, tradition is a starting point for a historical story. This idea of tradition differs also from that of political scientists who associate the term with customary, unquestioned ways of behaving or with the entrenched folklore of premodern societies (cf. Oakeshott 1962, 123, 128–9).

Table 7.1 identifies four distinct traditions in the study of political institutions: formal-legal, idealist, modernist-empiricism, and socialist. Of course, these traditions are examples. The list is not exhaustive. (p. 143)

Table 7.1. Traditions in the study of political institutions






Definition of political institution

Formal rules, compliance procedures, and standard operating practices that structure relationships between individuals in various units of the polity and the economy

Hall 1986: 19–20

Public laws that concern formal governmental organizations Eckstein 1979: 2

Institutions expess…ideas about political authority…and embody a continuing approach to resolving the issues which arise in the relations between citizen and government johnson 1975: 131, 112

The specific articulation of class struggle Miliband 1977: 19

Present-day examples

USA: New institutionalisms March and Olsen 1989

French constitutionalism Chevallier 2002

UK: Conservative Idealism Johnson 2004

Pan-European post-Marxism Laclau 1990

3 Where are We Now—Modernist-Empiricism?

For many, the study of political institutions is the story of the “new institutionalism.” In outline, the story goes that the new institutionalism was a reaction against behav-ioralism. Thus, for Thelen and Steinmo (1992, 3–5) both historical institutionalism and rational choice are a reaction against behavioralism just as behavioralism was a reaction against the old institutionalism. This reaction comes in three main guises, each rooted in one of the main social science disciplines. So, political science gave us historical institutionalism, economics gave us rational choice institutionalism, and sociology gave us sociological institutionalism (see Goodin 1996, 2–20; Hall and Taylor 1996, 936). Approaches proliferate (Lowndes 2002; Peters 1999). The labels vary—sociological institutionalism begat ideational institutionalism begat constructivism. The several proponents squabble. For aficionados of such debates, the several approaches, the key contributions, and their differences are clearly set out in Chapters 15. A further summary is unnecessary.

(p. 144) There are important differences between the several approaches; for example, between inductive and deductive methods. However, such differences are less important than their common ground in a modernist-empiricist epistemology. Thus, institutions such as legislatures, constitutions, and civil services are treated as discrete objects that can be compared, measured, and classified. If American concern with hypothesis testing and deductive methods raises the collective skeptical eyebrow of British political science, then Bryce’s claim (1929, vol. 1, 13) that “[I]t is Facts that are needed: Facts, Facts, Facts” would resonate with many. British modernist empiricism has much in common with the positivism underpinning mainstream American political science; both believe in comparison, measurement, law-like generalization, and neutral evidence.

In so labeling the new institutionalism, I do not seek to criticize it, only to locate it in a broader tradition. Adcock et al. (2006) do this job admirably. They explore the diverse roots of the new institutionalism to dismiss the conventional narrative of a shared rejection of behavioralism. They dispute there is a shared research agenda or even the prospect of convergence. The new institutionalism is composed of diverse strands, building on different and probably incompatible intellectual traditions, united only in the study of political institutions and their commitment to modernist-empiricism. The new institutionalism may be a shared label but its divergent roots in incommensurable traditions mean the several strands have little else in common. When we move further afield, the divergence is even more marked.

At first glance, British political science took to historical institutionalism like a duck to water. However, many British political scientists denied any novelty to the new institutionalism. After all, in Britain, neither the behavioral revolution nor rational choice had swept the study of institutions away. Also, the new institutionalism is such a jumble of ideas and traditions that it can be raided for the bits that easily fit with other traditions. So, British political scientists could interpret the rise of the new institutionalism in America as a vindication of British modernist empiricism, with its skepticism toward both universal theory, and the scientism characterizing American political science. Thus, Marshall (1999, 284–5) observes we do not need “more or deeper conceptual theories” because “we have already have most of what we need” for “detailed description, classification and comparison” and the “explanatory problem is simply that of describing relevant segments of the system in sufficient detail to expose what happens or happened.” Case studies of institutions can be dressed up as a revitalized institutionalism and British political scientists can claim they wear the latest fashionable clothes. But, if you look closely little has changed. Barry (1999, 450–5) concludes there is no shared intellectual agenda based on the new institutionalism, no shared methodological tool kit, and no band of synthesizers of the discipline. The new institutionalism is little more than a cloak with which Whigs and modernist-empiricists can pursue the kinds of work they long have done unruffled by the pretensions of behavioralism and rational choice.

