What’s So ‘Institutional’ @ Historical Institutionalism?

25 April 2012, 1500 EDT


NOTE: The following was actually written before Dan Nexon posted a good piece on exactly the same essay. I’m not sure if that coincidence means anything, but here’s my take:


So I just read Orfeo Fioretos’ “Historical Institutionalism in International Relations” (IO 65/2, 2011). It’s very good – erudite and sophisticated, the kind of dense, abstract writing that makes me wonder if I can keep up in our uber tech-y scientistic field. In it (fn. 18), he defines ‘institution’ as “rules and norms that guide human action and interaction, whether formalized in organizations, regulations, and law, or more informally in principles of conduct and social conventions.” Wikipedia has the nice, punchy: “An institution is any structure or mechanism of social order and cooperation governing the behavior of a set of individuals within a given human community.”

So here is my question: What is really ‘institutional’ about these definitions? Aren’t they staying that pretty much an human behavior that occurs more than once can be an ‘institution’? And isn’t that counter to common-language usage?

I don’t mean to single out Fioretos in this discussion. His essay is excellent, as is Dan Nexon’s response. This definition is widely accepted in IR I think, and the nomenclature has long confused me since graduate school. But when I think of institutions I think of organizations with some kind of charter or formal guidelines, probably with a big building somewhere, where people do their jobs with bosses they don’t like and sit in cubicles all day, with schedules, meetings, deadlines, and cocktail hour. Like a university, or a police department, or the Congress. (The pic above is the Brookings Institute.) Isn’t that more intuitive? Isn’t that what our students and parents think we say ‘institution’ to them?

But in IR/social science, it seems like we can call almost any patterned behavior an institution, which seems pretty definitionally broad. Isn’t patterned human behavior pretty much everything and what all of us in the social sciences study? For example, I think Fioretos’ definition means that we could call the Cold War an institution, or my relations with my nieces, or my unpaid bar tabs. Does this really work? Does it really seem reasonable to call the Cold War, filled with paranoia, suspicion, and proxy wars, an institution? Does it make sense to use the term ‘institution’ in private settings that also have expectations of regularized conduct? I guess you could say the Cold War sorta became a ‘regime’ during détente. But an institution? Would non-IR readers really grasp that?

Fioretos goes on to note there is ‘rational choice institutionalism’ and ‘sociological institutionalism’ too in IR. So I guess my next question is, does that mean pretty much everyone in IR is institutionalist? Now I’m pretty sure I know what rat choice is (cost-benefit analyses, logic of consequences, human robots who would defect on their mother, etc.), and I think get the basic idea of sociology in IR with the logic of appropriateness, culture, constructivism, and hippies. But how does appending ‘institutionalism’ to this help me grasp this better? What exactly is a ‘rat choice institution’ and how is that different from just saying ‘actors using rationalism in making decisions’? When I hear ‘rational choice institutionalism,’ what would easily come to mind are institutions that use rational choice, like maybe the World Bank exporting rationalism to LDCs or something. It takes a conscious effort to force myself to see that ‘rational choice institutionalism’ as something else – and I still don’t really know what that is, or more precisely, how that differs from just plain old rat choice.

So I admit I don’t get it. Is the ‘institutional turn’ in the social sciences just a fancy way of saying we look at patterns over time, and is that just a fancy way of saying ‘history’? I don’t mean to be trite; I know I’m not a good methodologist as my reviewers always tell me. But I don’t really see why we don’t just call ‘historical institutionalism’ ‘history.’ Path dependence, temporality, sequencing – that’s all stuff historians have been doing for awhile, no?

Ok, now that everybody thinks I got my PhD at Walmart, tear me to pieces…

Cross-posted on Asian Security Blog.