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Neoinstitutionalism (at times also termed state-centered theory or historical institutionalism ) is a nebulous set of social scientific theories that emphasize the role of institutions as important variables for explaining social phenomena. Of particular importance within economics, sociology, and political science, neoinstitutionalism rose to prominence in the 1970s and 1980s as a response to the perceived society-centric character of the social sciences. It continues as a prominent component within social science today, many of its basic points having been accepted into various popular theoretical approachesbut it has also come under attack from competing traditions within each social science discipline.

Obviously, the study of institutions is nothing new, but this is not the defining characteristic of institutionalism. The term old institutionalism usually refers to the formalist scholarship of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that produced descriptive accounts of institutions and laws. By 1950, this institutionalism had largely been replaced by behaviorist and functionalist social science, as developed by such theorists as Talcott Parsons and David Easton. From the point of view of neoinstitutionalism, behaviorist social science and its main competitor, Marxism, were society-centric in that they failed to allow for the causal roles that institutions played in society. It was argued that institutions and the state had been reduced to a black box: Everything they did was understood as little more than an outcome of the preferences and actions of social actors. Thus, neoinstitutionalism took shape in the attempt to overturn the perceived social reductionism of the main approaches of the day. Two interrelated characteristics differentiate this new institutionalism from the old one. First, the new institutionalism is analytic in character, not descriptive; it wants to explain things, not just describe them. Second, it does not seek to understand institutions as such but, rather, to understand the role(s) they play in the production of social phenomena (such as public policies, economic development, democracy, and so on).

Neoinstitutionalism can be divided into two general tendencies: the view of institutions as autonomous actors, and the view of institutions as constraining or enabling structures. Within the first tendency, the less common of the two, key examples include works by Theda Skocpol, Charles Tilly, Fred Block, and Margaret Levi. In this conception of institutions as actors, often originating in selective readings of Max Weber, it is assumed that individuals who occupy positions within the state bureaucracy come to share a bureaucratic rationalitythat is, they come to think and act in accordance with and in support of the institutional interests of the bureaucracy. In this way, this branch of neoinstitutionalism understands institutions, and the state as a whole, as being autonomous from society. This tendency treats state institutions as self-interested agents who, at times in opposition to and at times in alliance with various social actors, seek to maximize revenues, power, legitimacy, and so on. Understanding the complex interactions between these institutional actors and other (social) actors thus becomes the key, for those within this tradition, to understanding such phenomena as revolutions, the rise of the welfare state, taxation policy, and war-making.

The second, and more common, tendency within neoinstitutionalism understands institutions to be structures that limit, condition, and/or direct social agency. Key figures include Douglas North, James March and Johan Olson, and Walter Powell and Paul DiMaggio. There are a great many variations on this approach, but most focus on the task of trying to understand the problem of structure and agency within particular fields of inquiry. In large part, neoinstitutionalism has meant that approaches such as neoclassical economics, rational choice theory, systems theory, or pluralism have been augmented by considerations of the impact of institutions upon actors. Some versions of this tendency have a very broad definition of institutions, as being rules of conduct and routines within cultural as well as political and economic fields. In this very broad context, the term institutions basically refers to social structures, and the key question typically concerns how these sets of rules or practices structure the thinking and preferences of actors, producing what is often referred to as bound rationality. Neoinstitutionalism within economics usually holds this broad understanding of institutions and the key question becomes how this ensemble of formal and informal arrangements and rules structures social behavior by virtue of the transaction costs they involve. Thus, economists such as Ronald Coase, Oliver Williamson, and Douglas North have attempted to augment neoclassical economics by showing how, given the reality of transaction costs, institutions structure and direct social behavior by making it more or less costly to engage in certain types of social actions. In more narrow versions, characteristic of neoinstutionalism within sociology and political science, the term institutions may refer to the mode of organization of a political regime (corporatist, coalitional, single-party, etc.), or serve simply to designate self-identified bureaucratic organizations (ministries, state agencies, corporations, labor unions, and so on). Typical of this vein of neoinstitutionalism are examinations of the ways in which the internal organization of these institutions affects the capacity of various actors and interests to realize their goals through or within them. Also typical is a focus on understanding how inter-institutional relations and structures may help shape such phenomena as political conflicts, public policies, and markets.

Neoinstitutionalism has been critiqued by some on the grounds that there is little, if anything, new about it: Institutions, critics claim, were always taken seriously within social science. It could be argued, however, that being new is not the goal of neoinstitutionalism. More pointedly, neoinstitutionalism has often not lived up to its name: By studying social structures or types of political regimes, for example, it has shed little light on the specificity and dynamics of actual institutions. The tendencies of neoinstitutionalism discussed here have also failed to supersede the structure/agent dualism of the theories it critiqued. Regardless of the relative attention given to agents and structures, neoinstitutionalism has remained bound within the dualistic thinking that typifies behaviorism, rational choice theory, and systems theory. By comparison, the radical materialism of so-called structuralists, such as Louis Althusser and Pierre Bourdieu (with whom neoinstitutionalism is sometimes conflated), understands agency and structure as being synchronic with each other. Whereas structuralists have developed new concepts for understanding how agents are produced in modern societies (the concepts of habitus and interpellation, for example), neoinstitutionalism of all stripes has stayed within the older model in which agents are assumed to be external to structures.

SEE ALSO Institutionalism; State, The; Structuralism


Evans, Peter B., Dietrich Rueschemeyer, and Theda Skocpol, eds. 1985. Bringing the State Back In. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

March, James G., and Johan P. Olsen. 1989. Rediscovering Institutions: The Organizational Basis of Politics. New York: Free Press.

Powell, Walter W., and Paul J. DiMaggio, eds. 1991. The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Weaver, R. Kent, and Bert A. Rockman, eds. 1993. Do Institutions Matter?: Government Capabilities in the United States and Abroad Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Peter Bratsis