Hall and Taylor organize Three New Institutionalisms

Hall and Taylor. 1996. Political Science and the Three New Institutionalisms. Political Studies, XLIV, 936-957.

Hall and Taylor organize new institutionalisms into three categories: historical institutionalism, rational choice institutionalism, and sociological institutionalism (936). These three platforms are meant to incorporate, describe, and abbreviate previous academic works as may be permitted within a descriptive text. Each are distinctive by their methodological approach toward institutions, yet are not exclusive or exhaustive of each others’ distinctive characteristics.

Historical institutionalists discern that scarce resources are “at the heart of politics” and favor structuralism over functionalism (937). Institutions are defined as “the formal or informal procedures, routines, norms and conventions embedded in the organizational structure of the polity or political economy” (938). Features unique to historical institutionalism include an open conceptualization between a person and an institution, whereby a “calculus approach” exogenously provides actors with predicable behavioral present and future approaches (939). Also, they assert that institutions influence power relations and “have been strong proponents of an image of social causation that is ‘path dependant,’ …pushing historical development along a set of ‘paths’” (941). Yet these paths remain dusty to the reader’s eyes.

Rational choice theorists state that actors behave individualistically and strategically, but that each political actor’s interests cannot be institutionally created in a grand legislative compromise. They posit that the political actors expect others to understand this concept (the individual’s perfect bill is not everyone’s perfect bill), and “voluntary agreement… is subject to a process of competitive selection” (945). Through this process, constant institutional competition creates a strong institution. Rational choice institutionalism asserts that institutions are responsible for congressional stability; that is, for laws constantly being passed and then not being overturned by the newly elected officials (943). Rationality transcends via efficiency—the effectiveness of the strongest individuals within the institution. To my eye, however, is there evidence regarding which weak individual actors were annihilated? What if the rational institution is terribly weak and irrational yet will not change for another twenty years into a strong and fruitful institution?

Sociological institutionalism generally ignores utility and insists that institutional design is formed from “culturally-specific practices, akin to the myths and ceremonies… symbol systems, cognitive scripts, and moral templates… images and signs provided by social life” (946-8). Here, culture itself is defined as an institution. The rational choice is really “itself socially constituted” (949). The actors are social actors, above all, and they cannot escape their social institutions because they are so grounded to their appropriate roles that were written long ago. And if they do stray, it is more likely so that they might tweak a practice or rule; rather than to create a new institutional processes altogether. Yet, this type of institution seems to incorporate one entire culture when clearly globalization is enacting a clash of institutional ideology worldwide between (tens of) thousands of cultures.

Criticisms of these three approaches were duly noted by the authors. Historical institutionalism may become clear when there is a significant “branching point,” whereas new institutional paths are created due to major political developments, such as war or economic collapse. Hall and Taylor then admit, “the principal problem here, of course, is to explain what precipitates such critical junctures…” (942). Further, historical institutionalism is weak in research within understanding “exactly how institutions affect behaviour, and some of its works are less careful than they should be about specifying the precise causal chain through which the institutions… are meant to explain” (950). In the end, Hall and Taylor recognize the three institutional frameworks have quite different foundations, yet believe that they have much in common and that they should explore equilibrium.


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