Institutionalism and the state
Book chapter in Ideas and Politics in Social Science Research eds. Daniel Béland and Robert H. Cox (forthcoming).
Reconciling Four (not Three) “New Institutionalisms”
Over the past three decades, the ‘new institutionalism’ has become the main
methodological battleground among political scientists. This is because political scientists differ
in their preferred ‘new institutionalist’ approach to political science. There are four basic
institutionalist approaches: three older ‘new institutionalisms—rational choice, historical, and
sociological institutionalism—plus a fourth newer ‘new institutionalism’—discursive
institutionalism. Rational choice institutionalism focuses on rational actors pursuing their
interests and following their preferences within political institutions, defined as structures of
incentives, according to a ‘logic of calculation.’ Historical institutionalism concentrates instead
on the history of political institutions and their constituent parts, which have their origins in the
(often unintended) outcomes of purposeful choices and historically unique initial conditions, and
which develop over time following a ‘logic of path-dependence.’ Sociological institutionalism
sees political institutions as socially constituted and culturally framed, with political agents
acting according to a ‘logic of appropriateness’ that follows from culturally-specific rules and
norms. Finally, the newest of the ‘new’ institutionalisms, ‘discursive’ institutionalism, considers
the discourse that actors engage in the process of generating, deliberating, and/or legitimizing
ideas about political action in institutional context according to a ‘logic of communication.’
These four institutionalisms have a core focus, the importance of institutions, but they
otherwise differ along a wide variety of continua: from structure to agency, positivism to
constructivism, universalism to particularism, statics to dynamics, and more. Many of the
debates among them have the characteristics of war: battles for territory, for control, for
dominance. In what follows, I suggest that rather than continuing with the methodological wars,
we should declare peace and consider instead how these very different approaches interrelate—
how they complement one another, where they contradict one another, and what they contribute
to our knowledge of political social reality. Because the three older ‘new institutionalisms’ are
well known, with the ‘battles’ among them well documented, I provide only brief sketches of
these. I concentrate on the latest ‘new institutionalism,’ discursive institutionalism, not only
because it is the newest of the new institutionalisms but also because it has the greatest potential
for helping to explain the dynamics of institutional change. Moreover, because it is
complementary to all three approaches, but in different ways, it can also help lend insight into
how to reconcile the various approaches where possible and, where not, it can at least help
establish the borders between approaches.
The Three ‘New Institutionalisms’: Rational Choice, Historical, Sociological
The three older ‘new institutionalisms’ all share a commitment to bringing institutions
back into the explanation of political action. But beyond this, they differ in their objects of
explanation, whether the behavior of rational actors for rational choice institutionalists,
institutional structures and practices for historical institutionalist, or norms and culture for
sociological institutionalists; and in their logic of explanation, whether interest, path-
dependency, or appropriateness. They all confront similar problems, however, albeit for
different reasons: they are overly deterministic, whether economically, historically, or culturally;
and they are largely static, having difficulty explaining institutional change (for a fuller account,
Rational choice institutionalism posits rational actors with fixed preferences who
calculate strategically to maximize their preferences, and for whom institutions represent the
incentive structures that reduce the uncertainties resulting from the multiplicity of individual
preferences and issues. In the absence of institutions that promote complementary behavior
through coordination, these actors are seen to confront collective action problems such as the
‘prisoners’ dilemma’ and the ‘tragedy of the commons,’ where individual actors’ choice can only
lead to sub-optimal solutions (Elster and Hylland 1986; Hardin 1982; Ostrom 1990).
The deductive nature of this approach to explanation makes it good at capturing the range
of reasons actors would normally have for any action within a given institutional incentive
structure as well as at predicting likely outcomes, even if future-oriented predictions are rarely
offered. It is also useful in bringing out anomalies or actions that are unexpected given the
general theory. However, for the most part it cannot explain these anomalies if they depart
radically from interest-motivated action, while where the push is toward universalistic
generalizations, problems with overgeneralization abound (Scharpf l997).
Moreover, rational choice institutionalism’s very deductiveness, along with a theoretical
generality that starts from universal claims about rationality, also makes it difficult for it to
explain any one individual’s reasons for action within a given context or any particular set of real
political events (Green and Shapiro l994). The recent attempt to ‘contextualize’ analyses
through ‘analytic narratives’ in which individual events are subsumed under more general
theories represents something of a corrective to this problem (Bates et al, 1998). But even so,
individuals qua individuals are not present here, and the high level of abstraction with which
rational choice institutionalist explanation works offers a very ‘thin’ definition of rationality
indeed, with a somewhat simplistic understanding of human motivation that misses out on the
subtleties of human reasons for action (see Mansbridge 1990).
In addition, the rational choice institutionalist approach is often highly functionalist
because it tends to explain the origins of an institution largely in terms of its effects; highly
intentionalist because it assumes that rational actors not only perceive the effects of the
institutions that affect them but can also create and control them; and highly voluntarist because
they see institutional creation as a quasi-contractual process rather than affected by asymmetries
of power (see Hall and Taylor 1996, p. 952; Bates 1987).
