#Awalkinthepark – discursive institutionalism yet again

Four  papers here, the fourth of which doesn’t quite ‘fit’, but never mind…

The TL;DR is that Discursive Institutionalism is a pretty powerful (too powerful?) way of looking at policy change/lack of change.

Schmidt, V. 2010. Taking ideas and discourse seriously: explaining change through discursive institutionalism as the fourth ‘new institutionalism’. European Political Science Review, Vol. 2 (1), pp1-25.

Carstensen, M. and Schmidt, V. 2016. Power through, over and in ideas; conceptualizing ideational power in discursive institutionalism. Journal of European Public Policy, Vol. 23, (3), pp.318-337.

Marsh, D. 2009. Keeping Ideas in their Place: In Praise of Thin Constructivism. Australian Journal of Political Science, Vol. 44, (4), pp.679-696.

Fuenfschilling, Lea ; Truffer, B. 2014. The structuration of socio-technical regimes—Conceptual foundations from institutional theory. Research Policy, Vol.43, (4), pp.772-791.

I think I may have squeezed the DI lemon dry. On the upside, I am now – through sheer repetition rather than any intelligence on my part – familiar with its terminology (coordinative discourse, communicative discourse etc etc).

FWIW, this article is the best single explanation of DI I’ve read

Discursive institutionalism is an umbrella concept for the vast range of works in political science that take account of the substantive content of ideas and the interactive processes by which ideas are conveyed and exchanged through discourse. On the substantive dimension of ideas and discourse, DI scholars consider ideas about ‘what is and what ought to be’ at different levels of generality (Schmidt, 2008; Mehta, 2010), going from policy ideas (e.g., Kingdon, 1984; Hall, 1989) to programmatic ideas or paradigms (Hall, 1993; Berman, 1998) to deeper philosophical ideas (Campbell, 2004). They also consider different types of ideas, including cognitive ideas justified in terms of interest-based logics and necessity (e.g., Jobert, 1989; Hall, 1993; Schmidt, 2002: Ch. 5) and normative ideas legitimated through appeal to values and appropriateness (e.g., March and Olsen, 1989; Schmidt, 2000). And they consider the representation of ideas through discourse, including frames, narratives, myths, collective memories, stories, scripts, and more (e.g., Roe, 1994; Hajer, 2003).
(Schmidt, 2010: 3)

She explains the difficulties that Rational Choice Institutionalist theorists have with the power of ideas –

The problem for RI scholars, then, and the reason most of them 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, that is, beliefs and desires. Such subjective interests threatened to overwhelm the objective ones which are 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. And without fixed preferences as well as neutral institutional incentive structures, RI scholars lose 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 Scharpf, 1997; Rothstein, 2005: Ch. 1). This helps explain why the foray into ideas for most dyed-in-the-wool RI scholars was short-lived
(Schmidt, 2010: 7)

There’s nice stuff on Historical institutionalism (the subject of a debate between Schmidt and Stephen Bell, covered in previous blog posts)

Historical institutionalism focuses on how institutions, understood as sets of regularized practices with rule-like qualities, structure action and outcomes. It emphasizes not just the operation and development of institutions but also the path-dependencies and unintended consequences that result from such historical development (Steinmo et al., 1992; Hall and Taylor, 1996: 938; Thelen, 1999; Pierson, 2000). HI has been more open to the turn to ideas than RI. This is because whereas RI has certain ontological and epistemological presuppositions about agency that clash with those of DI, HI lacks agency, for which HI scholars often turn to RI or SI (see Hall and Taylor, 1996: 940–941) and, increasingly, to DI. Moreover, critiques of HI – such as those that emphasize its historical determinism where it focuses on critical junctures (e.g., Collier and Collier, 1991) leading to path dependence (Mahoney, 2000; Pierson, 2000), along with its inability to explain institutional change endogenously, even if more recent HI scholars have succeeded in describing incremental change, through layering, conversion, and drift (Thelen, 2004; Streeck and Thelen, 2005) – have left an opening to DI.
(Schmidt, 2010: 10)

