Working Group on Institutional Change

Project Directors
Wolfgang Streeck and Kathleen Thelen

Organization and Contact

Helen Callaghan
hc "at"



The working group creates a forum for debate on the sources of institutional stability and the modes and mechanisms of institutional change. Scholars working on a diverse range of empirical issues have been grappling with similar theoretical problems without necessarily engaging in dialogue with one another. Ongoing exchange will contribute to concept formation and theory building. It should also help us define the distinctive contours of a specifically historical-institutional approach to the questions at hand.
Our conceptual and theoretical toolkit is richer today than it was ten years ago, but much work remains to be done. While early work on the role of institutions in politics and society invoked institutions as an independent or intervening variable, more recent research explores institutional origins, stability, and change. Arguments from the late 1990s and early 2000s on policy feedback and path dependence challenged the idea that stability reflects nothing other than stickiness or inertia. Instead, they treated institutional reproduction as a dynamic process. Subsequent scholarship explores when and how institutions change. More precise models of the “critical junctures” associated with punctuated equilibrium models are not the only goal of this research. Increased recognition that institutional transformation is rarely abrupt and discontinuous motivates efforts to move beyond the punctuated equilibrium model by distinguishing different modes and mechanisms of gradual change.
Issues to be discussed by the working group on the basis of empirical research include the following:
1. Agency: The issue of agency often looms large in empirical accounts of change (particularly those that emphasize critical junctures or moments of high contingency), but scholars still struggle to incorporate agency in ways that preserve the core strengths of an underlying structural framework.
2. Institutional contestedness and ambiguity: Where some scholars see institutions as coordinating mechanisms that reduce uncertainty, many contemporary studies stress instead that institutions are contested in an ongoing way and are frequently infused with ambiguities that can be exploited as a source and lever for change. Again, however, the challenge is to incorporate notions of institutional contestedness and ambiguity in ways that avoid the suggestion of infinite institutional malleability and/or an exaggerated view of agentic possibilities.
3. Behavioralism: While early institutional work was often framed as an alternative and corrective to behavioralist accounts, the reciprocal links between institutional structures and individual level political behavior merit further exploration.
4. Eigenlogik of transformational forces: Mechanisms that bring about systemic institutional change cannot be understood on strictly institutionalist terms alone. The Eigenlogik of the transformational forces also needs to be taken into account. Institutions may be constrained and shaped not just by their past or by other institutions, but also by their location in an unfolding historical process or by their association with a historical mode of production and social order. For example, a credible causal account of transformative change in the political economy of advanced industrial countries should make reference to the fundamental exigencies of capitalist value creation and of the political management of the tensions between market exchange and the lifeworld.
5. Evolutionary theories: Notwithstanding some obvious limitations to applying them wholesale, theories and concepts derived from evolutionary biology may have some potential to inspire models of institutional development that do not assume intelligent design and instead manage to incorporate underdetermined, “random” events into an intelligible but non-teleological logic of change.

MPIfG: Workshop "Working Group on Institutional Change" | [Last updated 25.03.2014 18:04]