Rational choice institutionalist explanation is also static (see Green and Shapiro 1994;
Blyth 1997). Because it assumes fixed preferences and is focused on equilibrium conditions, it
has difficulty accounting for why institutions change over time. Moreover, rational choice
institutionalists’ emphasis on the self-interested nature of human motivation, especially where it
is assumed to be economic self-interest, is value-laden, and can appear economically
deterministic (Immergut 1998, p. 14). What is more, rational choice institutionalists do little to
question the institutional rules within which rational actors seek to maximize their utility, instead
mostly assuming them to be good (Moe 2003, p. 3) and/or efficient (North 1990).
Historical institutionalism focuses on how institutions, understood as sets of regularized
practices with rule-like qualities, structure action and outcomes (see Hall and Thelen 2006). It
tends to emphasize sequences in development, timing of events, and phases of political change.
It examines not just the asymmetries of power related to the operation and development of
institutions but also the path-dependencies and unintended consequences that result from such
historical development (Hall and Taylor 1996, p. 938; Steinmo et al. 1992; Thelen 1999). Path-
dependency ensures that rationality in the strict rational choice sense is present only insofar as
institutions are the intended consequences of actors’ choices. But this is often not the case, given
the unintended consequences of intentional action and the unpredictability of intervening events,
ensuring that the institutional structures of the historical institutionalists are neither as efficient as
they appear to rational choice institutionalists nor as purposive as sociological institutionalists
Interests, moreover, rather than being universally defined, are contextual (Zysman l994;
Thelen l999). Compared to rational choice institutionalism, historical institutionalism tends to be
less universalistic in its generalizations and more “mid-range” in its theory-building, by focusing
on changes in a limited number of countries unified in space and/or time or on a specific kind of
phenomenon that occurs in or affects a range of countries at one time or across time (Thelen
l999). But although more particular in its generalizations, it is still very general, tending to
emphasize structures and processes much more than the events out of which they are
constructed, let alone the individuals whose actions and interests spurred those events. Here, too,
then, there are no individual actors as such. What is more, any ‘micro-foundational logic,’ as
rationalists put it, is generally missing from this macro-historical work. Instead, it follows the
logic of path-dependency. Rather than appearing economically deterministic, therefore,
historical institutionalism can appear historically deterministic or even mechanistic where it
focuses exclusively on continuities and path-dependencies. The ‘critical junctures’ literature that
looks at ‘configurative’ moments (e.g., Gourevitch 1986; Collier and Collier 1991) or
‘punctuated equilibrium’ (Krasner 1988) is something of a corrective to this problem; but it still
has difficulty explaining what brings about the crisis that spurs change. Moreover, it assumes
that change comes only in bursts, with stasis in between, and cannot account for incremental
change. Instead, as Kathleen Thelen (2004) and Wolfgang Streeck (Streeck and Thelen 2005)
argue, institutional evolution can be explained by way of certain mechanisms of change such as
the layering of new elements onto otherwise stable institutional frameworks and the conversion
of institutions through the adoption of new goals or the incorporation of new groups. But
although this approach effectively puts the history back into historical institutionalism, by
explaining the full panoply of changes that may occur, it does not explain institutional change
itself. How change is instigated—either through layering or conversion—remains unclear, and
cannot be explained without adding elements from other analytic approaches (for a fuller
The main problem for the historical institutionalists, given their emphasis on structures, is
how to explain human agency. For this, historical institutionalists mostly turn to analyses that
add what Peter Hall and Rosemary Taylor (1996, pp. 940-1) term either a ‘calculus’ approach—
which puts the historical institutionalists closer to the rational choice institutionalists, albeit still
with a primacy to historical structures that shape actors’ interests—or a ‘culture’ approach—
which puts them closer to the sociological institutionalists, although here historical structures add
to norms to give meaning to actors’ interests and worldview. Examples abound on the
combination of historical institutionalism with rational calculus (e.g., Immergut 1992; Hall and
Soskice 2001; Thelen 2004; Streeck and Thelen 2005) as well as with culture (e.g., Katzenstein
Sociological institutionalism instead focuses on the forms and procedures of
organizational life stemming from culturally-specific practices, with institutions cast as the
norms, cognitive frames, and meaning systems that guide human action as well as the cultural
scripts and schemata diffused through organizational environments, serving symbolic and
ceremonial purposes rather than just utilitarian ones. Rationality for sociological
institutionalists is socially constructed and culturally and historically contingent. It is defined by
cultural institutions which set the limits of the imagination, establishing basic preferences and
identity and setting the context within which purposive, goal-oriented action is deemed
acceptable according to a ‘logic of appropriateness.’ (see DiMaggio and Powell 1991; March and
Olsen 1989; see also the discussion in Campbell 2004). Sociological institutionalism is thus in
direct contradiction to rationalists’ views of human behavior as following a ‘logic of calculation’
which is prior to institutions, including culture, norms, and identity, by which individuals may be
affected but not defined. Instead, it assumes that norms, identities, and culture constitute
interests, and are therefore endogenous
because embedded in culture, as opposed to exogenous
But as a result, rather than being too general, sociological institutionalism is sometimes
accused of being too specific, and the ‘cultural knowledge’ it provides useful mainly as
preliminary to rational choice universalization. However, when the objects of sociological
institutionalism are subsumed under rational choice explanation, often the very essence of
sociological institutionalism—the norms, rules, and reasons which are culturally unique or
anomalous because they do not fit generally expected interest-motivations—get lost. Because
such explanations are arrived at inductively rather than deductively, they can lend insight into
individuals’ reasons for action in ways that rational choice institutionalism cannot, whether they
fit the norm or depart from it. Moreover, because such explanations account contextually for
individuals’ reasons for action, sociological institutionalism is better able to explain the events
out of which historical institutional explanations are constructed. And because sociological
institutional explanations emphasize the role that collective processes of interpretation and
legitimacy play in the creation and development of institutions, they can account for the
inefficiencies in institutions that rational choice institutionalism cannot (Meyer and Rowan 1977;
see discussion in Hall and Taylor 1996, p. 953).