 Schmidt does a similar explanation on sociological institutionalism –

Sociological institutionalist focuses on the forms and procedures of organizational life stemming from culturally specific practices, with institutions cast as the norms, cognitive frames, scripts, and meaning systems that guide human action according to a ‘logic of appropriateness’ (March and Olsen, 1989; DiMaggio and Powell, 1991; Scott, 1995). In SI, therefore, one cannot talk about a turn to ideas as such, since ideas have always been at the basis of the approach – as norms, frames, and meaning systems. The differences between SI and DI, therefore, are often quite fuzzy, and depend upon whether scholars see ideas more as culturally determined, static ideational structures and institutions – as macro-patterns consisting of ‘action without agents’ (Hall and Taylor, 1996: 954) or, worse, structures without agents (see Checkel, 1998: 335) – or whether they take a more dynamic approach to ideas.
(Schmidt, 2010: 13)

 I will admit to being mystified by this though –

Importantly, the constructivist DI scholars go beyond the SI scholars who put ideas into cultural context to put them into their ‘meaning’ context as well, that is, by treating ideas as empirical subjects to be studied in their own right (e.g., Kjaer and Pedersen, 2001; Hay, 2006). And such meaning contexts constitute very different kinds of institutions from those of RI, HI, and SI.
(Schmidt, 2010: 14)

Schmidt is not starry-eyed about the ‘power’ of discourse though –

Deliberation on its own, in other words, does not necessarily ensure a more ‘democratic’ outcome. Power and position do matter. The question is how to define power and position in such a way as to also take account of the power of ideas and discourse. The problem with RI and HI is that they tend to reify questions of power and position by assuming that power is a function of position and that agents’ strategic interests derive primarily from their power and position. DI holds instead that power cannot be defined by (objective) position alone, since ideas and values infuse the exercise of power and (subjective) perceptions of position (Lukes, 2005).
(Schmidt, 2010: 18)

 There’s another dig at HI on page 19-

HI accounts of capitalism (in particular where they combine with RI) do not just make things appear inevitable, they make them seem inexorable when they argue for divergence to two varieties of capitalism based on the differing path-dependent logics of coordination of liberal market economies and coordinated market economies (e.g., Hall and Soskice, 2001). HI scholars who propound this binary view of capitalism tend to be opposed to neo-liberal capitalism, and are engaged in a normative discursive strategy focused on getting people to accept the validity of two ways, not one, of being capitalist.
(Schmidt, 2010: 19)

Lovely diagram on page 20 –

2010 schmidt diagrams ri hi si di

She admits that things can go wrong with DI, and sets out a compelling set of questions;

Where DI can go wrong is when it considers ideas and discourse to the exclusion of issues of power (read RI instrumental rationality) and position (read HI institutional structures), when it assumes that DI deliberation necessarily trumps RI manipulation, or when it over-determines the role of ideas and discourse by forgetting that ‘stuff happens’ or that historical institutions and cultural frames affect the ways in which ideas are expressed and discourse conveyed. We should not forget that ideas and discourse that seek to promote change often have little effect on the crystallized ideas about rationalist interests and cultural norms or on the frozen landscapes of rationalist incentives, historical paths, and cultural frames. The research agenda for DI, therefore, should not just be to seek to convince political scientists theoretically that ideas and discourse matter – by now all neo-institutionalists seem to have accepted this to some degree – but to show empirically how, when, where, and why ideas and discourse matter for institutional change, and when they do not.
(Schmidt, 2010: 21, emphasis added)

To read

Culpepper, P.D. (2005), ‘Institutional change in contemporary capitalism: coordinated financial systems since 1990’, World Politics 57(2): 173–199.

Fung, A. and E.O. Wright (2003), ‘Countervailing power in empowered participatory governance’, in A. Fung and E.O. Wright (eds), Deepening Democracy, New York: Verso, pp. 259–290.

