Politics is about many things. But foremost among these, in modern democratic p?olities, is the function of selecting and legitimating public policies that use the powers of the collectivity for the achievement of goals and the resolution of problems that are beyond the reach of individuals acting on their own or through market exchanges. The academic disciplines of political science and political sociology are also about many things. But among their foremost concerns is, or ought to be, the contribution that they could make to the understanding and the improvement of the conditions under which politics is able to produce effective and legitimate solutions to policy problems.
This book is about a set of conceptual tools that have proved their use in this endeavor. They will be discussed here within a framework that Renate Mayntz and I have implicitly used in our joint and separate work since the beginning of the 1970s, and that we have recently explicated and decided to name "actorcentered institutionalism" in a jointly authored article ( Mayntz/ Scharpf 1995a). The approach proceeds from the assumption that social phenomena are to be explained as the outcome of interactions among intentional actors -- individual, collective, or corporate actors, that is -- but that these interactions are structured, and the outcomes shaped, by the characteristics of the institutional settings within which they occur. An overview will be presented in Chapters 2 and 3. For the basic focus on actors interacting within institutions, we do not claim originality. On the contrary, we are convinced that many colleagues doing empirical policy research are implicitly working with similar assumptions, working hypotheses, and research strategies. Nevertheless, it seemed useful to explicate systematically and to reflect upon what has been implicitly assumed -- and the positive response to our article in the German profession suggests that we are not alone in this belief.
It must be pointed out, however, that the framework as such is more general than are the purposes of this book. It also includes conceptual tools for the analysis of social differentiation ( Mayntz 1988) and of large technical systems ( Mayntz/ Schneider 1988; Mayntz 1993) that I have not drawn upon here. Instead, this book places greater emphasis on the usefulness of analytical tools that are, in a broad sense, of a more game-theoretical nature than is necessarily implied by the more general framework.