However, because sociological institutionalism makes no universalistic claims about
rationality and is generally focused on explanation within rather than across cultures, it risks an
implicit relativism which leads one to question whether sociological institutionalism allows for
any cross-national generalizations at all. In fact, generalizations are possible here too, by
invoking similarities as well as differences in cultural norms and identities, much in the way of
historical institutionalism with country-specific institutional structures and processes. The
resulting explanation, however, involves a lower level of generality and less parsimonious,
“thicker description” than in historical institutionalism, let alone rational choice institutionalism.
Finally, rather than appearing either economically or historically deterministic,
sociological institutionalism can appear culturally deterministic where it emphasizes cultural
routines and rituals to the exclusion of individual action which breaks out of the cultural norm,
i.e., rule-creating action as opposed to rule-following action. Moreover, its emphasis on macro-
patterns may make it appear like ‘action without agents’ (Hall and Taylor 1996, p. 954) or,
worse, structures without agents (see the critique by Checkel 1998, p. 335). And like the rational
choice approach, it too can be too static or equilibrium-focused, and unable to account for
change over time—although where it adds a historical perspective, it can also show how norms
are institutionalized, as in the case of the police and military in postwar Japan and Germany
(Katzenstein l996) or how state identities can change and pull interests along with them, as in the
case of anti-militarism in Germany and Japan (Berger 1998).
The Fourth ‘New Institutionalism:’ Discursive Institutionalism
Discursive institutionalism is the term I use for the fourth and newest of the ‘new
institutionalisms,’ which focuses on the substantive content of ideas and on the interactive
processes that serve to generate those ideas and communicate them to the public (Schmidt 2000,
2002, Ch. 5, 6; 2006a; Schmidt and Radaelli 2004). The ‘institutionalism’ in the term suggests
that this is not only about the communication of ideas or ‘text’ but also about the institutional
context in which and through which ideas are communicated. Although others have used the
same term (see Campbell and Pederson 2001; Kjaer and Pederson 2001) or similar ones, such as
ideational institutionalism (Hay 2001), constructivist institutionalism (Hay 2006), and economic
constructivism (Abdelal, Blyth and Parsons n/a), they tend to focus much more on the ideas that
are the substantive content of discourse than on the interactive processes involved in discourse.
Sometimes, moreover, their definition tends to restrict the institutional context to the ‘textual’
one of the ideational constructivists (see Kjaer and Pederson 2001) or the cultural one of the
sociological institutionalists, whereas my own categorization tends to be more open to
sociological, historical and even possibly rational choice institutional contexts.
Discursive institutionalism differs from the three older ‘new institutionalisms’ in its
objects of explanation, its logic of explanation, its problems of explanation, and its approach to
questions of continuity and change (see Table 1). Importantly, it also has a greater ability to
explain the dynamics of institutional change. This is because discursive institutionalism offers a
framework within which to theorize about how and when ideas in discursive interactions may
enable actors to overcome constraints that explanations in terms of rational behavior and
interests, historical rules and regularities, and/or cultural norms and frames present as
This said, discursive institutionalism does not exist apart from the other institutionalisms.
Institutions—whether understood in “new institutionalist” terms as socially constituted,
historically evolving, or interest-based rules of interaction that represent incentives,
opportunities, and/or constraints for individual and collective actors—frame the discourse,
serving to define repertoires of more or less acceptable (and expectable) ideas and discursive
interactions (see Schmidt 2002a, Ch. 5). As such, discursive institutionalism has a different
relationship to the older three new institutionalisms from the ones they have to one another.
Whereas the three older institutionalisms tend to offer rival analyses of political reality,
discursive institutionalism tends to offer an analysis of political reality which, although also very
different from the other three, may nonetheless build on any one of them in a complementary
manner. In fact, discursive institutionalism has it sources in the turn to ideas of scholars
immersed in the other three approaches, who looked to ideas as a way to enable them to explain
the dynamics of institutional change within their own preferred institutionalism. This helps
explain why discursive institutionalists themselves may more often have as interlocutors scholars
who sit in any one of the older ‘new institutionalisms’ in which they themselves have roots than
to discursive institutionalist scholars who follow in the tradition of another new institutionalism.
And it also lends insight into why some scholars who privilege the role of ideas (e.g., Campbell
2004) continue to posit only three new institutionalisms, while pointing to the turn to ideas and
discourse as an important advance for all of the new institutionalisms.
