Veblenian Institutionalism: The Changing Concepts of Inquiry

By Dugger, William M. | Journal of Economic Issues, December 1995 | Go to article overview

Veblenian Institutionalism: The Changing Concepts of Inquiry


Dugger, William M., Journal of Economic Issues


When Clarence E. Ayres synthesized Thorstein Veblen and John Dewey, he gave a vitality to the Veblenian branch of institutionalism that has endured for half a century. Ayres's [1952; 1961; 1978] work provides a benchmark for analysis of the Veblen branch in institutional thought, which is the purpose of this paper. Specifically, I present a framework that identifies the basic concepts of inquiry in the Post-Ayresian Veblenian tradition. The identification of the concepts of inquiry is made to facilitate epistemological, ontological, and methodological comparisons of recent work in the tradition. This allows answers to the question of how the work of Marc Tool, Karl Polanyi, Warren J. Samuels, William M. Dugger, James Swaney, and others compares with that of Ayres.

Veblenian institutionalism can be characterized by seven related concepts that guide inquiry: (1) the nature of the socioeconomic context, (2) the dynamic factor in social change, (3) the resistant factor to social change, (4) the locus of value in the social process, (5) the nature of institutions, (6) the role of community (a new element), and (7) the continuation of progress.

The table below presents these concepts of inquiry in tabular form and uses them to summarize changes that have taken place in the Veblen branch since the Ayresian synthesis. These basic elements of inquiry have not been previously specified and analyzed in this formal way.

Table 1. The Concepts of Inquiry in Veblenian Institutionalism

Concepts of               In the Ayresian          In Post-Ayresian
Inquiry                      Synthesis               Applications

Socioeconomic               Progressive              Reactionary
context

Dynamic factor              Technology               Psychology

Resistant factor            Primitivism               Elitism

Locus of value              Technology               Democracy

Institution                  Monistic                Dualistic

Community                  Not emphasized          Newly emphasized

Progress                     Obvious                 Problematic

New Questions, New Groups

In his synthesis, Ayres reframed Veblen's dichotomy of pecuniary and industrial as a dichotomy between ceremonial and instrumental aspects of behavior. Ceremonial activity gains and reinforces status and is past-binding. Instrumental activity is aimed at getting things done, at trying new things and new approaches, and at evaluating them in terms of their consequences. It is fact oriented. The ceremonial is passive, unchanging in and of itself. It is retardant. The instrumental is dynamic and progressive. The ceremonial is given structure in the form of entrenched institutions, while the instrumental is given fluidity in the form of new technologies. Recent discussions are in Waller [1982] and Munkirs [1988].

Significant changes have been made in the concepts of inquiry as a consequence of the questions asked by those influenced by the work of Karl Polanyi, J. Fagg Foster, and by a radical group of Veblenian institutionalists. (The groups are not mutually exclusive.) Rising environmental concerns also have had an impact.

J. Fagg Foster's influence has been primarily through his students rather than from his own writing [Foster 1981]. By asking new questions about the democratic process and about democratic policy, his students-Paul D. Bush, Edythe S. Miller, and Marc R. Tool-changed the way they use the terms ceremonialism, institutions, and the idea of the Veblenian dichotomy. In particular, the institutions side of the dichotomy is no longer conceived as purely passive and past-binding. Some institutions may also be active and progressive-a theme that runs throughout [Tool 1979]. Furthermore, the technology side of the dichotomy is also used differently. …

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