Lupia, A. and D.M.McCubbins (1998), The Democratic Dilemma: Can Citizens Learn What They Need to Know? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mahoney, J. (2000), ‘Path dependence in historical sociology’, Theory and Society 29(4): 507–548.

And maybe

Yee, A.S. (1997), ‘Thick rationality and the missing ‘brute fact:’ the limits of rationalist incorporation of norms and ideas’, Journal of Politics 59(4): 1001–1039.

Carstensen and Schmidt (2016) are up for defining “ideational power”. It is

“the capacity of actors (whether individual or collective) to influence other actors’ normative and cognitive beliefs through the use of ideational elements”
(Carstensen and Schmidt, 2016: 318)

(aka Jedi Mind Tricks)

Based on insights from the discursive institutionalist literature they suggest three different types –

power through ideas, understood as the capacity of actors to persuade other actors to accept and adopt their views through the use of ideational elements;

power over ideas, meaning the imposition of ideas and the power to resist the inclusion of alternative ideas into the policymaking arena;

and power in ideas, which takes place through the establishing of hegemony or institutions imposing constraints on what ideas are considered.
(Carstensen and Schmidt, 2016: 318)

(ties in with Lukes, and also agenda denial)

So, ideational power  has three features worth noting. First

“characterized by a conception of power which is exerted through the constitution of intersubjective meaning structures that agents both draw on to give meaning to their material and social circumstances and battle over to affect what ideas and discourses are deemed viable.”
(Carstensen and Schmidt, 2016: 322)

[I think this means people drink from the same well, but some people get to decide what goes in the well in the first place, or can put more of their own stuff in it]

Second it is both a top-down and a bottom up process, that is it

takes seriously not only the discursive struggles taking place among policy actors at the top of the hierarchy to affect their particular vision of the world, but also those related to the effort of policy actors at the bottom as much as at the top of the power hierarchy to translate their ideas into language accessible to the general public
(Carstensen and Schmidt, 2016: 322)

And finally it is thought of in terms of who is doing what (‘agency-oriented terms’) rather than ‘structural and institutional understandings.’ (Carstensen and Schmidt, 2016: 322)

Next up, power through ideas – (aka ‘reality distortion fields)

Rather than viewing power as making someone do what they would otherwise not have done based on force, threats, institutional position, material resources, etc., the ideational power actors exert is based on their capacity to induce other actors to do something through reasoning or argument. It is not necessarily – or rather, it rarely is – a completely ‘rational’ process in the sense that the most powerful necessarily are the ones with the ‘best’ argument. Instead, the persuasiveness of an idea depends on both the cognitive and normative arguments that can be mustered in its support.
(Carstensen and Schmidt, 2016: 323-4)

And of course, my friends the think tanks are well up for this, in both direction of elites and Joe and Jane Public –

In the process of persuasion, moreover, we need to distinguish between the policy sphere, in which policy actors (consisting of experts and advocacy networks, organized interests, civil servants and public officials) engage in a ‘coordinative’ discourse of ideational generation and contestation, and the political sphere, in which political actors (consisting of politicians, spin doctors, campaign managers, government spokespersons, party activists) engage in a ‘communicative’ discourse of translation, discussion, deliberation and, again, contestation with the public (including not just the general public but also informed publics of opinion-makers, the media, organized interests, community leaders and activists) (Schmidt 2002, 2006, 2008).
(Carstensen and Schmidt, 2016: 325)

In terms of “power over ideas” they want to emphasize three general forms-

… the first is exerted by actors with the power to impose their ideas; the second, by normally powerless actors who seek to shame other actors into conformity with their ideas or norms; and the third, by actors who have the capacity to resist even considering alternative ideas.
(Carstensen and Schmidt, 2016: 326)

i.e. the really powerful can stick their fingers in their ears and say “la la la. NOT LISTENING.”