In all three of the older ‘new institutionalisms,’ how to explain change within essentially
static institutions has been a fundamental problem. The turn to ideas has come as a natural
progression, running the gamut from positivist approaches in which ideas are mainly seen as
reflecting the strategic interests of actors to constructivist approaches in which ideas are seen to
constitute interests. But while for some the turn to ideas has meant staying within the initial
constructs of their older ‘new institutionalisms,’ others have moved beyond, into discursive
institutionalism and a primary concern with ideas and how they are communicated through
Among rational choice institutionalists, the foray into the realm of ideas has remained
rather circumscribed. In international relations, an early move to ideas was made by Judith
Goldstein (1993), who suggested that under conditions of uncertainty, ideas behave like switches
(or ‘road maps’) that funnel interests down specific policy directions, serving as filters, focal
points, or lenses that provide policy-makers with strategies (see also Goldstein and Keohane
1993; Weingast 1995; Bates et al. 1998). Here, ideas have not gone very far beyond interests,
since they are little more than mechanisms for choosing among interests, or as focal points for
switching among equilibria (see critique by Ruggie 1998, pp. 866-7). Douglas North (1990)
went farther, first by using ideas to overcome the problem of how to explain institutional
construction, then by casting ideas as ‘shared mental modes.’ However, as Mark Blyth (2003,
pp. 696-7; see also Blyth 2002, Chapter 2) insightfully argues, the contradictions inherent in
both such approaches may have been ‘a bridge too far.’ First, if ideas create institutions, then
how can institutions make ideas ‘actionable?’ But second, if instead ideas are ‘mental modes,’
then what stops ideas from having an effect on the content of interests, and not just on the order
of interests? This means that ideas would constitute interests, rather than the other way around.
The problem for rational choice institutionalists, and the reason most quickly abandoned the
pursuit of ideas, is that they could not continue to maintain the artificial separation of ‘objective’
interests from ‘subjective’ ideas about interests, i.e., beliefs and desires. And such subjective
interests threatened to overwhelm the objective ones which were at the basis of the rationalists’
thin model of rationality, by undermining the ‘fixed’ nature of preferences and the notion of
outcomes as a function of pre-existing preferences.
For the relatively few rational choice institutionalists who flipped over into discursive
institutionalism, however, some of the most knotty problems could be addressed, such as
assumptions about institutions as inherently good (or bad) and actors as instrumental. If one
takes ideas seriously, as Bo Rothstein argues, institutions need no longer be treated as neutral
structures of incentives or (worse) the immutable products of ‘culture’ that lead to inescapable
‘social traps.’ Instead, institutions are better understood as the carriers of ideas or ‘collective
memories,’ which make them objects of trust or mistrust and changeable over time as actors’
ideas and discourse about them change in tandem with changes in their performance (Rothstein
2005, Ch. 1, 7). Moreover, if one sees ideas as constitutive of interests, then, as Paul Sabatier
demonstrates, the dynamics of policymaking can be better cast in terms of the advocacy
coalitions that are differentiable not just in terms of cognitive ideas—meaning perceptions of
objective interests—but also in their normative ideas—meaning perceptions of which interests
are appropriately pursued (Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith 1993). Relatively few dyed-in-the-wool
rational choice institutionalists who considered the role of ideas have taken this last step,
however. This is because taking ideas this seriously would force them to abandon the whole
range of assumptions, in particular about fixed preferences and neutral institutional incentive
structures, that make for the parsimony of the approach and everything that follows from it,
including the ability to mathematically model games rational actors play as opposed to those
‘real actors play’ (see Rothstein 2005, ch. 1; Scharpf 1997).
In the historical institutionalist tradition, the move into ideas has been more significant.
Here, the question is really where the tipping point is between historical institutionalists who
continue to see institutions as constitutive of ideas, determining which ideas are acceptable, and
those who might better be called discursive institutionalists within a historical institutionalist
tradition because they see ideas as constitutive of institutions even if shaped by them.
Interestingly enough, even in the book that gave historical institutionalism its name (Steinmo,
Thelen, and Longstreth 1992), the few chapters that were focused on ideas—those of Peter Hall,
Desmond King, and Margaret Weir—take us beyond historical institutionalism. But whereas
Peter Hall’s earlier edited volume on the adoption of Keynesianism ideas (Hall 1989) remained
largely historical institutionalist because historical structures come prior to ideas, influencing
their adoptability, his later article on the introduction of monetarist ideas in Thatcher’s Britain
(Hall 1993) crossed the line into discursive institutionalism, since ideas are central to change and
constitutive of new institutions. Similarly, Desmond King (1999) in his book on illiberal social
policy in Britain and the US made the move into ideas quite explicit, although he also retained a
strong historical institutionalist emphasis on how institutional context made it easier for the
British government to take up ideas and impose reform than in the US.
