The Duck of Minerva

Historical Institutionalism and International Relations

15 April 2012

[warning: this post and the piece attached to is is only of interest to a handful of academics]

The April 2011 issue of International Organization included a very interesting review essay by Orfeo Fioretos entitled “Historical Institutionalism in International Relations.” The thrust of Fioretos’ argument, developed through a discussion of books ranging from John Ikenberry’s After Victory to Abe Newman’s Protectors of Privacy, is that international-relations scholarship would benefit from an historical-institutionalist turn. Although I found myself in agreement with the broad claims in the piece, I had difficulty with some of its specifics.

Anyone seeking to forward an historical-institutionalist agenda faces a basic problem: the approach doesn’t have what many would consider a coherent core. It emerged, as such, when a few scholars came up with a name for a motley body of work that they saw as distinguished by its opposition to “presentism” and to a rigid adherence to rational-choice theories. In his essay, Fioretos deals with this by, as far as I can tell, deciding that behavioral psychology in general, and prospect theory in particular, supplies historical institutionalism with microfoundations.

This didn’t make much sense to me, as I couldn’t recall seeing this claim advanced from within the ranks of self-proclaimed historical institutionalism. It also got a little under my skin. I’ve always considered my work as, at least, cognate to historical institutionalism and yet I don’t adopt such microfoundations.

The result of my discomfort was a response piece that I shipped off to International Organization. A few weeks ago I received a very nice note from the editors declining to send the piece out for review on the grounds that the issues raised weren’t sufficiently important to merit publication. I don’t have a problem with this, but as journals in our field don’t generally publish responses to articles that appear in other journals, there’s not much left to do with the response. So I’ve decided to make it available here in the hopes that someone will get something useful out of it.

UPDATE: also available, in convenient HTML format, at e-International Relations.