Although many of the ‘market efficiency’-oriented ideas no longer dominate public discourse about financial markets and how they function…  the regulation of financial markets continues to be based on ideas that are directly borrowed from neoliberal conceptions of financial markets (Mugge 2013).
An important reason why seems to be that actors with stakes in the upholding of pre-crisis ideas remain able to largely ignore alternative conceptions of how to regulate financial markets (see also Moschella and Tsingou 2013).
(Carstensen and Schmidt, 2016: 328)

Here is a crucial bit-

… power over ideas is particularly important for fending off pressures for change. During a period of crisis, for example, it matters hugely who has the authoritative capacity to interpret events as anomalous and thus as a challenge to the reigning paradigm. In battles for authority characteristic of periods of crisis (Hall 1993), power over ideas enables actors to ignore alternative idea sets and thus keep them from receiving serious consideration by elites and public alike. Power over ideas may not only be instrumental for actors in avoiding change, it may also be useful for implementing changes to the existing institutional setup in a more evolutionary way, perhaps by pushing institutions towards greater purity and conformity with their policy paradigm.
(Carstensen and Schmidt, 2016: 328, emphasis added)

Agenda denial etc.  Thatcher and “there is no alternative” and all that

Finally, power in ideas.  Well, make it seem invisible, it’s better than a fight, isn’t it?

power in ideas concerns the ways that agents seek to depoliticize ideas to the degree where they recede into the background, meaning that they become so accepted that their very existence may be forgotten, even as they may come to structure peoples’ thoughts about the economy, polity and society. This may, for example, happen as policy programmes become taken-for-granted in terms of their methods, instruments and goals such that they, too, fade into the background.
(Carstensen and Schmidt, 2016: 329)

In their conclusion they argue for “carving out ideational power as a specific category of political power for three reasons.

Going beyond the “ideas matter” of DI, they say that, first up

developing a more explicitly ideational understanding of power is helpful for analysing the battles going on between policy actors, within elites and between them and the masses, as well as to distinguish them from the relations that are not relations of power.
(Carstensen and Schmidt, 2016: 333)


developing a specific category of ideational power is helpful for analysing how different dimensions of ideational power may combine and intertwine in concrete empirical cases.
(Carstensen and Schmidt, 2016: 333)

Thirdly, we may be able to put faces on where the ideas come from…(to riff on Marge Piercy). It may help to

identify and criticize the actors who have a central impact on which issues are considered problems and which solutions are thought viable. As argued by Hayward and Lukes (2008: 5), ‘Analyzing power relations is an inherently evaluative and critical enterprise, one to which questions of freedom, domination, and hierarchy are – and should be – central.’. Hopefully, developing a clearer and more explicit vocabulary for talking about ideational power will enhance the ability of discursive institutionalists to track the agents, whether collective or individual, who have the ideational capacities to affect the context in which interests are defended and to assign them responsibility accordingly.
(Carstensen and Schmidt, 2016: 333)

To read
Beland, D. (2009) ‘Ideas, institutions, and policy change’, Journal of European Public Policy 16(5): 701–18.

Carstensen, M.B. (2011a) ‘Paradigm man vs the bricoleur: bricolage as an alternative vision of agency in ideational change’, European Political Science Review 3(1): 147–67.

Carstensen, M.B. (2011b) ‘Ideas are not as stable as political scientists want them to be: a theory of incremental ideational change’, Political Studies 59(3): 596–615.

Culpepper, P. (2008) ‘The politics of common knowledge: ideas and institutional change’, International Organization 62(1): 1–33.

Przeworski, A. and Wallerstein, M. (1988) ‘Structural dependence of the state on capital’, American Political Science Review 82(1): 11–29.

Tsingou, E. (2014) ‘Club governance and the making of global financial rules’, Review of International Political Economy, doi:10.1080/09692290.2014.890952

Young, K. (2013) ‘Financial industry groups’ adaptation to the post-crisis regulatory environment: changing approaches to the policy cycle’, Regulation & Governance 7(4): 460–80.

