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Northeastern Political Science Association

Why I Am an Historical Institutionalist


Author(s): Theda Skocpol
Source: Polity, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Autumn, 1995), pp. 103-106
Published by: Palgrave Macmillan Journals
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3235190 .
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Why I am an Historical Institutionalist


Theda Skocpol, Harvard University
Theda Skocpol is Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard
University. She is author of Social Revolutions in the Modern World
(1994), Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of
Social Policy in the United States (1992) and States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China 1979).
She has edited or co-edited several volumes, including Vision and
Method in Historical Sociology (1984).

My remarks address two issues: Why I am a historical institutionalist and


what I mean by that, and how I see my brand of historical institutionalism in relation to other approaches.
In the notes he very responsibly circulated in advance, my colleague
and friend Mo Fiorina suggests ever so congenially that declarations of
new institutionalist emphases in the social sciences, and especially in
political science, are mostly product differentiation by a young Turk
group of scholars trying to appear as if they are doing something innovative compared to their elders. Now that I am no longer very young, I am
prepared to admit that a decade or so ago, I was trying to do a bit of
what Mo suggests. But that is not all that I and others were doing when
we began working in what I would now call a historical institutionalist
vein.
By bringing the state and state-society relationships to the fore in the
definition of important, substantive problems for research, and in the
search for explanatory hypotheses, we were trying to highlight, without
descending into functionalist holism, the interconnections of institutions
and organizations that other scholars tended to treat separately from one
another.
For example, consider how the overall pattern of U.S. governmental
institutions, what we call the state, influenced the development of industrial workers' movements in the United States. Such an investigation
requires us to analyze more than Congress or courts or parties or administrative agencies in isolation, one at a time, the way many traditional
institutionalists have done. Looking at the interconnections, historical
institutionalists have stressed that, during early industrialization, Ameri-

Polity
Polity

Number I1
XXVIII, Number
VolumeXXVIII,

Fall 199S
Fall 1995

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104 Polity Forum


can workersseekinglegislativesolutionshad to deal simultaneouslywith
unusuallysovereigncourts and locally rooted patronage-basedpolitical
parties.
The absence of national administrativebureaucraciesand programmaticpartiesalso influencedthe goals and tacticsevolvedby U.S. labor
movements, especially in comparisonto European social democratic
conmovements.The analysisof intergovernmental,
interorganizational
includes
partiesand
cepts, such as "the state" or "the polity" (which
of
necessity
organized political actors along with the state), almost
becomesa comparativeand historicalenterprise.Comparisons,whether
across countries, regions, localities, or time periods, are used to find
interestingpatterns to explain and to test the plausibility of causal
hypotheses.Overtime, processesaretracedin orderto discoverthe intersections of separatelystructureddevelopmentsthat often account for
outcomes we wish to understand,whetherthey be revolutions,or their
absence, strategiesof labor union movements, or patternsof welfare
state development.
I agreewith Steve Skowronekand KarenOrrenthat historicalinstitutionalists avoid thinking in terms of systemicsynchronicequilibrium.
The organizersof this panel posed a series of generaltheoreticaland
methodologicalquestionsto the participants.I am not verygood at discussingsuch matters,becauseI alwayswork out theoreticalframeworks
in close connectionwith empiricalresearchon actualcomparativelyconceptualizedpatternsof some sort. Thus, in developingmy recentlypublished book, ProtectingSoldiersand Mothers: ThePolitical Originsof
Social Policy in the United States,' I juxtaposed theoretical debates
aboutWesternwelfarestatesand empiricalinvestigationsof U.S. history
in orderto work out what I was tryingto make sense of about the U.S.
case.
But this was not at all an enterpriseof applyinga theoreticalmodelto
a case. Indeed,the most importantpatternsI endedup tryingto explain,
the expansionof pensionsfor Civil War veteransand survivorsand the
proliferation of social policies for mothers, came to my attention
throughempiricalrummaging,not theorizing.
I also paid attentionto the argumentsof people who did politics and
scholarshipin the past. They noticedpatternsthat scholarssubsequently
forgot. Having defined some interestingpatterns about present and
absentsocialpoliciesin the UnitedStatesbetweenthe 1870sand 1920s,I
then workedout a historicalinstitutionalist'spolity-centeredexplanation
1. Theda Skocpol, Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social
Policy in the United States (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992).