What defines work that is clearly discursive institutionalist within the historical
institutionalist tradition is the focus on ideas as explanatory of change, often with a
demonstration that such ideas do not fit predictable ‘rationalist’ interests, are underdetermined by
structural factors, and/or represent a break with historical paths. Examples include Sheri
Berman’s (1998) historical contrast between the German Social Democrat capitulation before
Nazism because they were trapped in their Marxist ideology and the Swedish Social Democrats’
success in reinventing socialism; Kate McNamara’s (1998) account of European monetary union
through a learning process that led to a neo-liberal consensus on monetarism following the
German exemplar; Craig Parsons’ (2003) detailed history of the ways in which French ideas
about constructing EU institutions became the institutionalized ideas which constrained
subsequent French leaders’ ideas and actions; and my own elaboration of the ideas and discourse
that help explain the different dynamics of change in the three (rather than just two) varieties of
capitalism exemplified in the economic policies and practices of Britain, Germany, and France
In the sociological institutionalist tradition, one cannot talk about a move into ideas as
such, since ideas have always been at the basis of the approach—as norms, cognitive frames, and
meaning systems. However, there is also a tipping point here, On the one side are those
‘constructivist’ scholars who see ideas more as static ideational structures, as norms and
identities constituted by culture, and who therefore remain largely sociological institutionalist as
per the earlier definition. These include constructivists like Peter Katzenstein and his colleagues
who shows how interests developed from state identities structure national perceptions of
defense and security issues (Katzenstein 1996). On the other side are those constructivists who
more clearly fit under the rubric of discursive institutionalism. These are the constructivists who,
in addition to putting ideas into cultural context, put them into their ‘meaning’ context as well
(e.g., Kjaer and Pederson 2001, Hay 2006). They tend to present ideas as more dynamic, that is,
as norms, frames, and narratives that not only establish how actors conceptualize the world but
also enable them to reconceptualize the world, serving as a resource to promote change through
‘structuration’ (Wendt 1987, pp. 359-60), through the diffusion of international norms in
developing countries (e.g., Finnemore 1996), or through the reconstruction of state identities and
ideas about European integration (Risse 2001).
With this wide range of approaches to ideas, an immediate critique could be that there are
too many ideas about ideas, that is, definitions of what they are and how they work—especially
between those writing in the more rational choice or historical institutionalist tradition on the one
hand and those in the more constructivist historical institutionalist tradition on the other. In fact,
the diversity is not so problematic because the different approaches focus on different aspects of
ideas: cognitive and normative, and therefore tend to be situated along different sides of a
Those on the more positivist side tend to follow in the rational choice or historical
institutionalist tradition, to focus on the cognitive aspects of ideas, and to work in comparative
politics and political economy. They tend to be preoccupied with establishing how new ideas get
accepted, how to determine kinds and degrees or ‘orders’ of change, generally following Kuhn
(Hall 1993; Hay 2001; Schmidt 2002a, Ch. 5), and what criteria for success can be established
(Schmidt 2002a, Ch. 5). By contrast, those on the more constructivist side of the continuum tend
to follow in the sociological institutionalist tradition, to focus on the normative aspects of
discourse, and to work in international relations. They tend to be more concerned with how
ideas constitute the norms, narratives, discourses, and frames of reference which serve to
(re)construct actors’ understandings of interest and redirect their actions within institutions (e.g.,
Wendt 1987; Finnemore 1996, Risse 2001), with how and why they ‘resonate’ with national
values, and how they may ‘revaluate’ values, all within a logic of appropriateness (March and
Olsen 1989; Rein and Schön 1991; Schmidt 2000a, Habermas 1996).
Not all scholars fit neatly into one or the other camp, however. In comparative politics in
particular, those who focus on the role of economic ideas may look positivist because they
consider the cognitive usages of those ideas in legitimizing policy change. But they are often
also constructivist in their critique of the normative spin of those ideas. This is as much the case
of Colin Hay and Ben Rosamund, who investigate the normative underpinnings of neo-liberal
ideas and their social construction in the process of globalization (Hay and Rosamund 2002), as
of Mark Blyth (2002), who analyzes the role of foundational economic ideas the ‘embedding’
and ‘disembedding’ of liberalism in Sweden and the US. My own work on the role of values and
discourse in the politics of adjustment of the welfare state is similarly constructivist (Schmidt
There is one major problem with this focus on ideas, which is that we have yet to really
explain the dynamics of institutional change. Although concentrating on ideas gets us closer to
why institutional changes occur, with the tracing of change in ideas over time that presage the
institutional shifts, they still don’t explain how such institutional changes occur, that is, how the
ideas themselves promote institutional change. For this, we need to consider another aspect of
discursive institutionalism, which is the interactive side of discourse. How ideas are generated
among policy actors and diffused to the public by political actors through discourse is key to
explaining institutional change (and continuity).
Most of the discursive institutionalists just discussed tend to deal mainly with ideas,
leaving the interactive processes of discourse implicit as they discuss the ideas generated,
deliberated, and legitimized by the various actors. Some scholars, however, have gone farther to
formalize the interactive processes of idea generation, diffusion, and legitimization, and to
clarify how they are structured. They tend to see discourse not only as a set of ideas bringing
new rules, values and practices but also as a resource used by entrepreneurial actors to produce
and legitimate those ideas. Their approaches can be divided into those focused on the
‘coordinative’ discourse among policy actors and those more interested in the ‘communicative’
discourse between political actors and the public (see Schmidt 2002a, Ch. 5). Note that these
scholars, too, can be differentiated along a continuum from positivist to constructivist.
In the coordinative sphere, discursive institutionalists tends to emphasize primarily the
individuals and groups at the center of policy construction who generate the ideas that form the
bases for collective action and identity. Some of these scholars tend to be largely positivist as
they focus on the loosely connected individuals united by a common set of ideas in ‘epistemic
communities’ in the international arena (Haas 1992) or as they target more closely connected
individuals united by the attempt to put those ideas into action through “advocacy coalitions” in
localized policy contexts (Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith l993). Others tend to be more
constructivist, as they describe how ideas are conveyed through “advocacy networks” of activists
in international politics (Keck and Sikkink 1998) or single out the individuals who, as
‘entrepreneurs’ (Fligstein and Mara-Drita 1996; Finnemore and Sikkink 1998) or ‘mediators’
(Jobert 1992; Muller 1995) draw on and articulate the ideas of discursive communities and
coalitions in particular policy domains in domestic or international arenas.