The same argument can be made for Australian political science. Aitkin (1985, 4–6) notes the discipline was shaped by the strong intellectual links with Britain and the (p. 145) dominance of law, history, and philosophy in the universities. Formal-legal studies were alive, even dominant, well into the 1980s (see Jinks 1985). It is hard to discern the local impact of the new institutionalism (see McAllister et al. 2003, part 2) and the impact of rational choice was even less (see the locally influential critique by Stretton and Orchard 1994).

4 Where did We Come From—Formal-legal Analysis?

The study of political institutions is central to the identity of the discipline of political science. (Eckstein 1963, 10–11) points out, “If there is any subject matter at all which political scientists can claim exclusively for their own, a subject matter that does not require acquisition of the analytical tools of sister-fields and that sustains their claim to autonomous existence, it is, of course, formal-legal political structure.” Similarly, Greenleaf (1983, 7–9) argues that constitutional law, constitutional history, and the study of institutions form the “traditional” approach to political science, and he is commenting, not criticizing. Eckstein (1979, 2) succinctly defines this approach as “the study of public laws that concern formal governmental organizations.”

The formal-legal approach treats rules in two ways. First, legal rules and procedures are the basic independent variable and the functioning and fate of democracies the dependent variable. For example, Duverger (1959) criticizes electoral laws on proportional representation because they fragment party systems and undermine representative democracy. Moreover, the term “constitution” can be narrowly confined to the constitutional documentation and attendant legal judgments. This use is too narrow. Finer (1932, 181), one of the doyens of the institutional approach, defines a constitution as “the system of fundamental political institutions.” In other words, the formal-legal approach covers not only the study of written constitutional documents but also extends to the associated beliefs and practices or “customs” (Lowell 1908, 1–15). The distinction between constitution and custom recurs in many ways; for example, in the distinctions between formal and informal organization. Second, rules are prescriptions; that is, behavior occurs because of a particular rule. For example, local authorities limit local spending and taxes because they know the central government (or the prefect, or a state in a federation) can impose a legal ceiling or even directly run the local authority.

Eckstein (1979, 2) is a critic of formal-legal study, objecting that its practitioners were “almost entirely silent about all of their suppositions.” Nonetheless, he recognizes its importance, preferring to call it a “science of the state”—staatswissenschaft—which should “not to be confused with ‘political science’ ” (Eckstein 1979, 1). And (p. 146) here lies a crucial contrast with my argument. Staatswissenschaft is not distinct from political science; it is at its heart.

The formal-legal approach is comparative, historical, and inductive (Rhodes 1995, 43–6 and for the usual caricature see Thelen and Steinmo 1992, 3). Finer (1932) is a fine exponent of the comparative approach (and see Eckstein 1963, 18–23 and Bogdanor 1999 for more examples). In sharp contrast to many of his contemporaries, Finer did not adopt a country-by-country approach but compared institution-by-institution across countries. He locates his institutional analysis in a theory of the state. For Finer (1932, 20–2), the defining characteristic of the state is its legitimate monopoly of coercive power (see also Sait 1938, ch. 5). He surveys the main political institutions “not only in their legal form, but in their operation” (Finer 1932, viii), as they evolved. Political institutions are “instrumentalities” which embody the “power-relationship between [the state’s] individual and associated constituents” (Finer 1932, 181). Then and only then does he begin to compare the political institutions of America, Britain, France, and Germany. His analysis covers the elements of state organization, including: democracy, separation of powers, constitutions, central-local territorial relations, and federalism. Finally, he turns to “the principal parts of modern political machinery, namely, the Electorate, the Parties, Parliament, the Cabinet, the Chief of State, the Civil Service and the Judiciary” (1932, 949). His approach is not narrow and formal. It is grounded in a theory of the state and explores both the evolution of the institutions and their operation. The critics of the institutional approach do not do justice to his sophisticated analysis.

