New institutional theory has become a major approach to the social sciences generally. Here we specifically discuss the utility of institutionalism for understanding public policy. This task is complicated by the various different strands of institutionalism–normative, rational choice, historical, empirical and discursive— each having different strengths and weaknesses in explaining policy choices. That said, there are some common strengths, such as linking structures to policy choice. There are also some common weaknesses, notable difficulties in explaining the change.
Institutionalists believe that institutions matter and policies are embedded in institutions. That said individual political behavior is always present in institutions. In other terms, institutions provide guidance for individual actions, and could possibly provide sanctions when they do not adapt to the institutions’ expectations. The study of institutions, therefore, involves the interaction of structure and agency in producing outcomes.
This page aims to briefly discuss the capacity of the institutional approach to address the fundamental issues of policy formation, maintenance, and change. How the institutions matter depends on how we look at the institutions. We can identify at least four categories of institutionalism, each with its own version of the approach. Below a brief account of these various strands of the institutionalist approach will be provided to explain policy choice and policy-making process.
Normative Institutionalism argues that values, routines and, symbols define the institutions. Given its close linkages with sociological organizational theory, some scholars have named it sociological institutionalism.
The importance of values in the normative approach also indicates the significance of values in the policy choice and policy formation in these institutions. The values could be procedural, or substantive. These values are transferred to the individuals who have become members of these institutions. Subsequently, the individuals follow the guidelines, and the values they have learned and act accordingly.
The Historical Institutionalism stresses that the policies once made tend to persist, unless there is a strong force to diverse its direction. It builds on the idea that institutions are often bureaucratic and are not effectively adapting to the changes. As this approach has developed it has identified ways in which institutions can change without the abrupt “punctuations” contained in the original theory.
Rational Institutionalism assumes that individual decisions are based on self-interest using rational measures. Based on this approach, individuals come to the institution to pursue their own goals and to maximize their interests. Institutions constitute systems of incentives and rules that then shape the choices of the individuals functioning within them.
Rational Institutionalists, in contrast to the normative institutionalists, believe that institutions are easy to change.
Institutions under Discursive institutionalism are defined in relation to the discourses being carried on in the institution. According to this approach, there are two types of discourses within the institution namely “coordinative discourse” and “communicative discourse”. The former refers to the discourse used by members within the institution to define what the institution is. The later, communicative discourse is utilized to define to the outside (non-members) what is the purpose of the institution and what does it do. The coordinative discourse under the discursive approach is often contested and thus is more subject to change, than in normative institutionalism.
In the below video, Professor Guy Peters, one of the prominent scholars of Public Policy talks about the new institutionalists approach to public policy.
Guy Peters earned his Ph.D. from Michigan State University. He is currently the Maurice Falk Professor of American Government at the University of Pittsburgh. Prof. Peters has also served as a research professor at the University Center for International Studies (UCIS), He currently teaches courses on public policy and American and comparative politics. His research focuses on public policy and administration, and the American administration policy. He is the author or editor of over 60 books in political science, and a founding editor of the European Political Science Review and of Governance. He was also founding president of the International Public Policy Association. He has been a guest professor in universities in almost every country in Europe and a number in Latin America and Asia.