In the communicative sphere, discursive institutionalists emphasize the use of ideas in the
mass process of public persuasion in the political sphere. Some of these scholars tend to be more
positivist in their accounts of the processes of communication in electoral politics and mass
public opinion creation (Mutz, Sniderman, and Brody l996), when politicians translate the ideas
developed by policy elites into the political platforms that are put to the test through voting and
elections. Others tend to be more constructivist in their concern with the ‘communicative action’
(Habermas l996) that frames national political understandings or with the more specific
deliberations in the ‘policy forums’ of informed publics (Rein and Schön l991) about the on-
going policy initiatives of governments. Exemplary of this is David Art’s (2006) investigation of
the elite-led public debates about the Nazi past in Germany and Austria in the 1980s that
engendered very different political cultures and partisan politics by the 1990s, leading to highly
contrasting results with regard to the rise of the far right.
In all of these approaches, the empirical analysis of the process of institutional change is
very different from that found in rationalist, historical, or sociological institutionalism, since it is
focused on who talks to whom about what when how and why, in order to show how ideas are
generated, debated, adopted, and changed as policymakers, political leaders, and the public are
persuaded, or not, of the cognitive necessity and normative appropriateness of ideas.
Institutional context clearly matters here, but not quite in the way that it matters for rationalist,
historical, or sociological institutionalists.
Material interests, economic in particular, which are at the basis of much of the
institutional incentives in the rational choice institutionalist literature, are not ignored. But in
discursive institutionalism, scholars tend to separate material interests analytically into material
reality and interests rather than to conflate them. Moreover, whereas they posit interests as
constituted by ideas and discourse, such that interests cannot be separated from ideas about
interests, they see material reality mostly as separate from interests, and best understood as the
setting within which or in response to which agents conceive of their interests. Thus, they
problematize the rationalists’ whole notion of ‘objective’ material interests by theorizing
interests as subjective responses to material conditions (see Blyth 2002 and discussion in Hay
2006). This kind of analytic distinction is sometimes hard to maintain in practice, however, as
Colin Hay (this volume) points out in his critique of Blyth (2002), since even the most
committed of constructivist discursive institutionalists sometimes treat interests as materially-
given and/or structurally derived. But although this may very well be a manifestation of
rationalist backsliding, it could instead be interpreted as a short-hand way of dealing with the fact
that a certain range of responses to material realities can be expected (although not predicted),
given what we know about human rationality (and irrationality). Importantly, in contrast to
rational choice institutionalists, who extrapolate from such expected responses their predictions
about rational actors’ ‘objective’ and fixed preferences, discursive institutionalists take the actual
responses to material reality as their subject of inquiry.
Equally significantly, however, discursive institutionalists often go beyond the focus on
the construction of interests alone to include values, whether understood as cultural mores,
community morals, or ethics. This takes them into the domain of sociological institutionalism,
where culture and norms are at the basis of much of the institutional framing of the sociological
institutionalist literature. But again, the ideas in discourse do not only reflect cultural norms; the
discourse through which they are conveyed, if persuasive, can also serve to reframe such norms
Finally, the macro-structures and regularized practices that are the subject of historical
institutionalist analysis are also significant for shaping ideas. But importantly, ideas and
discourse can also serve to reshape the macro-structures and regularized practices. This suggests
another avenue for historical institutionalists who seek to go beyond description to explanation
of ‘what happens.’ Instead of turning to rational choice or sociological institutionalism for
human agency, both of which are still quite static, as we have already seen, they could turn to
discursive institutionalism to help explain the dynamics of institutional change, with ideas and
discourse providing another kind of micro-foundational logic to institutional development.
Historical institutionalism, however, with its focus on formal (as well as informal) institutional
contexts, can also add a macro-structural logic to discursive institutionalist accounts of ideas and
discourse. This is because institutional arrangements do not only shape ideas, they also shape
the discourse, affecting where
discourse matters, by establishing who talks to whom about what,
For example, in ‘simple’ polities (or single-actor constellations) where governing activity
tends to be channeled through a single authority, mainly the executive—primarily countries with
majoritarian representative institutions, statist policymaking, and unitary states like Britain and
France—the communicative discourse to the general public tends to be much more elaborate
than the coordinative discourse among policy actors. This naturally follows from the fact that a
restricted group of policymakers, largely made up of or guided by government actors tends to
generate the policies that political leaders then seek to legitimate to all, including the most
affected groups. The communicative discourse is therefore crucial, since without it governments
face sanctions ranging from interest group protest to loss of public confidence and loss of
By contrast, in ‘compound’ polities where governing activity tends to be dispersed among
multiple authorities—countries with proportional representation systems, corporatist
policymaking, and/or federal or regionalized states like Germany and Italy—the coordinative
discourse among policy actors tends to be much more elaborate than the communicative
discourse to the public. This naturally follows from the large group of policy actors, including
government officials, business and union representatives, as well as local and regional
government representatives, all of whom may be engaged in the generation of policies. The
coordinative discourse is therefore crucial not just with regard to reaching agreement on policy
among the many policy actors involved but also in legitimating such agreement to those actors’
different constituencies. The communicative discourse is by contrast likely to be quite thin
because political leaders’ discourse tends to be very general, in order to avoid jeopardizing any
of the compromises made in private among policy actors. An exception among compound
polities is the United States, since it has a strong communicative discourse as a result of its
majoritarian politics and presidential system along with a strong coordinative discourse as a
result of its pluralist processes and federal structures. The highly compound European Union, by
comparison, has the weakest of communicative discourses as a result of the lack of an elected
central government—and its dependence on national leaders to speak for it—and the strongest of
coordinative discourses, given its highly complex, quasi-pluralist processes and quasi-federal
The Limits of Discursive Institutionalism
Discursive institutionalism works best, in short, at explaining the dynamics of change
(but also continuity) through ideas and discursive interactions. As such, it largely avoids the
static determinism of the other three ‘new institutionalisms.’ By the same token, however, it
risks appearing highly voluntaristic unless the structural constraints derived from the three newer
institutionalisms are included—whether rationalist interests, historical paths, or cultural norms.
