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Paul Pierson: Politics in Time:
history, institutions, and social analysis
(Princeton University Press: 2004)


“This book explores a range of temporal processes that are common in political life. It seeks to distinguish various processes that unfold over substantial stretches of time, to identify the circumstances under which such different processes are likely to occur, and to highlight the significance of these...for our understanding of important political outcomes. In doing so, I seek to demonstrate the very high price that social science often pays when it ignores the profound temporal dimensions of real social processes. The ambition, in short, is to flesh out the often-invoked but rarely examined declaration that history matters.... Why do social scientists need to focus on how processes unfold over significant stretches of time? First, because many social processes are path dependent, in which case the key causes are temporally removed from their continuing effects, and a central focus of analysis is on ‘lost’ alternatives, resulting from the accumulation of self-reinforcing processes. Second, because sequencing - the temporal order of events or processes - can be a crucial determinant of important social outcomes. Third, because many important social causes and outcomes are slow-moving - they take place over quite extended periods of time, and are only likely to be adequately explained (or in some cases even observed in the first place) if analysts are specifically attending to that possibility. Finally, because the task of explaining institutional outcomes is better framed as an issue of institutional development, rather than one of institutional choice...including the role of time horizons, unintended consequences, learning and competitive selection processes, and path dependence.”
(Pierson, pp.2-16)

Time and the modern social sciences have had a very fraught relationship. Whether in the economics-derived rational choice/game theoretical approaches - which almost invariably concentrate upon the short-run - or the empirically-derived varieties of institutionalism, which tend to overemphasize the role of social actors driving change, there has been a general problem w/the role of institutions over time...arguably, the central question of the social sciences. Parts of the solution have been reviewed earlier on this site: the social selectionism of W.G. Runciman, the different anthropological perspectives of Mary Douglas and Edward T. Hall, the complementary works of Jane Jacobs and Mancur Olson on social rigidities, and the longer-term demographic patterning analyzed by Peter Turchin and David Hackett Fischer...And yet, there is still a definite hole there - identified by Paul Pierson - as to the key “mechanisms” which commonly recur in different times and social systems, those which basically stop history being simply “one damn thing after another”...

Moreover, the rise of non-linear approaches has allowed us to grasp - to some extent - how these function and, in Kathleen Theelan’s words, “capture the impact of time, in as timeless a way as possible.” It is this work which Pierson surveys and synthesizes to masterful effect in Politics in Time. And, its centre lies in the interconnected concepts of increasing returns, path dependence, and positive feedback/self-reinforcing processes...for it is these which the conventional social sciences tend to either underplay, or ignore.


“During the past twenty years...economists have exhibited a growing interest in the idea of ‘increasing returns’ - where each increment added to a particular line of activity yields larger rather than smaller benefits. Over a wide range of subjects, including the spatial location of production, the development of international trade, the causes of economic growth, and the emergence of new technologies, path-dependence arguments have become prevalent.... With increasing returns, actors have strong incentives to focus on a single alternative, and to continue moving down a specific path once initial steps are taken in that direction.... [Brian] Arthur argues that four features of a technology and its social context generate increasing returns: 1. Large set-up or fixed costs.... 2. Learning effects.... With repetition, individuals learn how to use products more effectively, and their experiences are likely to spur further innovations.... 3. Coordination effects. These occur when the benefits an individual receives from a particular activity  increase as others adopt the same option...[and are] especially significant when a technology has to be compatible with a linked infrastructure.... 4. Adaptive expectations. If options that fail to win acceptance will have drawbacks later on, individuals may feel the need to ‘pick the right horse’.... This discussion of technology is primarily important because it clarifies a set of relationships characteristic of many social interactions...[and Douglass] North argues that all the features that Arthur identified...can be applied to institutions.”
(Pierson, pp.22-6)

“[Moreover,] there are strong grounds for believing that self-reinforcing processes will be prevalent in political life - arguably more pervasive and intense than they are in the economic sphere. Once established, patterns of political mobilization, the institutional ‘rules of the game’, and even citizens’ basic ways of thinking about the political world will often generate self-reinforcing dynamics.... Path dependence helps us to understand the powerful inertia or ‘stickiness’ that characterizes many aspects of political development - for instance, the enduring consequences that often stem from the emergence of particular institutional arrangements...[and] how inequalities of power, perhaps modest initially, can be reinforced  over time, and often come to be deeply embedded in organizations and dominant modes of political action and thought, as well as institutional arrangements.”
(Pierson, pp.10-11)

“Economic theory is built around the useful and plausible assumptions that actors know what they want, strive to get as much as they can, and are pretty good at doing so...[although] the market is often highly complex, and confusing. Yet, the presence of a unifying metric (prices), the absence of a need to coordinate many of one’s economic decisions with those of other actors, the prevalence of repeated interactions, and the presence of relatively short causal chains between choices and results greatly facilitate the efforts of economic actors to establish priorities, construct sensible causal maps, and correct mistakes over time.... [However,] politics is a far, far murkier environment. It lacks anything like the measuring rod of price, involves the pursuit of a wide variety of largely incommensurable goals, and consists of processes that make it very hard to observe or measure important aspects of political performance, and...still more difficult to determine...what adjustments would lead to better results. [Moreover,] the reliance on elaborate procedures to handle collective-choice situations in politics is inescapable, but it undermines transparency - that is, it greatly increases transaction costs.... Where transactions costs are low, market mechanisms are likely to be effective. They often break down, however, when transaction costs are very high...[which is] characteristic for public goods. Thus, it is complex and ambiguous issues and problems that gravitate toward the public sphere... [Moreover,] there are...compelling reasons to believe that political processes will often be marked by the dynamics of increasing returns. Tendencies toward positive feedback characterize four processes central to political environments: collective action, institutional development, the exercise of authority, and social interpretation. In each case, there are reasons to anticipate that steps in a particular direction can trigger a self-reinforcing dynamic...and the capacities for reversing course are often weak. Both the prevalence and the intensity of these processes in politics suggest that path dependence arguments offer an important tool for understanding political dynamics.”
(Pierson, pp.37-44)

