The Oxford Handbook of Political Institutions
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The Oxford Handbook of Political Institutions

DisciplinaCiências Políticas e Teoria do Estado622 materiais7.846 seguidores
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of a
more \u2018\u2018normal\u2019\u2019 condition in which actors\u2019 interests are once again made clear and
transparent to them.As nature abhors a vacuum, so, it seems, political systems abhor
uncertainty. Crises thus unleash short bouts of intense ideational contestation in
which agents struggle to provide compelling and convincing diagnoses of the
pathologies aZicting the old regime/policy paradigm and the reforms appropriate
to the resolution of the crisis. Moreover, and crucially for his analysis, such crisis
theories, arising as they do inmoments of uncertainty, play a genuinely constructive
10 It is perhaps again important to note that although constructivist institutionalists come to a
position very similar to that of their fellow constructivists in international relations suggesting, for
instance, that \u2018\u2018crises are what states make of them\u2019\u2019 (cf. Wendt 1992), this is an empirical observation
not a logical correlate of a prior ontological commitment.
11 The following paragraphs draw on and further develop the argument Wrst presented in Hay
(2004b, 207 13).
constructivist institutionalism 67
role in establishing a new trajectory of institutional evolution. They are, in other
words, not reducible to the condition they seek to describe and explain.
The implications of this are clear\u2014if we are to understand path-shaping institu-
tional change we must acknowledge the independent causal and constitutive role
of ideas, since the developmental trajectory of a given regime or policy paradigm
cannot be derived from the exhibited or latent contradictions of the old regime
or policy paradigm. It is, instead, contingent upon the ideational contestation
unleashed in the moment of crisis itself. Though this is not an inference that Blyth
himselfdraws, there is, then,nohopeof apredictive scienceof crisis resolution, capable
of pointing prior to the onset of crisis to the path of institutional change\u2014for the
causal chain is incomplete until such time as the crisis has been successfully narrated.
This is an important intervention and it provides a series of correspondingly
signiWcant insights into the developmental trajectories of Swedish and US capital-
ism in the twentieth century. In particular, it draws attention to the role of business
in proselytizing and sponsoring new and/or alternative economic theories and in
setting the discursive parameters within which inXuential crisis narratives are likely
to be framed, and to the crucial relationship between business, think tanks,
and professional economists. It also reminds us, usefully, that in order to prove
inXuential, (economic) ideas need not bear much relationship to the reality
they purportedly represent. In a classically constructivist institutionalist vein, it
demonstrates that, if believed and acted upon, economic ideas have a tendency to
become self-fulWlling prophecies (see also Hay and Rosamond 2002).
Yet its limitations also show that constructivist institutionalism is still very much
a work in progress. Blyth raises just as many theoretical, methodological, and,
indeed, empirical questions as he answers. Moreover, the text is characterized
by some signiWcant and by no means unrepresentative tensions, contradictions,
and silences. None of these are insurmountable impediments to the development
of a more consistently constructivist institutionalism. Yet they do perhaps serve to
indicate the work still required if the profound challenge that constructivism poses
to more conventional approaches to institutional analysis, and the insights it oVers,
are both to be more widely appreciated.
In the context of contemporary neoinstitutionalism, it is Blyth\u2019s comments
on the relationship between ideas and interests that are likely to prove most
controversial. It is in these comments that the distinctiveness of the constructivist
variantof institutionalismresides.His core claim is, in essence, that actors\u2019 conduct is
not a (direct) reXection of their material interests but, rather, a reXection of particu-
lar perceptions of their material interests (see also Wendt 1999, 113\u201335). Our material
circumstances do not directly determine our behavior, though our perceptions of
such circumstances (and, indeed, of our stake in various conceivable outcomes),
may.12 In his own terms, it is ideas that render interests \u2018\u2018actionable\u2019\u2019 (Blyth 2002, 39).
12 The parentheses are important here. There is something of a tendency in the existing literature to
treat the issue of interest formation and representation as a question solely of the accuracy of the
information actors have about their external environment. If there is a disparity between an actor\u2019s
68 colin hay
However intuitively plausible or obvious this may seem, it is important to note
that it sits in some considerable tension to almost all existing neoinstitutionalist
scholarship. For, conventionally, it is actors\u2019 material interests rather than their
perceptionsof those interests thatareassumedthekeydeterminantsof their behavior.
Though convenient and parsimonious, this is unrealistic\u2014and this is the construc-
tivist\u2019s point. Yet, there is some ambiguity and inconsistency in themanner inwhich
he operationalizes this important insight, which speaks to a potentially wider
ambiguity within constructivist institutionalism. For, on occasions, Blyth refers to
interests as \u2018\u2018social constructs that are open to redeWnition through ideological
contestation\u2019\u2019 (2002, 271; see also Abdelal, Blyth, and Parsons 2006). All trace of a
materialist conception of interest is eliminated at a stroke. At other points in the text,
however, interests are treated as materially given and as clearly separate from per-
ceptions of interests, as for instance when he counterposes the \u2018\u2018ideas held by agents\u2019\u2019
and \u2018\u2018their structurally-derived interests\u2019\u2019 (2002, 33\u20134). Here, like many other con-
structivists, Blyth seems to fall back on an essentiallymaterial conception of interests
(see also Berman 1998;McNamara 1998;Wendt 1999).Obviously itmakes no sense to
view the latter as social constructs. To be clear, though these two formulations are
mutually exclusive (interests are either social constructs or given bymaterial circum-
stances, they cannot be both), neither is incompatible with Blyth\u2019s core claim (that in
order to be actionable, interests have to be capable of being articulated). They are
merely diVerent ways of operationalizing that core assumption. Yet it does serve to
hide a potentially more fundamental lacuna.
This only becomes fully apparent when Blyth\u2019s second core premise is recalled:
crises are situations in which actors\u2019 interests (presumably here conceptualized as
social constructs rather than material givens) become blurred. In itself this is far
from self-evident and, given the centrality of the claim to the overall argument he
presents, it is perhaps surprising that Blyth chooses not to defend the claim. It is
not clear that moments of crisis do indeed lead to uncertainty about actors\u2019
interests. Indeed, whilst crises might plausibly be seen to provide focal points
around which competing political narratives might serve to reorient actors\u2019 sense
of their own self-interest, in the Wrst instance are they not more likely to result
in the vehement reassertion, expression, and articulation of prior conceptions of
self-interest\u2014often in the intensity of political conXict? Is it not somewhat
perverse, for instance, to suggest that during the infamous Winter of Discontent
of 1978\u20139 (as clear an instance of crisis as one might imagine), Britain\u2019s striking
perceived interests and those we might attribute to them given an exhaustive analysis of their material
circumstances, this is assumed to be a function solely of the incompleteness of the actor\u2019s information.