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

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approach do not spell out their causal
theory. However, many would dispute the relevance of this criterion. If you are not
persuaded of the merits of present-day social science, then you do not aspire to
causal theory but turn to the historical and philosophical analyses of formal-legal
institutionalism. For example, Greenleaf (1983, 286) bluntly argues that although
\u2018\u2018the concept of a genuine social science has had its ups and downs, and it still
survives, . . . we are as far from its achievement as we were when Spencer (or Bacon
for that matter) Wrst put pen to paper.\u2019\u2019 Indeed, he opines, these \u2018\u2018continuous
102 r. a. w. rhodes
attempts . . . serve only to demonstrate . . . the inherent futility of the enterprise.\u2019\u2019
He holds a \u2018\u2018determinedly old-fashioned\u2019\u2019 view of the study of politics, with its
focus on history, institutions, and the interaction between ideas and institutions
(Greenleaf 1983, xi). Moreover, Bogdanor (1999, 149, 150, 175, 176\u20137, 178) is
not about to apologize for his version of \u2018\u2018political science.\u2019\u2019 He has a profound
aversion to \u2018\u2018over-arching theory\u2019\u2019 and \u2018\u2018positivism,\u2019\u2019 opting for \u2018\u2018an indigenous
British approach to politics, a deWnite intellectual tradition, and one that is worth
preserving.\u2019\u2019 This is the tradition of Dicey, \u2018\u2018who sought to discover what it was
that distinguished the British constitution from codiWed constitutions;\u2019\u2019 and
Bagehot, \u2018\u2018who . . . sought to understand political \u2018forms\u2019 through the analysis of
political \u2018forces\u2019.\u2019\u2019 Similarly, viewed from a constructivist standpoint, the absence
of the conventional battery of social science theories is also not a problem because
its proponents emphasize the meanings of rules for actors seeking the explanation
of their practices in the reasons they give. Null hypotheses and casual modeling
play no part. Formal-legal analysis has its own distinctive rationale and, under-
stood as the analysis of the historical evolution of formal-legal institutions and the
ideas embedded in them, it is the deWning characteristic of the political science
contribution to the study of political institutions.
7.2 Where are We Going? History, Ethnography, and the
Study of Political Institutions
A key concern in the formal-legal analysis of institutions, in idealism, in post-
Marxism, and in various species of the new institutionalism is the interplay of ideas
and institutions. In their diVerent ways, all analyze the historical evolution of
formal-legal institutions and the ideas embedded in them. So, we read constitu-
tions as text for the beliefs they embed in institutions. We also explore the related
customs by observing politicians and public servants at work because observation
is the prime way of recovering ideas and their meanings. My argument for the
continuing validity of old institutionalism, therefore, stresses, not the provision of
\u2018\u2018facts, facts, facts,\u2019\u2019 but historical and philosophical analysis.
The focus on meanings is the deWning characteristic of interpretive or construct-
ivist approaches to the study of political institutions. So, an interpretive approach
to political institutions challenges us to decenter institutions; that is, to analyze the
ways in which they are produced, reproduced, and changed through the particular
and contingent beliefs, preferences, and actions of individuals. Even when an
institution maintains similar routines while personnel change, it does so mainly
because the successive personnel pass on similar beliefs and preferences.
So, interpretive theory rethinks the nature of institutions as sedimented products
of contingent beliefs and preferences.
old institutionalisms 103
If institutions are to be understood through the beliefs and actions of individuals
located in traditions, then historical analysis is the way to uncover the traditions
that shape these stories and ethnographers reconstruct the meanings of social
actors by recovering other people\u2019s stories (see for example Geertz 1973; Taylor
1985). The aim is \u2018\u2018to see the world as they see it, to adopt their vantage point on
politics\u2019\u2019 (Fenno 1990, 2). Ethnography encompasses many ways of collecting
qualitative data about beliefs and practices. For example, Shore\u2019s (2000, 7\u201311)
cultural analysis of how EU elites sought to build Europe uses participant obser-
vation, historical archives, textual analysis of oYcial documents, biographies, oral
histories, recorded interviews, and informal conversations as well as statistical
and survey techniques. The techniques are many and varied but participant
observation lies at the heart of ethnography and the aim is always to recover
other people\u2019s meanings.
This \u2018\u2018interpretive turn\u2019\u2019 is a controversial challenge to the mainstream. It is
probably premature and certainly unwise to claim we are on the threshold of a
postmodern political science. However, postmodernism does not refer only to
debates about epistemology. It also refers to the postmodern epoch and the idea
of a shift from Fordism, or a world characterized by mass production of consumer
goods and large hierarchically structured business organizations, to Xexible spe-
cialization, and customized production (see for example Clegg 1990, 19\u201322,
177\u201384). By extension, a postmodern political science may well be characterized
by a Fordist heartland in the guise of rational choice institutionalism and customi-
zed political science rooted in national political traditions. And among these
niches, old institutionalism will continue to thrive. Also, for the Fordist heartland,
it will remain the starting point.
Pondering the aphorism \u2018\u2018what goes around comes around,\u2019\u2019 I conclude that old
institutionalism has not only stayed around but that its focus on texts and custom
and its commitment to historical and philosophical analysis make it increasingly
relevant. Weighing the mounting criticism of rational choice institutionalism (as in
for example Green and Shapiro 1994; Hay 2004), I expect to listen to a new
generation of stories about actors and institutions. Interrogating the \u2018\u2018interpretive
turn,\u2019\u2019 I conclude it is built on shifting sands because our notion of institutions
is variously constructed within competing, non-commensurable traditions. So,
we already live in a postmodern world with its tribes of political scientists. The
key issue is whether we talk past one another or whether we have a reasoned
Bates et al. (1998) are distinguished proponents of rational choice who also argue
for political anthropology and attempt to synthesize rational choice and interpret-
ive theory. As Hay (2004, 58) argues, and Bates et al. acknowledge, \u2018\u2018the post-
positivist epistemology and post-naturalist ontology of interpretivism cannot be
easily reconciled with the positivist epistemology and naturalist ontology of
rational choice theory.\u2019\u2019 Interpretive theory has not been assimilated to the rational
104 r. a. w. rhodes
choice mainstream. Rather, Bates et al. should be seen as \u2018\u2018deploying rational choice
techniques and analytical strategies in the service of an interpretivist theory\u2019\u2019 (Hay
2004, 58; emphasis in original). But, more important, their work is an example of
reasoned engagement between the traditions.
Such engagement ought to be our future. I fear the professionalization of the
political science discipline is the enemy of diversity; a case of \u2018\u2018vive la diVe´rence,\u2019\u2019
but not too much.
Adcock, R., Bevir, M., and Stimson, S. 2006. Historicizing the new institutionalisms. In
Modern Political Science: Anglo American Exchanges since 1880, ed. R. Adcock, M. Bevir,
and S. Stimson. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
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