Continuity and Change in the Organization of Political Parties

By Schwartz, Mildred A. | Canadian-American Public Policy, December 2011 | Go to article overview

Continuity and Change in the Organization of Political Parties


Schwartz, Mildred A., Canadian-American Public Policy


EVALUATING CONTINUITY AND CHANGE

The long-run fate of political parties competing for office can be explained through a diverse range of organizational theories that locate them in the interplay between the universal and contending social forces of continuity and change (Clemens and Cook 1999). How these social forces play out is affected by three factors shaping all organizations. One is the institu-tionalization of practices and beliefs within parties, manifested in their structure (Scott 2001). Second is the environment that provides resources for sustaining parties and the milieu in which they compete with rivals (Pfeffer and Salancik 1978). And third are actions by party participants themselves (Donaldson 1996). Here I adapt the perspective of organizational coevolutionists (March 1991; Lewin et al. 1999; Rodrigues and Child 2008) to treat continuity and change in party organizations through the interaction between environmental and institutional factors with strategic actions.

Continuity is a general concept I use to cover the ways in which ongoing regularities in parties' existence over time may be explained. According to population ecology theory, (1) the normal state of organizations is inertia (Hannan and Freeman 1984). Organizations tend to resist change because of factors like sunk costs in existing practices, internal coalitions, and ties with other organizations. In other words, inertia is the result of both environmental and institutional factors with little weight given to the actions of individuals. The argument for downplaying the significance of those actions is tied to the complex world in which organizations exist, making it difficult, in a timely manner, for even prominent actors to assimilate and make use of all the information that affects their organization or to overcome the resistance of others. Although working with different assumptions, neo-institutional theorists argue that constraints from the institutional environment promote organizational isomorphism that comes to convey legitimacy, manifested as inertia (DiMaggio and Powell 1991a: 12; b: 65). Continuity can also stem from deliberate actions rooted in loyalty, the honoring of tradition, and preferences for the status quo.

Change, as well, is explained through a number of theoretical perspectives. For population ecologists, change is the result of adaptation to environmental pressures, mediated by institutional characteristics. Just as with their predictions of inertia, little credence is placed in what individual actors can accomplish. Among neo-institutionalists, change occurs through processes that lead organizations to imitate the forms and practices of those most successful in their field (DiMaggio and Powell 1991b: 64). Change, like continuity, is tied to the power and the interests of key participants (DiMaggio and Powell 1991a: 30-1). A new emphasis is added by those who recognize change in creative innovations (Bolton 1993; Cummings and O'Connell 1978). According to structural contingency theorists, change comes about through the actions of those who respond to altered conditions by adopting strategies to reshape their organization in ways that produce a better fit with the environment (Lawrence and Lorsch 1967; Donaldson 1996).

By recognizing that continuity and change do not exclude each other and are both affected by the same kind of social mechanisms, a number of important questions arise with specific relevance to the organization of political parties in general and Canadian and U.S. ones in particular. I use the organizational literature for guidance about what needs to be asked and here I restrict myself to three representative questions.

The first question asks, under what circumstances does innovation overwhelm the customary inertia? Organizational theorists see this happening when actors are stimulated by their organizations' poor performance to search for new and different approaches (Cyert and March 1963; Zaltman et al.

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