Aussie (oi oi oi!) academic David Marsh wants the pendulum not to swing too far towards ideas-

After acknowledging the growing focus on ideas in Political Science and giving two cheers for that development, this paper warns against the concomitant rejection of the importance of materialist factors in explaining stability and change. The argument is illustrated by a focus on recent literature on globalisation and the global financial crisis.
(Marsh, 2009: 679)

He argues

… the relationship between the material and the ideational, like that between structure and agency, is dialectical, that is interactive and iterative.
(Marsh, 2009: 697)

And makes a distinction between thin and thick constructivism –

“thick constructivism prioritises ideational factors and constitutive logics and thin constructivism prioritises material factors and causal logics.”
(Marsh, 2009: 684)

There’s stuff on what ‘agents’ think

To Sikkink, ideas transform agent’s perceptions of their interests and, thus, affect institutional structures and outcomes. Hall distinguishes between first, second and third order change; with third order change involving a paradigm shift, for example, the change from Keynesianism to monetarism which Hall, and indeed Blyth, see as having occurred between 1976 and 1981 in the UK.
(Marsh, 2009: 682-83)

The orders of change – relates to the stuff in both DI (policies, programmes, philosophies) and ACF (superficial, deep, core)?  Better look into this…

The rest of it is less useful for me (at present), but that’s fine.

Here’s a great article title –
Hay, C. 2005. ‘Making Hay . . . or Clutching at Ontological Straws? Notes on Realism, ‘As-If- Realism’ and Actualism.’ Politics 25(1): 39–45. But the abstract (see next) suggests it would possibly be a bit above my pay-grade.  Here it is –

Stuart McAnulla provides an eloquent defence of a particular variant of critical realism, suggesting that it provides a more appropriate set of ontological foundations for the kind of critical political analysis I espouse than the ontological actualism he attributes to me. In this rejoinder, whilst welcoming McAnulla’s important intervention in the debate, I defend myself against his charge of actualism (if the attribution of an ontology to an author can be regarded as a charge), whilst indicating how the ‘as-if-realism’ that perhaps better reflects my ontological assumptions is perfectly compatible with critical political analysis. In so doing I caution against ontological evangelism, the notion that only ‘real’ entities can be causal, and the appeal to structures (like patriarchy) as causes. I conclude by reflecting on the complex and seldom discussed relationship between experience and ontology.



Fuenfschilling and Truffer want to use institutional theory alongside socio-technical transitions theory (see also Andrews-Speed, P. 2016. Applying institutional theory to the low-carbon energy transition.  Energy Research & Social Science, Vol. 13, pp.216-225.)

As in, aren’t there a lot of bricks in  the imbrications?

Based on insights from evolutionary economics, science and technology studies and sociology, various approaches have been developed that analyze and conceptualize change from a socio-technical systems perspective.1 The systems concept emphasizes the interdependence and co-evolution of material and social structures, such as policies, culture, technologies or markets, which over time evolve into a stable configuration that enables the fulfillment of a societal function like water or energy provision.
(Fuenfschilling and Truffer, 2014:772)

They seek (and succeed, imho) in offering

a conceptual foundation for assessing structures and degrees of structuration within socio-technical systems by drawing on concepts of institutional theory. In institutional theory, structure is often used as an umbrella term for things that influence an actor’s cognition and behavior as well as the diffusion of practices, e.g. regulations, norms, values, culture, actors or practices. Since structural influences represent one of institutional theory’s core interests, it offers valuable insight for elaborating some of the core concepts of the MLP, such as the regime.
(Fuenfschilling and Truffer, 2014:774)

Alongside this they use the institutional logics concept.

