Path Dependency

There’s a nice wikipedia article that begins

This article is about path dependence in economics and social sciences. For a similar topic in physics, see Path dependence (physics).

Path dependence explains how the set of decisions one faces for any given circumstance is limited by the decisions one has made in the past, even though past circumstances may no longer be relevant.[1]

In economics and the social sciences, path dependence can refer either to outcomes at a single moment in time, or to long-run equilibria of a process. In common usage, the phrase implies either:

  • (A) that “history matters” — a broad concept,[2] or
  • (B) that predictable amplifications of small differences are a disproportionate cause of later circumstances. And, in the “strong” form, that this historical hang-over is inefficient.[3]

The first usage, (A): “history matters” is trivially true in the explanatory context; everything has causes. And in these fields, the direct influence of earlier states isn’t notable[4] (compare “path-dependent” options in finance, where the influence of history can be non-standard).

It is the narrow concept (B), that has the most explanatory force…


See also Path Creation (esp the Garud et al paper!) historical institutionalism, switching costs, lock-in

Berkhout, F. 2002. Technological regimes, path dependency and the environment. Global Environmental Change, Vol. 12,  1-4.

Howlett, M., Rayner, J., 2006. Understanding the historical turn in the policy sciences: a critique of stochastic, narrative, path dependency and process-sequencing models of policy-making over time. Policy Sciences 39, 1–18.

Kay, A., 2005. A critique of the use of path dependency in policy studies. Public Administration 83, 553–571.


Gould, S.J. The Panda’s Thumb of Technology in Bully for Brontosaurus.

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