#Awalkinthepark – climate denialism, “sticky v path contingent” historical discursive institutionalism and comparative institutionalisms

So, read Weart in bed and Bell/Schmidt as I walked around the park with the 50lb backpack

  • Weart, S. 2011. Global warming: How skepticism became denial. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol.67(1), pp.41-50.
  • Bell, S. 2012. Where are the Institutions? The Limits of Vivien Schmidt’s Constructivism. British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 42, pp.714-719.
  • Schmidt, V. 2014. Comparative Institutionalisms. In Telo, M (ed). 2014. Globalisation, Multilateralism, Europe:Towards a Better Global Governance.  Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Ltd, pp. 109-123.

Weart is the guy who literally wrote the book on the “Discovery of Global Warming” and has generously put together an even more extensive website that is super-useful.  He interviewed some of the key people who are now dead (e.g. Gordon MacDonald).    He makes the very valid point that there was enormous scepticism about the impact of increased atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide that were only really resolved (sic) with the ice core data from 1980 onwards .  He’s good on the demise (contested) of the ‘saturation’ argument about co2 (p.43), the rise of organised denial (I’m looking at you, George C. Marshall Institute, Global Climate Coalition, Competitive Enterprise Institute and the personal attacks (especially Ben Santer back in ‘96, but he could have mentioned many others, e.g. Michael Mann).

One very odd factual error – climategate was (late) 2009, not 2010 (p.48)

Overall – excellent brief summary of the last 100 or so years.  For bells, whistles and anecdotes, see Joshua Howe’s 2014 ‘Behind the Curve’.

So, Stephen Bell wrote a response to Vivien Schmidt’s response to his critique of her article. This I did not know until yesterday afternoon.  (See yesterday’s post for details on discursive institutionalism).

Bell makes a serious and cogent defence of his preferred kind of historical institutionalism, one that is not ‘sticky’ (i.e. over-emphatic on the notion of path-dependence, and actors being trapped in steel (iron?) cages). He’s particularly keen on  Streeck, W. and Thelen, K. 2005.  Beyond Continuity: Institutional Change in Advanced Political Economies.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

He also writes

“as far back as 1992, Steinmo and Thelen were emphasizing the role of strategic actors in shaping and being shaped by institutions, as I point out in detail in my article.”
(Bell, 2012: 715)

The citation is

Sven Steinmo and Kathleen Thelen, ‘Historical Institutionalism in Comparative Perspective’, in Kathleen Thelen, Sven Steinmo and Frank Longstreth, eds., Structuring Politics: Historical Institutionalism in Comparative Analysis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

He disagrees with Schmidt on the enabling/constraining question-

Although seeing it as ‘intuitively appealing’, Schmidt also questions my argument that institutions can have both constraining and enabling effects. ‘For Bell, institutions constrain, until they don’t, when they become resources’.18 This is not my position. I simply argue that institutions can have constraining and enabling effects on agents. This view is now commonplace in many institutional accounts.19 I can think of many ways the School I work in has such effects. Schmidt seems to think that if institutions provide agents with resources, then ‘their institutional effect, their ability to structure behaviour, falls away’.20 But why? Surely institutions can have constraining and enabling effects, limiting some forms of agency and enhancing other forms, in a contingent manner.
(Bell, 2012: 716)

Ultimately he rejects a contest between constructivist and institutionalist analysis –

“The flexible HI approach I elaborate begins its analytical investigation with agents and works outwards to explore how agents interact with institutions. Discursive analysis is very important in how we understand the ideational drivers of agent’s behaviour. But there is no need to draw a distinction between discursive analysis and the kind of HI analysis I advocate. This was the whole point of my article, to show how constructivist insights can help build rounded accounts of agency within institutional settings. Certainly, ideas matter, but so does the way in which interpretive agents interact with institutions. The aim is to theorize and to illustrate empirically the mutual shaping of agents and institutions over time and how this shapes change processes.”
(Bell, 2012: 718)

Bell reckons

“It may be possible under extraordinary (say revolutionary) conditions for agents collectively to overturn or deny institutions, but, more ordinarily, institutions confront agents in the here and now as embedded, already structured terrains. Institutions are thus ontologically prior to the individuals who populate them at any given time. This is what gives institutions causal properties and why at the bottom we pursue ‘institutional’ analysis. The same logic applies the analysis of structures. Yet, on Schmidt’s reading, if we are to reduce institutions to ideas, does not the same apply to structures? The implication here is that we redefine a major structural shift, such as Australia’s changing terms of trade in the 1990s, as simply ideational. True, such events are always subject to interpretation by agents, but to wholly collapse such events into the realm of the ideational goes too far in my view.
(Bell, 2012: 718-9)

He’s at pains to say that the approach he advocates

“does not give primacy to agents, institutions, structures or ideas, but instead holds each to be mutually constitutive in a dialectical manner. Agents, as Archer puts it, thus confront institutions and structures as a ‘distinct strata of reality’,30 which must be dealt with in the here and now and perhaps changed over time. In other words, institutions are more than just real-time ideational artefacts.”
(Bell, 2012: 719)

Archer is this –  Archer, M. 2003.  Structure, Agency and the Internal Conversation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Further concepts to look up
Hay’s ideational crisis construction
Hay’s Ideational path dependency
The difference between institutions and structures.  Dowding may help –
Dowding, K. 2008. Agency and Structure: Interpreting Power Relations. Journal of Power, Vol. 1, pp.21–36.

After my thesis I may have time for this
Hattam, V. 1993.  Labor Visions and State Power: The Origins of Business Unionism in the United States. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

So, chapter 5 of . Globalisation, Multilateralism, Europe:Towards a Better Global Governance is by Vivien Schmidt, and it is a SUPER useful overview of comparative institutionalisms.

She gives really clear explanations of old institutionalisms, the behaviourist/reductionist turn [BF Skinner and his bloody pigeons], and the response(s) to that around rational choice institutionalism, historical institutionalism and sociological (normative) institutionalism. Each gets an extended section, before she turns to her clear favourite, discursive institutionalism.

She compares and contrasts the origins, strengths, weaknesses, overlaps and incompatibilities between the four types very well indeed (to me – I am no expert).
There’s a load of suggested and suggestive reading. This would be an excellent primer for thickies (like me).  A quibble would be that she is possibly unfair to the historical institutionalists (see Bell’s critique above, which she does not mention), in distinguishing between the sticky and path-contingent types (the latter allowing agents more, um, agency).
There DOES however, seem to be a tacit peace treaty feeler in her closing statement

“Rather, here we suggest that one use whichever mix of institutionalisms is appropriate in seeking to explain a particular theoretical or substantive issue. As such, it involves recognising that although different institutionalisms may be complementary in any such study, they do have different sets of philosophical assumptions embedded in their very methodologies. Awareness of the differences is essential, and it means that a pairing or sequencing of institutionalist approaches may work better for building a substantive theoretical argument on any given theme in comparative politics or international relations…. Certainly, if one is interested in explaining the dynamics of change (and continuity), then one might start, rather than finish, with a discursive institutionalist analysis.”
(Schmidt, 2014: 122)

Which means that my hope for a simple plug-and-play model where I could be lazy and just cherry pick facts to ‘prove’ my case is dashed. Bugger.

One thought on “#Awalkinthepark – climate denialism, “sticky v path contingent” historical discursive institutionalism and comparative institutionalisms

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: