What’s So Institutional @ Historical Institutionalism?


NOTE: The following was actually written before Dan Nexon posted a good piece on exactly the same essay. I’m not sure if that coincidence means anything, but here’s my take:


So I just read Orfeo Fioretos’ “Historical Institutionalism in International Relations” (International Organization 65/2, 2011). It’s very good – erudite and sophisticated, the kind of dense, abstract writing that makes me wonder if I can keep up in our uber tech-y scientistic field. In it (fn. 18), he defines ‘institution’ as “rules and norms that guide human action and interaction, whether formalized in organizations, regulations, and law, or more informally in principles of conduct and social conventions.” Wikipedia has the nice, punchy: “An institution is any structure or mechanism of social order and cooperation governing the behavior of a set of individuals within a given human community.”

So here is my question: What is really ‘institutional’ about these definitions? Aren’t they staying that pretty much an human behavior that occurs more than once can be an ‘institution’? And isn’t that counter to common-language usage?

I don’t mean to single out Fioretos in this discussion. His essay is excellent, as is Nexon’s response. This definition is widely accepted in international relations (IR) I think, and the nomenclature has long confused me since graduate school. But when I think of institutions I think of organizations with some kind of charter or formal guidelines, probably with a big building somewhere, where people do their jobs with bosses they don’t like and sit in cubicles all day, with schedules, meetings, deadlines, and cocktail hour. Like a university, or a police department, or the Congress. (The pic above is the Brookings Institute.) Isn’t that more intuitive? Isn’t that what our students and parents think we say ‘institution’ to them?

But in IR/social science, it seems like we can call almost any patterned behavior an institution, which seems pretty definitionally broad. Isn’t patterned human behavior pretty much everything and what all of us in the social sciences study? For example, I think Fioretos’ definition means that we could call the Cold War an institution, or my relations with my nieces, or my unpaid bar tabs. Does this really work? Does it really seem reasonable to call the Cold War, filled with paranoia, suspicion, and proxy wars, an institution? Does it make sense to use the term ‘institution’ in private settings that also have expectations of regularized conduct? I guess you could say the Cold War sorta became a ‘regime’ during détente. But an institution? Would non-IR readers really grasp that?

Fioretos goes on to note there is ‘rational choice institutionalism’ and ‘sociological institutionalism’ too in IR. So I guess my next question is, does that mean pretty much everyone in IR is institutionalist? Now I’m pretty sure I know what rat choice is (cost-benefit analyses, logic of consequences, human robots who would defect on their mother, etc.), and I think get the basic idea of sociology in IR with the logic of appropriateness, culture, constructivism, and hippies. But how does appending ‘institutionalism’ to this help me grasp this better? What exactly is a ‘rat choice institution’ and how is that different from just saying ‘actors using rationalism in making decisions’? When I hear ‘rational choice institutionalism,’ what would easily come to mind are institutions that use rational choice, like maybe the World Bank exporting rationalism to LDCs or something. It takes a conscious effort to force myself to see that ‘rational choice institutionalism’ as something else – and I still don’t really know what that is, or more precisely, how that differs from just plain old rat choice.

So I admit I don’t get it. Is the ‘institutional turn’ in the social sciences just a fancy way of saying we look at patterns over time, and is that just a fancy way of saying ‘history’? I don’t mean to be trite; I know I’m not a good methodologist as my reviewers always tell me. But I don’t really see why we don’t just call ‘historical institutionalism’ ‘history.’ Path dependence, temporality, sequencing – that’s all stuff historians have been doing for awhile, no?

Ok, now that everybody thinks I got my PhD at Walmart, tear me to pieces…

8 thoughts on “What’s So Institutional @ Historical Institutionalism?

  1. It’s an interesting problem. In regard to your question about whether almost anything can be called an institution, I would probably add two provisions to the Wikipedia definition (to me the Fioretos definition is better, though scripted more closely for an IR usage, perhaps). To me an institution is predictable and ongoing, meaning that a human behavior occurring twice or repeatedly doesn’t occur within a context of others recognizing it as forming a meaningful action. Second, there needs to be a recognition that the behavior has a long-term, continuing purpose. For example, two people who choose to have a ceremony to announce their intention to cohabitate would not be an institution until a community recognized “marriage” as a meaningful, purposed act, and one that will continue indefinitely. To me THE Cold War is not an institution as it occupies a specific, one-time historical time. I’m not even sure that “cold wars” as a political typology is institutional, as it implies that states deliberately choose to participate together in them. All this is perhaps beyond an English professor, but it’s my attempt at clarity.

    • I don’t understand the first part of your definition. Please tell me that one again.

      More generally it looks to me like you’re saying that repeated human behaviors within some social context are what make repetition an institution. I like the idea of context. That helps. But I still don’t like this for its broadness. This can cover a lot of private behavior, like the fact that I embrace my wife regularly when I come home for work. If that’s an institution, then almost everything is, and the term loses utility, no? I guess you’re right though that we do call marriage an ‘institution.’ Hmm.

      I presume folks in English worry about this stuff too, right? What do you guys say?

      Thanks for reading.

      • Well, you’ve reminded me of a cheesy joke: “Marriage is an institution, but who wants to live in an institution?”
        The issue isn’t really one touched on in English criticism or lit theory but perhaps would be an example of an argument in semantics. I think my previous statements were indeed a little broad. What I suppose I am trying to propose is that institutions are only such when they are recognized as functions within a community. By that I mean that a human behavior (you embracing your wife) needs to be a public act or at least accessible to the public, and needs to have a somewhat public purpose. That is, I’m not sure a private behavior can be institutional–we call marriage a “rite” because the ritual occurs in front of a group which endows it with meaning. Your embracing for the reason of affection is a legitimate motive, but does it have a direct purpose within a wider community?
        Perhaps if people embraced their wives at 5 PM on a stage in Nampo-dong every day for a generation, and it had some purpose external to the act (a ritual show of affection?) it would indeed be an institution. One of my co-workers just asked me if the “Free Hugs” people in Nampo-dong would be an institution by that definition. Perhaps they would be if their campaign was regular, occurred over years, and again had some identifiable social benefit or function.
        I think now my ideas are wandering somewhat, and I am more exploring concepts rather than offering a final argument.

  2. I just finished the theory chapter of my senior thesis which was all about historical institutionalism and yes, all those scholarly articles confused me quite a lot. Someone should make a wikipedia article in the “Simple English” category.. It’s funny how trivial this approach actually is, once you know what all those funny words actually mean.

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