The appearance of voluntarism is especially problematic for scholars who focus only on ideas,
where ‘text’ appears without context, as in postmodernist approaches. But even where the
context is considered, other problems may arise.
In discursive approaches that follow in the sociological institutionalist tradition, there is
always the danger that social construction goes too far, and that material interests qua material
interests are ignored in favor of seeing everything as socially constructed within a given culture
(see the critique of Sikkink 1991 by Jacobsen 1995). This leads one to question whether there is
anything ‘out there’ at all, mutually recognizable across cultures. But while discursive
approaches in the sociological institutionalist tradition may suffer from too much constructivism,
those in the rational choice or historical institutionalist tradition may suffer from too much
positivism, with political action assumed to be motivated by instrumental rationality alone, such
that cognitive ideas about interests overdetermine the choice of ideas, crowding out the
normative values which also color any conceptualization of interest.
But all discursive institutionalist approaches, whether positivist or constructivist, may
also be overly deterministic with regard to the role of ideas, seeing the influence of ideas
everywhere in the way that rational choice institutionalists see instrumental rationality
everywhere or sociological institutionalists, cultural rationality. Most importantly, ‘stuff
happens.’ As the historical institutionalists remind us, processes of change are often
unconscious—as people may act without any clear sense of what they are doing, creating new
practices as a result of ‘bricolage’ and destroying old ones as a result of ‘drift’ (Thelen 2004;
Streeck and Thelen 2005; see also Campbell 2004: 69-74). But even when there is conscious
action, when people do have ideas about what they are doing, what they do most often has
unintended consequences, not only in an historical institutionalist sense because the outcomes
may be unanticipated but also in a discursive institutionalist sense because ideas may be
Thus, the big question for discursive institutionalism in explaining change, once we have
established that ideas and discourse do matter and how they matter, is: When
do ideas and
discourse matter, that is, when do they exert a causal influence? And when don’t they?
Establishing causality with regard to ideas and discourse can be problematic. The very
question itself may seem inappropriate to constructivist discursive institutionalists who see
causal logics of explanation as operating in a different domain from constructivist logics of
interpretation (e.g., Wendt 1999; Bevir and Rhodes 2003). Other constructivists, however, argue
that bracketing off questions of causality and explanation from those of meaning and
interpretation is unnecessary (see Hay 2004: 145). In fact, whether constructivist or positivist,
most discursive institutionalists see their main explanatory task as that of demonstrating the
causal influence of ideas and discourse (e.g., Hay 2001; Schmidt 2002, Ch. 5 and 6; Blyth 2003;
Parsons 2003). This approach to the causal influence of ideas and discourse is very different
from that of historical institutionalists like Hall (1989), whose Keynesian ideas are presented as
objective and universally meaningful ideas, diffusing change across nations and time, acting as
causal forces coming from the outside. And it is even more different from those of rationalists
like Goldstein and Keohane (1993), where ideas are ‘switches’ or ‘mental modes’ that determine
preferences. But it is also different from those of constructivists who emphasize culture as
constitutive of ideas. This is because, here, ideas are seen from the inside, as empirical subjects
to be studied in terms of their development in interpretive meaning contexts (see Kjaer and
Pederson 2001). Thus, for discursive institutionalists, the question of causality is an empirical
one of showing when ideas and discourse matter, and when they don’t.
Discourse, just as any other factor, sometimes matters, sometimes does not in the
explanation of change. The question is when
does it matter, say, by redefining interests as
opposed to merely reflecting them in rationalist calculations, by reshaping historical paths as
opposed to being shaped by them, or by recreating cultural norms as opposed to reifying them
(see Schmidt 2002: 250-256). And when are other factors more significant, say, where the
creation of new institutional paths or cultural norms may be better captured by historical or
sociological institutionalist analysis, because actors don’t have any clear idea about what they are
doing when they are doing it. Part of the reason many political scientists avoid explanations
related to discourse is that it is difficult to separate it from other variables, to identify it as the
independent variable. But instead of ignoring discourse because of the difficulties, because it
may not be the
cause, it is much better to ask when is discourse a
cause, that is, when does
discourse serve to reconceptualize interests, to chart new institutional paths, and to reframe
For this, we need to establish what criteria to use in evaluating whether discourse has a
causal influence, that is, when it is ‘transformative,’ and when not. Such criteria require a lot
more elaboration than possible here. Suffice to say that in the realm of ideas, a ‘good’ discourse
depends upon the relative strength or ‘truthfulness’ of its cognitive arguments, the resonance of
its normative arguments, the adequacy of the information upon which the arguments build; the
relevance or applicability of its recommendations; the coherence and consistency of its ideas, and
more (Schmidt and Radaelli 2004). In the realm of discursive interactions, who is speaking to
whom in coordinative and communicative spheres also matters. And all of this can be
investigated empirically, for example, through process-tracing of ideas held by different actors
that led to different policy choices (Berman 1998); through matched pairs of country cases where
everything is controlled for except the discourse to show the impact of discourse on welfare
adjustment (see Schmidt 2002b); through speeches and debates of political elites that then lead to
political action (Dobbin 1994; Art 2006); through opinion polls and surveys to measure the
impact of the communicative discourse (Koopmans 2004); through interviews and network
analysis to gauge the significance of the coordinative discourse, and more.