Formal-legal analysis is also historical. It employs the techniques of the historian and explores specific events, eras, people, and institutions. History is extolled as “the great teacher of wisdom” because it “enlarges the horizon, improves the perspective” and we “appreciate … that the roots of the present lie buried deep in the past, and … that history is past politics and politics is present history” (Sait 1938, 49). Because political institutions are “like coral reefs” which have been “erected without conscious design,” and grow by “slow accretions,” the historical approach is essential (Sait 1938, 16).

Finally, formal-legal analysis is inductive. The great virtue of institutions was that we could “turn to the concreteness of institutions, the facts of their existence, the character of their actions and the exercise of their power” (Landau 1979, 181; emphasis in the original). We can draw inferences from repeated observations of these objects by “letting the facts speak for themselves” (Landau 1979, 133).

In Britain and the USA, formal-legal analysis remains alive and well today in textbooks, handbooks, and encyclopedias too numerous to cite. Major works are still written in the idiom. Finer’s (1997) three-volume history of government combines a sensitivity to history with a modernist-empiricist belief in comparisons across time and space, regularities, and neutral evidence. He attempts to explain how states came to be what they are with a specific emphasis on the modern European nation state. He searches for regularities across time and countries in an exercise in diachronic comparison. The History sets out to establish the distribution of the selected forms of government throughout history, and to compare their general character, strengths, (p. 147) and weaknesses using a standardized typology. It then provides a history of government from ancient monarchies (about 1700 bc) to 1875 ad. As Hayward (1999, 35) observes, Finer is either “the last trump reasserting an old institutionalism” or “the resounding affirmation of the potentialities of a new historical institutionalism within British political science.” Given the lack of any variant of new institutional theory, the result has to be old institutionalism, and a fine example of an eclectic modernist-empiricism at work.

Formal-legal analysis is a dominant tradition in continental Europe. It was the dominant tradition in Germany, although challenged after 1945. The challenge is yet to succeed in, for example, Italy, France, and Spain. Here I can only give a flavor of the variety that is French political science and establish it as a distinctive endeavor that runs at times in a different direction to, and at times parallel with, Anglo-American political science.

There is a strong French tradition of constitutionalism. It is a species of the “old institutionalism” in that it is descriptive, normative, and legalistic. It focuses on the formal-legal aspects of institutions, but not on case law. It is another example of staatswissenschaft. For example, Chevallier (1996, 67) argues that “the growth of the French liberal state in the nineteenth century led to the predominance of the law and lawyers emphasizing the guarantee of citizen’s rights and limits on state power.” These jurists monopolized the field for nearly a century and it remains a major influence (see for example Chevallier 2002). So, despite various challenges, the 1980s witnessed “the resurgence” of “legal dogma” with its focus on the state’s structures and functions (Chevallier 1996, 73).

Outside the tradition of constitutionalism, the French approach to the study of institutions remains distinctive and does not engage with the Anglo-American literature. An early example is Duverger (1954, 1980). Although his work on electoral systems and semi-presidentialism is probably better known outside France than inside, nonetheless it was a major challenge to the academic lawyers and influenced a younger generation of scholars. Latterly, “the strategic analysis of institutions” is an example of the new institutionalism before that term was invented. Its main proponents include, for example, Duhamel and Parodi (1985). Their heyday was the 1970s and 1980s but Parodi remains a major figure. The approach focuses on electoral systems, and core political institutions (such as the presidency), and tries to identify how institutions, singly and in combination, affect behavior (for citations see Elgie 1996). Parodi explains the changing nature of the Fifth Republic’s political system by identifying how, for example, the direct election of the president with a majoritarian electoral system for the National Assembly bipolarized the party system. The approach is positivist and rigorous with some clear affinities to both rational choice and empirical institutionalism (see Peters 1999, ch. 5). However none of the proponents of the strategic analysis of institutions publish in English; none engage with the Anglo-American literature. Francophone and Anglophone traditions proceed in mutual ignorance. In short, French political science is rooted in constitutionalism or staatswissenschaft and, when it diverges from that tradition, it remains distinctive.

(p. 148) 5 What are the Competing Traditions—Idealism?

In British political science, the idealist tradition encompasses those who argue that social and political institutions do not exist apart from traditions or our theories (or ideas) of them (see Nicholson 1990). The major British idealist of recent times is Oakeshott (1991 and the citations on pp. xxiii–xvi). I concentrate on the application of his ideas to the study of political institutions.