Institutional logics represent examples of the “deep-structural rules that coordinate and guide actor’s perceptions and actions” (Geels, 2012, p. 3). We show that how actors make sense of and act upon reality is contingent on pre-vailing institutional logics, i.e. on coherent arrangements of beliefs, norms, values and practices that stem from dominant societal institutions.
(Fuenfschilling and Truffer, 2014:774)

Institutional logics are

“the socially constructed, historical patterns of material practices, assumptions, values, beliefs, and rules by which individuals produce and reproduce their material subsistence, organize time and space, and provide meaning to their social reality”(Thornton and Ocasio, 1999, p. 804).
(Fuenfschilling and Truffer, 2014:775)

There’s great stuff on institutionalisation (which I will use for thinking about culture change [and lack of it] in social movements)

Tolbert and Zucker (1999) define three main stages in the process of institutionalization: habitualization, objectification and sedimentation. The three stages represent an institution’s increase in exteriority, i.e. the degree to which it is experienced by actors as part of an objective, external reality and as a ‘coercive fact’(Berger and Luckmann, 1966; Tolbert and Zucker, 1999).
(Fuenfschilling and Truffer, 2014:775)

Habitulaization is-

the phase wherein an innovation is created by a small number of actors in response to a recurring problem and as such achieves some sort of habitualized form. This process is mostly an uncoordinated activity; there is no consensus about the usefulness of the innovation, no explicit theory or knowledge base for it, no associated values or legitimated users. These structures thus tendto be very unstable and impermanent, often disappearing with theactor’s that established them in the first place.
(Fuenfschilling and Truffer, 2014:775)

Objectification is-

the next phase of institutionalization. It ‘involves the development of some degree of social consensus among organizational decision-makers concerning the value of a structure, and the increasing adoption by organizations on the basis of that consensus” (Tolbert and Zucker, 1999, p. 182). This step implicates extensive institutional work by actors, such as problem and solution framing, persuasion, theorizing, making alliances, and mobilizing resources. It is successful, if a collective rationality about the innovation has been generated. Normally, the actors who adopt the innovation are becoming more heterogeneous, discourse is high and variance of the innovation decreases.
(Fuenfschilling and Truffer, 2014:775)

Sedimentation is –

“a process that fundamentally rests on the historical continuity of structure, and especially on its survival across generations of organizational members. Sedimentation is characterized both by the virtually complete spread of structures across the group of actors theorized as appropriate adopters, and by the perpetuation of structures over a lengthy period of time.” (Tolbert and Zucker,1999, p. 184). The structure has become normative or even taken for granted, discourse about it has settled down, change in design is rare and failures rather low.
(Fuenfschilling and Truffer, 2014:775 (emphasis added)

So, path dependency, historical embedding, invulnerability to social intervention etc etc.  Elephants don’t tap dance, the smugosphere reins.

Look, the game is the game, ‘kay?

They “define the ends and shape the means by which interests are deter-mined and pursued. Institutional factors determine that actors in one type of setting, called firms, pursue profits; that actors in another setting, called agencies, seek larger budgets; that actors in a third setting, called political parties, seek votes; and that actors in an even stranger setting, research universities, pursue publications.” (Scott, 1987, p. 508).
(Fuenfschilling and Truffer, 2014:775)

And you can wriggle on the hook if you like (and are big enough) –

Actors are constrained, but also enabled by institutional structures, which, in return, are socially constructed by them. This process has been labelled institutional work and is defined as “the  purposive action of individuals and organizations aimed at creating, maintaining and disrupting institutions” (Lawrence and Suddaby, 2006, p. 215).In short, a change in institutional logics is likely to include the deinstitutionalization of existing logic elements coupled with the institutionalization of new elements.
(Fuenfschilling and Truffer, 2014:776)

But you’re on the hook.

Then there’s a case study about the Australian water supply landscape.  Some interesting factoids for me –

A severe drought between ca.2003 and 2010 confronted Australia with the reality of climate change and shaped the awareness for water problems even more. Agriculture and other industries were hit hard and storage levels of the dams in the eastern seaboard states and in South and West-ern Australia were unprecedented low. After this drought, Australia has repeatedly been struck by heavy floods. These extreme weather events triggered various reactions and again intensified the dis-course about water issues in politics, economy and civil society alike.
(Fuenfschilling and Truffer, 2014:780)

Ultimately, this is exceptionally useful both for The Thesis and for my off-the-clock thinking about how unlikely change in social movements is, (and why I should not even bother because I do not have the skills or the patience…  #carpethediems)

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