Institutional context also needs to be taken into consideration, however. For example, in
‘simple’ polities (or ‘single-actor’ systems) where the communicative discourse is most
elaborate, the causal influence of discourse is most likely to be ascertainable in the responses of
the general public over time, as discovered through protests and election results, opinion polls,
and surveys. By contrast, in ‘compound’ polities (or ‘multi-actor’ systems) in which the
coordinative discourse is most elaborate, the causal influence is more likely to be seen in whether
or not there is any agreed policy, with empirical investigation focused on interviews and reports
To get a sense of how the four new institionalisms fit together in a very general way, I
present a chart that arrays the four institutionalisms along a horizontal continuum from
positivism to constructivism—from interests to culture, with history in between—and along a
vertical continuum from statics to dynamics, with interests, history, and culture at the static end,
ideas and discourse at the dynamic end (see Figure 1). I put historical institutionalism between
rational choice and sociological institutionalism, mainly because rational choice and sociological
institutionalism are largely incompatible, whereas historical institutionalism can go either to the
positivist or the constructivist side when it adds agency. I put discursive institutionalism
underneath all three because, although it is distinctive, it can rest upon the insights of any one of
the three and because scholars often see themselves as continuing to fit into one or another of the
traditions even as they cross the line into discursive institutionalism.
But although discursive institutionalism thus appears at the bottom of the explanatory hierarchy,
lending new insights into the reconceptualization of rationalist interests, the reshaping of
historical paths, and the reframing of cultural norms, it would be a mistake to therefore think of it
as something of an afterthought, to be dismissed as too complex, not ‘parsimonious’ enough, or
too micro-foundational. Rather, it would be better to see it as in a natural progression from the
three older new institutionalisms, and a progress over them. As such, we might do better to flip
the hierarchy over. In this sequence, we could present the other three new institutionalisms as
background knowledge to the discursive institutionalist approach, providing useful insights into
the crystallized ideas about rationalist interests and cultural norms or the frozen landscapes of
macro-structures and routinized actions prior to our investigation into the dynamics of change.
Put another way, the old ‘new institutionalisms’ could be seen as good shortcuts to the
uncontested regularities and rationalities of institutionalized behavior and interactions. But to
explain change, as well as to test the accuracy of such crystallized ideas and frozen landscapes,
we need something more: discursive institutionalism.
The overall goal of this essay has been to argue for tolerance for many methodological
approaches, as represented by the four new institutionalisms, and to give peace a chance. But is
this likely? For a long time now, political scientists, having developed their own theoretically
sophisticated arguments with which to explain and defend their approaches, have seen one
another as rivals, often at war to prove not only that they are predominant but also to
predominate. The problem with this is that there has been little real engagement, since there are
few possibilities for pitched battles. At best, there are skirmishes at the borders of the various
approaches—and occasional truces in these inter-border regions. This is because the different
approaches fight with different weapons on different terrain for different ends against different
adversaries. But occupying such different territories means that instead of seeing their relations
with rival approaches as methodological wars where the battles are fought over conceptual
territory, they would do better to declare peace, and begin exploring areas of mutual
compatibility along their borders. Thus, they could and should see one as all engaged in the
theoretically and empirically worthwhile tasks of explaining different parts of political reality,
and to take a more ‘eclectic’ approach to political analysis (Sil and Katzenstein 2005). This
would surely move all four new institutionalisms forward theoretically, while providing the
greatest benefits for empirical research.
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Table 1: The Four New Institutionalisms
Figure 1: Spatial Relationship of the Four New Institutionalisms:
Rational Choice (RI), Historical (HI), Sociological (SI), and Discursive (DI)
(dotted lines represent border areas)
1 I would like to thank Kathleen Thelen, Mark Blyth, Colin Hay, Michael Lister, Fritz Scharpf, Paulette Kurzer,
Daniel Béland, Bob Goodin, Peter Katzenstein, Martin Schröder, and Daniel Wincott for their insightful suggestions
at an earlier stage of the manuscript.
Seguire il dibattito in corso in questi ultimi mesi sulla gravequestione riguardante la pillola abortiva RU 486, può risultaredifficile per chi non è particolarmente addentro alle questionie alle terminologie medico-tecniche-giuridiche. Cercherò, con questo piccolo saggio, di fare un pò di chia-rezza, di squarciare il fitto velo di equivoci, di menzogne e di in-ganni che ha sempre acc
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