The inheritors of idealism challenged behavioralism for its neglect of meanings, contexts, and history. Oakeshott (1962, 129–30) argued political education required the “genuine historical study” of a “political tradition, a concrete manner of behavior.” The task of political science, although he would never use that label, is “to understand a tradition,” which is “participation in a conversation,” “initiation into an inheritance,” and “an exploration of its intimations.” For Oakeshott (1962, 126–7) a tradition is a “flow of sympathy” and in any political activity we “sail a boundless and bottomless sea” and “the enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel.” This is a conservative idealism that treats tradition as a resource to which one should typically feel allegiance (cf. Taylor 1985; Skinner 1969).

For Johnson (1989, 131, 112), political institutions “express … ideas about political authority … and embody a continuing approach to resolving the issues which arise in the relations between citizen and government.” Institutions are also normative, “serv[ing] as means of communicating and transmitting values.” They are the expression of human purpose, so political institutions necessarily contain a normative element (Johnson 1975, 276–7). The task of “political science,” a term Johnson would abhor, is to study institutions using “the methods of historical research … to establish what is particular and specific rather than to formulate statements of regularity or generalisations claiming to apply universally.” History is “the source of experience” while philosophy is “the means of its critical appraisal” (Johnson 1989, 122–3). Johnson’s (1977, 30; emphasis in original) analysis of the British constitution is grounded in the “extraordinary and basically unbroken continuity of conventional political habits.” The British “constitution is these political habits and little else” and the core notion is “the complete dominance” of the idea of parliamentary government. Johnson (2004) applies this idea of the customary constitution of practices “mysteriously handed down as the intimations of a tradition” and “inarticulate major premises” (the reference is, of course, to Oakeshott) to New Labour’s constitutional reforms; for example, devolution. His detailed commentary is of little concern here. Of relevance is his “bias” towards “the customary constitution” because of its “remarkable record of adaptation to changing circumstances and challenges” (Johnson 2004, 5). However, a customary constitution depends on support from a society that is sympathetic to “habit, convention and tradition.” Johnson fears there is a “crumbling respect for tradition” and ponders whether the current reforms move “beyond custom and practice,” and “piecemeal adaptation may have its limits.” The (p. 149) customary supports of the constitution may well have been “eroded beyond recall.” Johnson (2004) ends on this interrogatory note.

The notion of institutions as embedded ideas and practices is central to Johnson’s analysis. It also lies at the heart of the Islamic study of political institutions. Al-Buraey (1985, ch. 6) identifies a distinctive Islamic approach to the institutions and processes of administrative development. Its distinctive features include: its emphasis on Islamic values and ethical standards; prayers in an Islamic organization—salah five times a day is a duty because it is as necessary to feed the soul as to feed the body; bureaucracies that represent the groups they serve; and shura or the process of continuous dialogue between ruler and ruled until a consensus emerges. Also, as Omid (1994, 4) argues, Islam can produce two contrasting views of the role of the state. The state exists “only to protect and apply the laws as stated by God.” The Saudi model means that you cannot have elections, leaders emerge by consensus and rule according to the teachings of the Koran. The Iranian model builds on the alternative view that Muslims have to abide by the rulings of Islam but that which is not prohibited is permitted. So, there can be elections, parliament, and legislation but the laws have to be subject to scrutiny by a council of guardians. I do not end on an interrogatory note, but stress the primacy of ideas in the study of political institutions (see also Blyth 2002; Campbell and Pederson 2001; Hay 2002).

6 What are the Competing Traditions—Socialism?

If historical materialism and economic determinism have been relegated to the dustbin of history, what is left? I seek to show that the tradition persists and introduce briefly the Marxist theory of the state; the post-Marxists, whose work has been influenced by “the linguistic turn;” and the non-Marxists with their predilection for social engineering.

6.1 Marxist Political Economy

The specific area of concern to the student of political institutions is their analysis of the state. The literature burgeoned (see for example Hay 1996, 1999; Jessop 1990; and Chapter 7).

