Institutionalist Approaches in the Social Sciences: Typology, Dialogue, and Future Challenges

By Nielsen, Klaus | Journal of Economic Issues, June 2001 | Go to article overview

Institutionalist Approaches in the Social Sciences: Typology, Dialogue, and Future Challenges


Nielsen, Klaus, Journal of Economic Issues


A multitude of institutionalist approaches are flourishing in the social sciences. Many attempts have been made to survey the field, but most stay within the boundaries of each discipline. Only a few contributions cover trends in the social sciences in general (Hall and Taylor 1996; Scott 1996; Campbell 1997). A recent article by P. J. DiMaggio (1998) is an interesting attempt to survey the field of (new) institutionalisms in the social sciences and to outline an agenda for future cooperation among institutionalist approaches.

DiMaggio distinguishes three new institutionalisms: rational-action neo-institutionalism (RAN), social-constructivist neoinstitutionalism (SCN), and mediated-conflict neoinstitutionalism (MCN). The typology transcends the disciplinary boundaries although the three institutionalisms are seen as originating from economics, sociology, and political science, respectively.

Rational-action neoinstitutionalism emphasizes the way in which individual rational action is channeled by the "rules of the game," including laws, inherited organizational forms, and norms. Actors are seen as stable and exogenous. All kinds of institutions are studied within this framework, but most of the focus is on economic rules or formal political institutions. Institutional change is conceived as an effect of strategic action of individuals or of (invisible or visible) selection mechanisms.

Social-constructivist neoinstitutionalism argues that all elements of rational-action models--actors, interests, and preferences--are "socially constructed" and therefore endogenous. Research is focused on informal institutions such as schemata, roles, and scripts, or--in general--all that is taken for granted. Institutional change is seen as a process of isomorphism or diffusion through mechanisms such as pressures to appear legitimate and normative schemes embedded in training and practice.

Mediated-conflict neoinstitutionalism focuses on how state and other institutions structure and mediate conflict among groups with distinctive interests. They study stability and change of the institutional setup (formal and informal organizational forms) in various contexts as a result of institutionally mediated political conflicts. Table 1 shows the differences between the three approaches.

Another way of summarizing the differences and similarities of the three main types of institutionalism is presented in figure 1. The three institutionalisms are positioned in a diagram composed of two dimensions: the relationship between institutions and individual behavior--calculus versus culture--and the genesis and change of institutions--conflict versus coordination. [1]

In relation to the first dimension, rational-action neoinstitutionalism stresses calculus, that is, behavior is seen as instrumental or strategic within institutionally defined constraints. Social-constructivist neoinstitutionalism, however, sees behavior as routinized and stresses the role of interpretation of the decision-making situations as a function of the outlook of the institutionalized individual. In this respect, mediated-conflict institutionalism is in an intermediate position. It sees individuals and groups as actors who are self-seeking and calculating based on their interests. However, these interests are seen as partly constituted by institutions.

In relation to the second dimension, both rational-action and social-constructivist neoinstitutionalism emphasize the role of institutions in relation to problems of coordinating economic action, but they differ in their conceptions of the cognitive repertoire of individuals. Mediated-conflict neoinstitutionalism, on the other hand, stresses conflicts of interests rather than coordination problems as the ultimate cause of institutionalization and institutional change. In addition, power resources rather than cognitive resources are seen as important in explaining how institutions are generated and change. …

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