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  • Print publication year: 2003
  • Online publication date: June 2012

4 - Institutionalist and State-Centric Theories of Political Sociology


A generation ago few political sociologists placed states and other large-scale political institutions at the center of politics and understood states as sets of organizations. But now we do, transforming the way that political sociologists think about states and political processes. This alternative conceptualization of the field of study has opened up numerous questions and empirical terrains. If states and power are the central subjects of political sociology (Orum, 1988), in our understanding of these key concepts we political sociologists are now all “institutionalists.”

The rise of self-consciously state-centered scholarship was motivated in part by perceived inadequacies in Marxist, elitist, and pluralist theories and behaviorist approaches to politics, including their conceptions of states and their research programs. State-centered and political institutional scholars confronted these theoretical programs by contesting both what was worth explaining in political sociology and the dominant explanations for political sociological phenomena. Unlike the others, state-centered analysts tended to view states, in the manner of Weber, as a set of organizations, but with unique functions and missions. Thinking about states in this Weberian way shifted what was important to explain in political life, and this approach to politics opened up new research questions and agendas. This has especially been the case for analyses of revolutions and social movements, welfare states and social policy, and the development of states generally. Some of these new questions and research agendas promoted by state-centered scholars employing Weberian understandings of states have been taken up by proponents of varying theoretical persuasions, including Marxists and pluralists, who have provided explanatory answers different from those of state-centered scholars and political institutionalists.

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