Jessop is a central figure. He argues against all those approaches to state theory predicated on a distinction between structure and agency. He treats structure and agency only as an analytical distinction; they do not exist apart from one another. (p. 150) Rather we must look at the relationship of structure to action and action to structure. So, “structures are thereby treated analytically as strategic in their form, content and operation; and actions are thereby treated analytically as structured, more or less context sensitive, and structuring.” This approach involves examining both “how a given structure may privilege some actors, some identities, some strategies … some actions over others,” and “the ways … in which actors … take account of this differential privileging through ‘strategic-context analysis’ ” (Jessop 2001, 1223). In other words, individuals intending to realize certain objectives and outcomes make a strategic assessment of the context in which they find themselves. However that context is not neutral. It too is strategically selective in the sense that it privileges certain strategies over others. Individuals learn from their actions and adjust their strategies. The context is changed by their actions, so individuals have to adjust to a different context. Institutions or functions no longer define the state. It is a site of strategic selectivity; a “dialectic of structures and strategies” (Jessop 1990, 129).

According to Hay (1999, 170), Jessop’s central achievement has been to transcend “more successfully than any other Marxist theorist past or present” the “artificial dualism of structure and agency.” I do not want to demur from that judgment or attempt any critical assessment. For my purposes, I need to note only that Jessop’s contribution is widely noticed in Continental Europe and substantially ignored by mainstream political science in America and Britain.

6.2 Post-Marxism

Ernesto Laclau is a leading figure in post-Marxism (Laclau 1990; Laclau and Mouffe 1985). His roots lie in Gramscian Marxism and with post-structuralist political philosophy, not with mainstream political science. Discourse theory has grown without engaging with mainstream political science. There is no specific critique of political science. Rather it is subsumed within a general critique of both modernism and naturalism in the social sciences (as in for example Winch 1990).

Discourse theory analyses “all the practices and meanings shaping a particular community of social actors.” It assumes that “all objects and actions are meaningful” and that “their meaning is the product of historically specific systems of rules.” Discourse analysis refers to the analysis of linguistic and non-linguistic material as “texts … that enable subjects to experience the world of objects, words and practices” (Howarth 2000, 5, 8, 10). The “overall aim of social and political analysis from a discursive perspective is to describe, understand, interpret and evaluate carefully constructed objects of investigation.” So, “instead of applying theory mechanically to empirical objects, or testing theories against empirical reality, discourse theorists argue for the articulation and modification of concepts and logics in each particular research context.” At the heart of the approach is an analogy with language. Just as we understand the meaning of a word from its context, so we understand a political (p. 151) institution as sedimented beliefs within a particular discourse (and for commentary see Critchley and Marchant 2005).

If Laclau’s debt to post-structuralism has undermined many of the characteristic themes of Marxist thinking—for example, his emphasis on the role of discourses and on historical contingency leaves little room for Marxist social analysis with its basic materialism—nonetheless he leaves us with the deconstruction of institutions as discourse.

6.3 Non-Marxists: Fabian Social Engineering

One strand in Fabian thought espoused social and administrative engineering: “disinterested inquiries into social problems that could be utilized by the leaders of either of the major parties.” This “application of the scientific method or ‘systematized common sense’ ” stressed such topics as public ownership in the guise of nationalizing industry and extending municipal enterprise (Pierson 1979, 314, 335). Its proponents range from Sydney and Beatrice Webb at the turn of the twentieth century, through postwar advocates such as William Robson and John Stewart, to the current heirs in such New Labour thinks tanks as Demos and the Institute for Public Policy Research. British political science differs sharply from American political science because it has a strong, differentiated socialist tradition.

Robson was “one of the Olympian Fabians, worthy company to the Webbs” (Hill 1986, 12) and a founder of public administration in Britain. His approach to the study of British government and public administration was formal-legal institutionalism and analyzed the history, structure, functions, powers, and relationships of government organizations. In Robson (1939, 1960), he fought for vigorous local democracy and he was a staunch defender of the public corporation. In the festschrift for Robson, Griffith (1976, 216) revisited Robson’s (1928) Justice and Administrative Law, concluding that it was “a remarkable work of academic scholarship and political perception” that “challenged some major assumptions of the system, and not merely some defects which needed remedy.” To modern eyes much of his work seems overly polemical. Robson took as self-evident, truths and propositions we would challenge today; for example, the positive relationship between increasing size and efficiency. It matters not. Robson typifies that blend of institutional description and reformism so typical of the British school.

