#AWalkinthepark – discursive institutionalism challenged, defended.

So, two I read walking in the park, and one I re-read at the computer.

Bell, S. 2011. Do We Really Need a New ‘Constructivist Institutionalism’ to Explain Institutional Change? British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 41, (4), pp.883 – 906.

Schmidt, V. 2012. A curious constructivism: A response to Professor Bell. British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 42, (3), pp 705-713.

Cahill, D. 2013. Ideas-Centred Explanations of the Rise of Neoliberalism: A Critique.  Australian Journal of Political Science, Vol. 48, (1), pp. 71-84.

This ‘conversation’ was dead useful.  Two very smart academics (Stephen Bell and Vivien Schmidt) knocking lumps off each other, more or less politely. And then I re-read Cahill, 2013 while prepping this piece, and ‘got it’ much more.

Here’s a brief precis;  until the 1980s the study of institutions and institutional change was dominated by some relatively static theories that left a lot of questions unanswered.  In the 1980s various scholars created new institutional theory (“neo-institutionalism”).  The three biggies were/are

  • Sociological institutionalism  (SI) – norms and expectations matter. Actors are on a relatively short leash. [aka Normative Institutionalism]
  • Rational choice institutionalism –  (R)I) actors know their interests, relatively un-problematically, and act strategically to achieve them
  • Historical institutionalism (HI) – history matters, and paths of action are constrained by previous decisions

That, by the way, was an exceptionally crude and glib summary.  But this is a blog post, not my viva (should that miracle ever happen).

So, three existing neo-institutional theories, right? Well, along comes Vivien Schmidt.  She’s not alone (see also Colin Hay, Mark Blyth) etc.  But Prof Schmidt is the one I’ve read, so that’s where I’m going.  She’s keen to add a FOURTH neo-institutionalism, this time ‘discursive’  (other people might call it constructivist, but my understanding is that she wants to keep to discursive, as a subset of constructivist, which also has some other baggage)

Bell is unimpressed.  As an historical institutionalist, he has written this article with a question in the title and a resounding “no” in the text. Bell sees ‘a range of problems’ with the new institutionalist accounts (p 889-890).  He reckons there’s a ‘degree of confusion in relation to the several varieties of extant constructivism’.  He thinks HI should not be sidelined, and finally that CI proponents have ‘misjudged the resources available within HI’.   He distinguishes between a ‘sticky’ and path-dependence-emphasising HI, which he doesn’t want to defend, and a second kind

 “which escapes these criticisms and which can provide a robust account of institutional change. This is an approach that focuses on active agency within institutional settings and that sees the agents in question as being shaped (though not wholly determined) by their institutional environments.”
(Bell, 2011:890)

He believes therefore that

“Not only is HI compatible with key constructivist insights but it also offers a solution to a long-standing problem with constructivism by offering a more rounded account of agency. Constructivism’s strength lies in insisting that ideas and inter-subjective meanings inform and shape the interests and choices of agents. But constructivism’s account of agency is somewhat truncated.”
(Bell, 2011:893)

He has a good turn of phrase –

“Institutions matter because of the ways they reflect, refract, restrain and enable human behaviour, whilst in turn, it is the behaviour of agents that reproduces or transforms institutions over time. Institutional life, then, is not about dull conformity or blind compliance; agents are not simply ‘rule bound’, nor completely locked into the trajectories shaped by path dependency.”
(Bell, 2011:894)

And he flags the distinction between path dependency and path contingency, which I don’t think I was aware of previously…

For example, the approach advocated here questions the high levels of determinism typically associated with path dependency perspectives and focuses more directly on underlying historical mechanisms, such as institutional legacies or increasing returns, and assesses how agents deal with such contingencies when they shape and drive institutional change. As Johnson argues, ‘path contingency’, rather than the more determinist path dependency, may be a better way of framing the issues at stake.92

The footnote is this – Although acknowledging the impact of the past, the ‘contingency’ in Johnson’s account is partly a product of the ‘freedom of choice’ opened up by critical junctures, such as the collapse of communist states in Eastern Europe. Change after such junctures, however, is shaped by earlier institutional legacies in the case of ‘passive’ policies, which largely alter or adapt earlier institutions. Alternatively, in the case of ‘active’ policies, which build new institutions, Johnson suggests that change is shaped more by ‘state capacity’, in Juliet Johnson, ‘Past Dependence or Path Contingency? Institutional Design in Post-communist Financial Systems’, in Grzegorz Ekiert and Stephen E. Hanson, eds, Capitalism and Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2003), pp. 289–316, at p. 292.
(Bell, 2011:896)


However, Prof Schmidt is up to the challenge of responding to Bell, and convinces me at least that DI is indeed a worthwhile fourth neo-institutionalism.

