Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

The Subsystem Family of Concepts: A Critique and a Proposal

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

The Subsystem Family of Concepts: A Critique and a Proposal

Article excerpt

The subsystem concept has been widely utilized by political scientists for many decades. The various concepts that fall under this rubric have been greatly modified and improved in recent years. However, a number of problems persist. This essay explains why the subsystem concept has been so popular and enduring, and then discusses three problems in the application and use of subsystem concepts. It then proposes that a different approach, which emphasizes function rather than structure, be utilized, and develops the idea of a "hierarchy of conflict" to help improve the utility of the subsystem model. This permits the development of a typology of subsystem strategies, and the formulation of basic hypotheses.

One of the most popular and durable concepts in political science is the loosely joined set of constructs known as subsystems. This collection of concepts utilizes a dizzying array of terms, including iron triangles, subgovernments, cozy triangles, power triads, policy networks, issue communities, issue networks, advocacy coalitions, policy communities, and other variant terms. All of these terms refer to the tendency of policymakers to gravitate into substantive issue alliances that cross institutional boundaries and include both governmental and nongovernmental actors. Within this family of concepts there is considerable variation concerning the extent and range ,of activity, the level of coordination and cooperation, and the kinds of impact that subsystems have on public policy This yields a variety of labels and definitions:

Iron Triangle: ". . . relatively closed policy arenas emphasizing stable relations among a limited number of participants" (Thurber 1991: 323).

Subgovernment: "[Al subgovernment consists primarily of a limited number of interest group advocates, legislators and their aides, and key agency administrators who interact on a stable, ongoing basis and dominate policymaking in a particular area" (Berry 1989b: 239).

Subsystem: "subsystem . . . refers to the pattern of interactions of participants, or actors, involved in making decisions is a special area of public policy the type which concerns us here is found in an immediate setting formed by an executive bureau and congressional committees, with special interest groups intimately attached" (Freeman 1965: 11).

Issue Network: ". . . a shared knowledge group having to do with some aspect (or, as defined by the network, some problem) of public policy" (Heclo 1978: 103).

Advocacy Coalition: "These are people from a variety of positions (elected and agency officials, interest group leaders, researchers) who share a particular belief system-i.e., a set of basic values, causal assumptions, and problem perceptions-and who show a nontrivial degree of coordinated activity over time" (Sabatier 1987: 660).

Policy Monopoly: ". . . structural arrangements that are supported by powerful ideas" (Jones and Baumgartner 1993: 3).

Policy Network: "Policy networks are described as (more or less) stable patterns of social relationships between interdependent actors, which take shape around policy problems or policy programs . . ." (Klijn 1996: 97).

Images of these various versions of the subsystem concept are ubiquitous in the research and teaching of political scientists. The concept also has a following among journalists and politicians. Yet despite its popularity, there is still need for improvement. This field essay examines both the appeal and the limitations of current subsystem thought, and proposes a typology of subsystems that will hopefully increase the utility of these concepts.


It is difficult to overstate the popularity and longevity of the various subsystem concepts in political science research. The iron triangle is the metaphor that "everyone knows to be true" (Browne 1995: xix). Berry writes that "few approaches for analyzing the American political system have endured as long or as well as that of the policy subgovemment" (1989a: 172). …

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