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  • Cited by 81
  • Print publication year: 2008
  • Online publication date: June 2012

7 - Historical institutionalism


Historical institutionalism is neither a particular theory nor a specific method. It is best understood as an approach to studying politics and social change. This approach is distinguished from other social science approaches by its attention to real-world empirical questions, its historical orientation and its attention to the ways in which institutions structure and shape behaviour and outcomes. Although the term ‘historical institutionalism’ was not coined until the early 1990s, the approach is far from new. Many of the most interesting and important studies of politics – from Karl Polanyi's classic Great Transformations, to Theda Skocpol's States and Social Revolutions and Philippe Schmitter's Still a Century of Corporatism? – would clearly be categorized as historical institutionalist were they written today.

The best way to explain historical institutionalism (HI) is to situate this approach in a historical and comparative context, showing where the approach originated and how it is different from other approaches in the social sciences. In short, what follows is an HI account of historical institutionalism. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the implications of this approach for our understanding of political and social science as ‘science’.


Institutional theory is as old as the study of politics. Plato and Aristotle to Locke, Hobbes and James Madison long ago understood the importance of political institutions for structuring political behaviour.

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