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About this book

This important new text provides a broad-ranging introduction to the 'new' institutional theories which have become increasingly influential in recent years and gives an assessment of their application and utility in political analysis.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Why Study Institutions?

Abstract
Institutions are central to the subject matter of political analysis. Indeed, up until the 1950s, institutionalism was political science, in the sense that the discipline concentrated upon the study of constitutions and the organizational arrangements of representation and government. Political scientists compared executive and legislatures, or parties and electoral systems, across countries and over time. Legal and historical methods dominated, alongside a descriptive idiom and a set of assumptions about what constituted a ‘good political system’.
Vivien Lowndes, Mark Roberts

Chapter 2. Three Phases of Institutionalism

Abstract
Our principal objective in this chapter is to identify the common core of concepts at the heart of institutionalism. We start by exploring what we mean by a theory in relation to political analysis and institutionalism in particular, specifically considering the limits on knowledge claims. In this sense, theory continually evolves and is never complete in the sense of having located a pure and unmovable truth. The chapter goes on to look at how institutionalism has developed through two phases and has now entered a third stage. In the first phase, from the 1930s to the 1970s, we find a process of exploration and rediscovery which combines the so-called ‘old’ institutionalism, its challenge from rational choice theory and behaviouralism, and its subsequent rediscovery as the ‘new’ institutionalism. In the second phase, from the early 1980s to the late 1990s, we track trajectories of divergence and division which see the new institutionalism growing rapidly in many different directions. We detect a new phase of institutionalist scholarship and research emerging from around 2000, which is characterized by convergence and consolidation, evidenced in a growing consensus around key concepts and significant dilemmas.
Vivien Lowndes, Mark Roberts

Chapter 3. Rules, Practices and Narratives

Abstract
How do political institutions actually shape actors’ behaviour? In this chapter we specify and explore three modes of institutional constraint: rules, practices and narratives. In each case we review insights from rational choice, historical institutionalist and sociological scholars, but seek to establish points of convergence and consolidation, as well as identifying key dilemmas and forward research agendas. The existence of rules, practices and narratives does not, however, guarantee compliance, so we take a critical look at enforcement strategies, showing how resistance to constraint is inevitable and can prove a potent source of institutional change.
Vivien Lowndes, Mark Roberts

Chapter 4. Power and Agency

Abstract
We argued in our first chapter that institutions are ‘Janus faced’ — they both constrain action while also being the product of human agency. Institutions are created and adapted over time through agency. At the same time, in providing ‘prescriptions’ about behaviour, they empower some actors, and courses of action, while constraining others. But, while third phase institutionalism agrees that individuals and institutions are mutually constitutive, the role of agency and power remains under-theorized. The purpose of this chapter is to explain how institutions distribute power, and how actors exercise agency in an institutional context. We show how power tends to be concentrated with rule makers, who attempt to impose their will upon ‘rule takers’. Such agency, however, goes beyond single acts of institutional foundation. Agency is also implicated in the diverse processes by which institutions develop over time, including rule shaping and rule breaking among less powerful actors. Borrowing from diverse power models, third phase institutionalism recognizes that power is exercised through regulation, practice and storytelling — and ‘smart’ mixes of these elements. We develop our own distinctively institutionalist view of agency, which highlights ‘5Cs’ — that agency is collective, combative, cumulative, combinative, and constrained.
Vivien Lowndes, Mark Roberts

Chapter 5. Institutional Change

Abstract
In the next three chapters of this book we address three of the most difficult questions for institutionalist theory. How do institutions change, why do institutions vary so much, and can institutions be ‘designed’ in any meaningful sense?
Vivien Lowndes, Mark Roberts

Chapter 6. Institutional Diversity

Abstract
Why do we see such a variety of political institutions, even within democratic systems? Might we not expect that institutions would converge on forms that fitted particular purposes? Indeed, the functionalist tendencies of first phase institutionalism produced an expectation that similar forms could flourish in quite different contexts — for instance, the assumption that newly independent colonies could replicate elements of the ‘Westminster model’ or French republicanism. Such expectations are reproduced today in many transnational policy programmes on ‘good governance’, ‘democratization’ and ‘state building’. Second phase institutionalism was also dominated by reproductive theories: in their sociological form, they saw institutions as converging in form in response to dominant templates within the environment; in rational choice interpretations, convergence was seen to arise out of rational design processes aimed at solving problems of complex exchange.
Vivien Lowndes, Mark Roberts

Chapter 7. Institutional Design

Abstract
Given the inevitability of institutional diversity and ambiguity, and the uncertainties inherent in institutional change, this chapter asks whether institutions can be designed in any meaningful sense. Our answer is a qualified yes, based on the book’s theorization of the relationship between agency and institutions and our empirical observations of institutional design in the practice of politics. This analysis is also underpinned by our ‘engaged’ perspective, which recognizes that politics is about a contestation over values. While highly unlikely to achieve all they set out to do, attempts at institutional design are inevitable as political actors seek to make their values ‘stick’ through institutional mechanisms. Such action does not only include heroic foundational moments (new constitutions, for instance) or fundamental reform programmes, but also many disparate small acts of adjustment undertaken by strategic actors on the ground. If ‘design’ is emergent rather than planned, this should not lead us to underestimate the importance of intent — as well as accident and evolution — in shaping institutional development.
Vivien Lowndes, Mark Roberts

Chapter 8. Conclusion

Abstract
This book set out to show ‘why institutions matter’. It has argued for the centrality of institutions to an understanding of political behaviour and political outcomes, not just for the purpose of post-hoc explanation but to anticipate the shape and dynamics of ongoing political projects. The explosion of new institutional forms (linked, for instance, to globalization and the information revolution) has simply increased the need for sophisticated concepts and imaginative methods to inform research. The book proposes a new periodization of institutionalist thought. It departs from the conventional distinction between ‘old’ and ‘new’ institutionalism, and takes issue with the splintering of new institutionalism into many different, competing, variants. Instead, we have sought to identify the heart of the institutionalist project — in both theory and practice — and to specify a common core of concepts. We insist that institutionalist explanations should start with institutions themselves, regarding them and not other phenomena as the chief object of analysis and, indeed, the variable that explains most of political life. Too many ‘institutionalists’ have drifted away from this position, using the label as no more than a ‘flag of convenience’ within wider academic debates. We argue for a focus on what is specific to institutionalism, rather than on spawning sub-varieties in which the term may be used as no more than a legitimating suffix.
Vivien Lowndes, Mark Roberts
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