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Polity Forum 105


of what happenedwhen and how, and of why some policiesthat might
have emerged,did not.
My approachis too complexand too closelyrelatedto the substanceof
my book to deserveelaborationhere. Analyticallyspeaking,my politycenteredapproachdrawsour attentionto four kinds of processes.One,
the establishmentand transformationsof state and party organizations
throughwhich politicianspursuepolicy initiatives.Two, the effects of
politicalinstitutionsand proceduresas well as social changesand institutions on the identities,goals, and capacitiesof social groupsthat become
involvedin politics. Three,the fit or lack thereof betweenthe goals and
capacitiesof variouspoliticallyactivegroupsand the historicallychanging points of access and leverageallowedby a nation's political institutions. And four, the ways in whichpreviouslyestablishedsocial policies
affect subsequentpolicies over time.
I believethat a similarapproach,focusedon state-societyinteractions
and tracingprocessesover time, is being used by a varietyof other historical institutionalists.To take a quick stab at one of the conceptual
questionsposed to us by the panelorganizers,institutionsfor me are sets
of relationshipsthat persist, although in an inherentlyconflictualand
tension filled way. Institutionsmay be formalorganizationsor informal
networks. They have sharedmeetings and relativelystable bundles of
resourcesattachedto them. I take an organizationalrealistapproachto
institutions, viewing them as actual patterns of communicationand
activity, ratherthan seeing them primarilyas values, norms, ideas, or
official rules. I am primarilyinterestedin studyingpolitical processes
and outcomes, and I see these as broughtabout, usuallywithoutintentional foresightand control, by actors whose goals and capacitiesand
conflicts with one anotherare groundedin institutions.
Let me concludeby addressingthe relationshipof the sort of historical
institutionalismI practiceto rationalchoice theorizingand to interpretive approachesto historicalculturalunderstanding.Withinterpretivists,
I share certain hunches about how to define substantivelyimportant
issuesto study. I also sharean interestin groupidentityformationand its
effects in the political process. But I believe that causal analysis and
hypothesis testing about variationsare the way to proceed methodologically. It is not enoughjust to explorehow people talk or think. We
must also find patternsin what they do. I do not thinkthat institutions
are simply or primarilysystemsof meaningor normativeframeworks.
Group identitiesfor me are groundedin organizationallinkages,access
to resources,and some sense of "success" over time in politicalundertakings.
I sharequite a lot with those rationalchoice theoristswho are willing

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106 Polity Forum


to situate actors in a given and partiallymanipulableinstitutionalcontext. I have in mind such scholars as Terry Moe, Barry Weingast,
MargaretLevi, RobertBates, and last but certainlynot least, my fellow
panelist,Mo Fiorina. I call them institutionallysituatedrationalchoice
analysts. They do not presumethat the entire world is one big Adam
Smith-stylefree market.They ask about strategiesand outcomeswithin
settingsthat have institutionalrules of the game in place.
Rational choice analystshave been correct to stress that non-reified
actors must be specified, that there must be room for strategicchoices
and maneuveringin explanatoryarguments. Unfortunately, rational
choicetheoriststoo often presumethat actorsmustbe individuals,rather
than looking for groupsor organizationsthat in some waysact together.
Worse,somerationalchoicersare so takenwith formaldeductivemodeling that they necessarilyavoid messy historicalchanges and real life
politicalprocesses.But others,includingall the people I mentioned,are
grapplingwith making sense of transformationsin state institutions,
with governmentalinterventionsin markets,and with the determinants
of legislativeoutcomes.
Rationalchoice scholarsoften seek to model one set of eventsand the
maneuversof actorsin one institutionalsettingat a time. Historicalinstitutionalistsare more likely to trace sequencesof outcomes over time,
showing how earlier outcomes change the parametersfor subsequent
developments.Historicalinstitutionalistsare also interestedin conjuncturesof separatelylocatedprocessesor conflicts. Nevertheless,I believe
that thereare many potentialcomplementarities
betweenhistoricalinstitutionalismand institutionallyembeddedrationalchoice. The differing
languagesand stylesof work shouldnot preventsubstantivedialoguesin
historicalsocial science.

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