Monday, May 14, 2012

Slow institutional change

Institutions are interlocking sets of rules and practices that shape specific sets of actors to behave this way rather than that. The institutions governing public comment on newly proposed regulations provide an interesting case in point. Citizens have interests with respect to new policies, and the rules and formal processes define the means through which they are permitted to express their concerns formally as part of the process. The specific ways through which comments are solicited and processed make a difference for the quality and effectiveness of citizen feedback on public regulatory regimes.

There are several interesting questions that arise concerning institutions. First, how do they come about in the first place? Second, what processes and forces maintain institutions over time, so that they have a degree of stability? And third, what factors cause change in institutions,either gradually or dramatically?

Jack Knight and various collaborators have a basis for one kind of answer to both the second and the third questions. Their framework emphasizes the role that powerful actors exert in both sustaining and changing institutions. (Mahoney and Thelen note that historical institutionalists commonly take a perspective along these lines; kl 294). Rather than imagining that institutions somehow evolve so as to optimize the public good, they argue that we can understand many instances of institutional change as adaptations stimulated by the efforts of powerful actors influenced by the institution. (Charles Perrow's account of the evolution of land use near the Mississippi River is a case in point. Developers rather than farsighted legislators set the terms of the policies (The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters (New in Paper); kl 5198.)

The causal issues boil down to two main directions of social causation: first, from a set of individual and social circumstances to the structure and functioning of a given institution. (For example, how did competition between landed interests and business interests influence the evolution of the House of Lords in the nineteenth century?) And second, from the specifics of the institution to patterns of individual behavior and to patterns of persistence and change in social arrangements exterior to the institution. (For example, how did the constitution and rules of functioning of the House of Lords influence the pace of social welfare policies in Great Britain?)

A very interesting recent contribution to this set of issues is a volume edited by James Mahoney and Kathleen Thelen, Explaining Institutional Change: Ambiguity, Agency, and Power. The collection offers a new framework for analyzing institutional change and includes stellar contributions by Tulia Falleti, Ato Kwamena Oomo, Alan Jacobs, Dan Slater, Adam Sheingate, and Peter Hall. The issues involved here are highly relevant to the ongoing thread of interest here concerning "meso" level causation. Mahoney and Thelen review the three main tributaries of institutionalism theory -- institutionalist sociology, rational choice institutionalism, and historical institutionalism -- and they argue that each approach leaves an important gap: what factors internal to institutions are relevant to their patterns of stability and change over time? This collection represents a group of researchers interested in exactly that family of questions.

Here are a few defining questions that guide the research summarized in the volume.
Exactly what properties of institutions permit change? How and why do the change-permitting properties of institutions allow (or drive) actors to carry out behaviors that foster the changes (and what are those behaviors)? How should we conceptualize these actors? What types of strategies flourish in which kinds of institutional environments? What features of the institutions themselves make them more or less vulnerable to particular kinds of strategies for change? (kl 208)
A particularly important part of the new framework is the idea that capacity for change is embedded within institutions. So the idea that institutional change results from exogenous shock is rejected.
We propose that the basic properties of institutions contain within them possibilities for change. What animates change is the power-distributional implications of institutions. (kl 414)
One key internal feature that this approach identifies as promoting change is ambiguity:
Compliance is inherently complicated by the fact that rules can never be precise enough to cover the complexities of all possible real-life situations. When new developments confound the rules, existing institutions may be changed to accommodate the new reality. These changes can involve rule creation, or they may simply entail creative extensions of existing rules to the new realities. (kl 379)
So what happens when institutions change? Mahoney and Thelen categorize gradual change into four types: displacement, layering, drift, and conversion (kl 444). And they argue that these categories are significant given the different roles that actors and strategies play in each of them. (This categorization seems to have something in common with the way geneticists and ecologists might characterize different modalities of adaptation within a changing environment.) They provide a 2x2 table that predicts the kind of adaptation that will occur, depending on combinations of strong/weak veto possibilities and low/high levels of discretion in interpretation of rules. For example, they assert that strong veto associated with high discretion produces drift rather than layering or conversion. They offer a similar analysis of different types of change agents, and attribute different kinds of strategies to the different categories of change agents.

How does this framework relate to the topics of "actor-centered" social science and "meso-level causation" that have been considered in earlier posts? The theoretical framework Mahoney and Thelen describe is clearly actor-centered. They are focused on identifying the ways in which different categories of actors are empowered to interact with various features of a set of institutional rules. This picture seems to correspond to the ascending and descending links of the macro-micro analysis proposed by Coleman's boat.

Institutions are just the sorts of social entities that I want to say are meso structures with causal properties. That said, the analysis provided by Mahoney and Thelen offers few examples of meso-meso causation. This isn't to say that their approach doesn't countenance such relations, but only that this isn't the focus of analysis in the current set of studies.