She writes (no page numbers because my copy isn’t from the journal itself)

“Stephen Bell’s goal in proposing a new ‘flexible historical institutionalism’ is to add ideas and agency to historical institutionalism’s emphasis on institutions. In this, Bell comes quite close to the goal of my own work. What I find problematic is the way he gets that to that goal, which begins by singling out my work on ‘discursive institutionalism’, as well as Colin Hay’s ‘constructivist institutionalism’ and Mark Blyth’s ‘ideational turn’, for critique as radically ideational, post-modern to the point of relativism, and anti-institutionalist. In their stead, he proposes a ‘morphogenetic’ epistemology that he claims allows him to maintain institutions and ideas as separate yet dialectically intertwined. He then he offers an empirical case in illustration. In what follows, I will first respond to Bell’s criticisms, and then suggest that Bell’s own attempt to construct a ‘flexible’ historical institutionalism in opposition to this work does not succeed on its own terms.”

It’s hard to go into too much detail without slabbing big chunks of text against each other, and my purpose in this blog post is mostly to just get my head around the ideas in outline, and then start thinking about them in relation to my case study/studies, and the model I’m using.

Schmidt is keen to say that she never claimed ideas (or discourse) were all- determining

“For public policy in particular, moreover, I have repeatedly argued that discourse is just one explanatory factor, along with policy problems, policy legacies, policy preferences, and political institutional arrangements.”

Schmidt then tackles the empirical example Bell used – of the Reserve Bank of Australia and the current accounts deficit issue that lasted through the 80s (I remember it well) and into the 1990s.  She observes that the facts actually support a DI approach –

Given this, Bell’s own analysis is really much more constructivist than it is institutionalist, flexible or otherwise. Bell’s arguments concerning dualisms, morphogenesis, and dialectics inform, as far as I can see, none of the case study. Indeed, at the end of his argument Bell insists that one must see “embedded agents as a key component of the analysis, albeit agents who are dialectically engaged in shaping and being shaped by their relevant contexts over time” even if such agents “are interpretive agents using ideas to help define their interests, motives and strategies for action.”47 To me this is a quintessential constructivist insight, the type of which I have made many times already. It seems that Professor Bell actually belongs much more with his constructivist interlocutors than he realizes. I, for one, welcome him to the conversation.


Next step – to re-read the Schmidt 2008 paper and turn it into a series of diagrams etc.

To this, I would only add the following snippets, one a quote from a major figure in funding Australian neo-liberal think tanks (Hugh Morgan) and the other an observation from social learning that the American anti-reflexive movement did in the 1980s.

First the quote

As the Australian businessman Hugh Morgan told a sympathetic journalist corporate funding of think tanks helps to ‘reshape the political agenda… Politicians can  only accept what is in public opinion polls, so we have to change public opinion.’
(Beder, 2006: 129) from – Beder, S. 2006. Free Market Missionaries: The Corporate Manipulation of Community Values. London: Earthscan.

Secondly, in their excellent 2010 article Aaron McCright and Riley Dunlap point out that after launching a frontal assault on the Environmental Protection Agency and other state-bodies, the conservative movement (Reagan, James Watt etc etc) experienced a backlash.  So, they’ve learnt to do their work more quietly…


Finally, Cahill 2013. The first time I read it I was only able to read it for the facts of what happened during the Howard government (1996-2007). Now that I am more familiar with both the history AND the theory (institutionalism, ideas/interests/institutions) I am able to see the wood for the trees etc, and understand the references to Blyth, Bell, Schmidt et al.

The take-home is that neoliberal think tanks wanted Howard to do MORE than he did, and so it’s wrong to say their power is total.  I wonder though, if by pointing out that they didn’t get EVERYTHING they wanted, the argument might underestimate how much of what did happen was stuff that they wanted.  The point is well-made though, that CTT’s set the mood music (see Morgan quote above)

Anyway, here are some excellent observations from Cahill’s conclusion.

Turning to the broader literature on ideas and political–economic change, this article supports some of the claims about the role of ideas. For example, the analysis supports Blyth’s description of ideas acting as ‘weapons’ in processes of political–economic transformation. For Blyth, ideas used as weapons can ‘delegitimate’ alternative viewpoints and ‘contest existing institutions’ (Blyth 2002, 258–59).

Neoliberal think tanks deployed their discursive arsenal as weapons against those advocating restrictions to business prerogatives and those opposed to neoliberal measures more generally. This article finds less support for Blyth’s much stronger claim about ideational causation that ideas act as ‘blueprints’ for institutional change (Blyth 2002, 258–59). Similarly, this article supports Campbell’s claim that ideas act as ‘frames’, but not his claim that ideas act as ‘programs’.

For Campbell (2001, 175), ‘Ideas provide actors with symbols and concepts with which to frame solutions to policy problems in normatively acceptable terms.’ Campbell’s (2001, 167) conception of ideas wielding direct influence as programs – ‘technical and professional ideas that specify cause-and-effect relationships and prescribe a precise course of policy action’ – is only weakly supported by this article.
(Cahill, 2013: 81)


As others have argued, the role of ideas can only properly be grasped when considered in the context of the institutions and power relations within which they are enmeshed – when ideas are considered as dialectically related to both institutions and interests (Bell 2011, 884; D. Marsh 2009, 679).
(Cahill, 2013: 81)

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