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date: 19 June 2021

(p. 163) Comparative Politics: Introduction

In Political Science, historical institutionalism developed first and foremost in the subfield of comparative politics. The chapters compiled by Steinmo, Thelen, and Longstreth in Structuring Politics (Cambridge University Press, 1992), a book that crystallized the historical institutional approach in the discipline, have their center in the comparative analysis of institutions, policies, and ideas across countries.

Several reasons explain the close affinity between historical institutionalism and comparative politics. First, the core political processes of comparative politics, such as state-building, democratization, or party system development, take a long time to unfold. The study of the historical record is thus essential to get the story right. Second, as Atul Kohli reminds us in the opening chapter in this part, institutions are wont to endure and historical institutionalism provides valuable analytical leverage to study them. The nation-state, political parties, constitutions, electoral systems, and corporatist institutions, among others, are created to last. Of course, not all do, but the study of institutions calls for a historical approach that can explain their origins, changes, and legacies. In fact, a historical institutional approach often unveils (p. 164) the social and political coalitions behind institutional formation and evolution, while at the same time specifying the multiple causal interactions between institutions and their relevant contexts. Third, the scholars of comparative politics study processes in which the sequence, timing, and pace of events are causally important. Temporality, in other words, is a key explanatory factor in most of the political processes that abound in comparative politics.

The chapters that follow nicely illustrate and elaborate upon this intimate relationship between the core topics and questions of comparative politics and historical institutionalism. With other sections focusing on the United States and Europe, this part’s chapters center on the study of the developing world. The contributors combine expertise that spans Africa, Asia (including South Asia, Southeast Asia, and China), Latin America, and the Middle East.

The first two chapters elaborate on different aspects of the state. Atul Kohli studies the state’s role as economic development promoter. He argues that the extent to which the state is successful at this task depends on colonial legacies and decolonization processes. Kohli’s chapter combines an impressive breath of regional coverage with a sound and deep knowledge of the historical record. It opens by reviewing the role of the state in promoting economic development in the advanced industrial countries, a process that is then compared with the role of the state in countries of Africa, Latin America, and Asia.

Hillel David Soifer focuses on the building of state capacities and points to the explicit relationship between the studies of the state and historical institutionalism. Scholars of the state have used historical causes to explain state-building and applied concepts such as critical junctures and path dependence. Soifer argues there are missed opportunities, nonetheless. Scholars of historical institutionalism could, for example, provide better theories of state failure and conceptualizations and measurements of state strength. These are promising areas for future research on state capacities.

The chapter by Rodrigo Barrenechea, Edward L. Gibson, and Larkin Terrie demonstrates that while there is an intimate linkage between democratization studies and historical institutionalism, it has not been explicit. Democratization studies have applied the historical comparative method, considered institutions as key independent variables, and even used (explicitly or implicitly) the concepts of path dependence, critical junctures, and sequencing in their explanations. Yet, unlike the studies of the state, and with few exceptions, democratization studies have not made explicit use of the historical institutional framework. According to the authors, considerable room exists to advance the historical institutional approach in the study of democratization, particularly if future researchers adopt an episodic approach (as opposed to a transitology paradigm) and focus on the study of what they call keystone institutions, which are those with particularly important consequences for the long-term.

(p. 165) The chapter by Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way asks the flip-side question: Why are some party-based authoritarian regimes more durable than others? As in the case of Kohli’s chapter, the historical record holds the key to the answer. Levitsky and Way argue that robust authoritarian institutions emerge out of periods of violent conflict, particularly social revolutions, which set regimes on one of two institutional paths (revolutionary or counter-revolutionary). Yet even durable party-based authoritarian regimes occasionally collapse. The founding institutional legacies may erode over time and a historical institutional approach can shed significant light on the mechanisms of reproduction that allow authoritarian regimes and parties to self-perpetuate and adapt or erode and collapse.

Focusing on political parties, Rachel Riedl shows the extraordinary leverage of the historical institutional approach. Citing numerous examples, Riedl analyzes the formation and institutionalization of party systems, the creation of parties in relation to social cleavages and coalitions, and the relationships between parties and other regime institutions such as the electoral system. In all these cases, she brings to the fore the contributions and insights of historical institutionalism and concludes with a number of intriguing and exciting questions and problems for future research on political parties.

Turning to social policies, Melanie Cammett and Aytuğ Şaşmaz offer an encompassing review of the literature on welfare provision in the developing world. Analyzing the relationships between welfare provision and social coalitions, production regimes, and state-building, Cammett and Şaşmaz stress the contributions of historical institutionalism and point to fruitful areas of future research. Finally, they highlight the importance of non-state welfare provision in the developing world.

Connected to the transformation of welfare regimes, the chapter by Teri Caraway zooms in on organized labor. Caraway reviews the foundational works of historical institutionalism in the studies of labor. Then, drawing from comparative and case studies spanning many countries of the Global South, she analyzes the role of organized labor in the adoption of neoliberal reforms, and their effects, in turn, on labor strength. Lastly, Caraway analyzes the role of unions during and after authoritarian regimes, proposing the concept of legacy unions (those state-sponsored unions created under authoritarianism that continue to operate under democracy). Like Levitsky and Way, Caraway prompts us to research the mechanisms of reproduction that explain when and why legacy unions adapt or perish.

Pushing the research agenda of historical institutionalism significantly forward, Kellee Tsai shows that the modalities of gradual institutional change recently conceptualized in historical institutionalism often take place through informal practices. Appealing to the mathematical image of the Möbius strip, Tsai argues that informal institutional aspects are present in all institutions, regardless of regime type, level of development, or state sanctioning of their legitimacy. Tsai proposes the concept of (p. 166) adaptive informal institutions and shows that informal institutions “comprise, subvert, and even facilitate reforms of formal institutions.” Persuasively, Tsai incites historical institutionalist scholars to place informal institutions more straightforwardly in their research agendas.

These eight chapters provide readers with a comprehensive assessment of some of the most important topics and questions that historical institutionalism has addressed in comparative politics. Furthermore, the chapters point to new and promising questions and topics for future research. As these are tackled, our knowledge and theories in comparative politics and Political Science writ large will surely advance. At the same time, historical institutionalism will be further developed, sharpened, and strengthened.