I seek not to praise or bury Caesar, simply to point out that the Fabian social and administrative engineering tradition is alive and well and advising the New Labour government (see Perri 6, Leat, Seltzer, and Stoker 2002; and on the antecedents see Bevir 2005). And this conclusion applies to the several strands of the socialist tradition. It is long-standing, durable, varied, and still with us whether it is analyzing the state, deconstructing institutions as discourse, or advocating network governance reforms.

(p. 152) 7 Conclusions

I address two questions. Were we right all along to focus on formal institutions? Where are we going in the study of political institutions?

7.1 Were We Right all Along?

My concern has been to identify and describe some of the many distinctive traditions in the study of political institutions. I have not even remotely exhausted the variety of such traditions. I have not attempted to pass judgment on their relative merits. I am wary of treating any one theoretical perspective as the valid one from which to judge all others, preferring to probe for neglected traditions. If there is a judgment, it is that we should not overlook them. For many readers, the formal-legal tradition may seem an anachronism, but if one looks at constitution making throughout developing countries, Eastern Europe, and the former Soviet Union, one has to conclude the tradition is alive and well.

When we look beyond Anglo-American institutionalism and cover at least some of the various traditions in the study of institutions we see there is a common core of ideas. The distinctive contribution of political science to the study of institutions lies in its emphasis on: describing the written constitutional documents and their associated beliefs and practices, drawing on history and philosophy—the founding constituent disciplines of political science—to explore the historical evolution of political institutions. Such texts and their allied customs constitute the governmental traditions that shape the practices of citizen, politician, administrator, and political scientists alike. Even for Anglo-American institutionalism such analysis provides the basic building blocks of analysis.

Of course modernist-empiricism adds two more ingredients to the pot: some permutation of the modernist-empiricist tool kit of hypothesis testing, deductive methods, atomization, classification, and measurement; and contemporary social and political theory, under the label “the new institutionalisms.” For proponents of behavioralism and the new institutionalism alike, the kiss of death for formal-legal analysis is its atheoretical approach. Behavioralism found the study of political institutions wanting because of its “hyperfactualism,” or “reverence for the fact,” which meant that political scientists suffered from “theoretical malnutrition” and neglected “the general framework within which these facts could acquire meaning” (Easton 1971, 75, 77, 79). New institutionalism takes it for granted that the “old institutionalism” was “atheoretical” (see Thelen and Steinmo 1992, 4; and for a survey of the various criticisms and reply see Rhodes 1995).

Viewed from the modernist-empiricist tradition, these criticisms seem like the death knell. Proponents of the formal-legal approach do not spell out their causal theory. However, many would dispute the relevance of this criterion. If you are not persuaded of the merits of present-day social science, then you do not aspire to causal (p. 153) theory but turn to the historical and philosophical analyses of formal-legal institutionalism. For example, Greenleaf (1983, 286) bluntly argues that although “the concept of a genuine social science has had its ups and downs, and it still survives, … we are as far from its achievement as we were when Spencer (or Bacon for that matter) first put pen to paper.” Indeed, he opines, these “continuous attempts … serve only to demonstrate … the inherent futility of the enterprise.” He holds a “determinedly oldfashioned” view of the study of politics, with its focus on history, institutions, and the interaction between ideas and institutions (Greenleaf 1983, xi). Moreover, Bogdanor (1999, 149, 150, 175, 176–7, 178) is not about to apologize for his version of “political science.” He has a profound aversion to “over-arching theory” and “positivism,” opting for “an indigenous British approach to politics, a definite intellectual tradition, and one that is worth preserving.” This is the tradition of Dicey, “who sought to discover what it was that distinguished the British constitution from codified constitutions;” and Bagehot, “who … sought to understand political ‘forms’ through the analysis of political ‘forces’. ” Similarly, viewed from a constructivist standpoint, the absence of the conventional battery of social science theories is also not a problem because its proponents emphasize the meanings of rules for actors seeking the explanation of their practices in the reasons they give. Null hypotheses and casual modeling play no part. Formal-legal analysis has its own distinctive rationale and, understood as the analysis of the historical evolution of formal-legal institutions and the ideas embedded in them, it is the defining characteristic of the political science contribution to the study of political institutions.

7.2 Where are We Going? History, Ethnography, and the Study of Political Institutions

A key concern in the formal-legal analysis of institutions, in idealism, in post-Marxism, and in various species of the new institutionalism is the interplay of ideas and institutions. In their different ways, all analyze the historical evolution of formallegal institutions and the ideas embedded in them. So, we read constitutions as text for the beliefs they embed in institutions. We also explore the related customs by observing politicians and public servants at work because observation is the prime way of recovering ideas and their meanings. My argument for the continuing validity of old institutionalism, therefore, stresses, not the provision of “facts, facts, facts,” but historical and philosophical analysis.

The focus on meanings is the defining characteristic of interpretive or constructivist approaches to the study of political institutions. So, an interpretive approach to political institutions challenges us to decenter institutions; that is, to analyze the ways in which they are produced, reproduced, and changed through the particular and contingent beliefs, preferences, and actions of individuals. Even when an institution maintains similar routines while personnel change, it does so mainly because the successive personnel pass on similar beliefs and preferences. So, interpretive theory (p. 154) rethinks the nature of institutions as sedimented products of contingent beliefs and preferences.

If institutions are to be understood through the beliefs and actions of individuals located in traditions, then historical analysis is the way to uncover the traditions that shape these stories and ethnographers reconstruct the meanings of social actors by recovering other people’s stories (see for example Geertz 1973; Taylor 1985). The aim is “to see the world as they see it, to adopt their vantage point on politics” (Fenno 1990, 2). Ethnography encompasses many ways of collecting qualitative data about beliefs and practices. For example, Shore’s (2000, 7–11) cultural analysis of how EU elites sought to build Europe uses participant observation, historical archives, textual analysis of official documents, biographies, oral histories, recorded interviews, and informal conversations as well as statistical and survey techniques. The techniques are many and varied but participant observation lies at the heart of ethnography and the aim is always to recover other people’s meanings.

This “interpretive turn” is a controversial challenge to the mainstream. It is probably premature and certainly unwise to claim we are on the threshold of a postmodern political science. However, postmodernism does not refer only to debates about epistemology. It also refers to the postmodern epoch and the idea of a shift from Fordism, or a world characterized by mass production of consumer goods and large hierarchically structured business organizations, to flexible specialization, and customized production (see for example Clegg 1990, 19–22, 177–84). By extension, a postmodern political science may well be characterized by a Fordist heartland in the guise of rational choice institutionalism and customized political science rooted in national political traditions. And among these niches, old institutionalism will continue to thrive. Also, for the Fordist heartland, it will remain the starting point.

Pondering the aphorism “what goes around comes around,” I conclude that old institutionalism has not only stayed around but that its focus on texts and custom and its commitment to historical and philosophical analysis make it increasingly relevant. Weighing the mounting criticism of rational choice institutionalism (as in for example Green and Shapiro 1994; Hay 2004), I expect to listen to a new generation of stories about actors and institutions. Interrogating the “interpretive turn,” I conclude it is built on shifting sands because our notion of institutions is variously constructed within competing, non-commensurable traditions. So, we already live in a postmodern world with its tribes of political scientists. The key issue is whether we talk past one another or whether we have a reasoned engagement.

Bates et al. (1998) are distinguished proponents of rational choice who also argue for political anthropology and attempt to synthesize rational choice and interpretive theory. As Hay (2004, 58) argues, and Bates et al. acknowledge, “the post-positivist epistemology and post-naturalist ontology of interpretivism cannot be easily reconciled with the positivist epistemology and naturalist ontology of rational choice theory.” Interpretive theory has not been assimilated to the rational choice mainstream. Rather, Bates et al. should be seen as “deploying rational choice techniques and analytical strategies in the service of an interpretivist theory” (Hay 2004, 58; emphasis (p. 155) in original). But, more important, their work is an example of reasoned engagement between the traditions.

Such engagement ought to be our future. I fear the professionalization of the political science discipline is the enemy of diversity; a case of “vive la différence,” b u t not too much.


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(*) I would like to thank Haleh Afsher, Mark Bevir, John Dryzek, Jenny Fleming, Bob Goodin, and John Wanna for either help, or advice, or criticism, and sometimes all three. I must record a special thank you to Robert Elgie for his thorough and detailed advice on French political science (personal correspondence, 6 June and 20 July 2005).