“Legally binding rules are not just a foundation for political activity (like property rights in the economy). They are instead the very essence of politics.... Efforts to coordinate actors in pursuit of public goods often require the construction of formal institutions. Once established, these institutional constraints apply to all - those who do not approve as well as those who do - and they are backed up, ultimately, by force. The ‘exit’ option, while central to the workings of the market, is often unavailable (or prohibitively costly) to actors who feel poorly served by existing political arrangements.... [Furthermore, Douglass] North’s analysis highlights how institutions induce self-reinforcing processes that make reversals increasingly unattractive over time. In contexts of complex social interdependence, new institutions and policies often generate high fixed costs, learning effects, coordination effects, and adaptive expectations. Institutions and policies may encourage individuals and organizations to invest in specialized skills, deepen relationships with other individuals and organizations, and develop particular political and social identities. These activities all increase the attractiveness of existing institutional arrangements, relative to hypothetical alternatives. In institutionally dense environments, initial actions push individual behavior onto paths that are hard to reverse.”
(Pierson, pp.30-5)

And, where path dependence is prevalent, the order of things is usually important - directly contrary to the (timeless) founding assumptions of neoclassical economics. Moreover, Pierson stresses that sequencing arguments come in different forms, and that it is those which show the effects of path dependence which are the most significant - and also the most common:


“One class of arguments about timing and sequence focuses on conjunctures - interaction effects between distinct causal sequences that become joined at particular points in time. For instance, it arguably mattered a great deal...whether left wing or right wing parties happened to be in power when a cataclysmic event, the Great Depression, hit a particular country.... At the same time, however, there appear to be real limits to our capacity to use conjunctural claims to search for...mechanisms that could be applied in multiple settings. This is not the case for...many - probably most - arguments about sequencing, [which] turn out on closer investigation to be grounded in claims about positive feedback.... [Moreover,] linking arguments about path dependence to a focus on sequencing produces powerful theoretical synergies.... It can draw attention to contests over ‘political space’ in which potential competitors seek first-mover advantages, while clarifying the likely long-term impact of initial defeats on the opportunities and constraints facing initial ‘losers’ or groups that arrive at a later point in time.... Furthermore, a focus on historical sequences suggests how arguments about path dependence can address claims about political change, as well as political inertia...[and] can both draw on and enhance arguments that rational choice theorists have developed about the temporal ordering of choices in highly institutionalized settings.”
(Pierson, pp.12-13)

“To employ the language of evolutionary theory, arriving first will not matter unless one can prosper in the ecological niches available. Yet, there remains a strong case for thinking that the sequence in which groups enter and fill political space will often matter a great deal.... Start-up costs are often very high in collective action processes, and thus constitute a major barrier to entry. By contrast, it is often much easier to sustain or expand an organization once this minimum threshold has been crossed. If affiliating with organizations that fail to attract widespread support has significant drawbacks - almost always the case in politics - then individuals will make adjustments as collective action processes unfold. There will often be a tendency to affiliate with, or at least accommodate, existing groups once they reach a certain size, even among actors who would prefer some hypothetical alternative. Perhaps most important, actors who achieve a critical mass of political resources may be able to manipulate the rules of the game (formal institutions) and reallocate resources (public policies) in ways that increase their organizational advantages over potential competitors.”
(Pierson, p.73)

“Linked to an analysis of self-reinforcing processes, an investigation of...when a particular issue or conflict emerges in a society becomes critical for two reasons. First, the resources available to actors at that moment in time help to determine the repertoire of possible responses. Second, once a response is adopted, it may generate self-reinforcing dynamics that put politics on a distinctive long-term path.... Note that both the notion of historically shifting social conditions, and the role of self-reinforcing processes are crucial to this line of argument. Without processes of positive feedback, changes in relevant social conditions over time would simply be incorporated into present political processes. Absent a self-reinforcing dynamic, [for example,] the fact that early state building occurred in a context of limited literacy would leave no lasting impact.”
(Pierson, p.75)

“Contemporary social scientists are strongly predisposed to focus on aspects of causal processes and outcomes that unfold very rapidly. Yet many things in the social world take a long time to happen...[while] the fact that something happens slowly does not make it unimportant.... Some causal processes and outcomes occur slowly because they are incremental - it simply takes a long time for them to add up to anything. In others, the critical factor is the presence of threshold effects, [as] some social processes may have little significance until they attain a critical mass, which may then trigger major change. Other social processes involve considerable time lags between the appearance of a key causal factor and the occurrence of the outcome of interest...because the outcome depends on a ‘causal chain’...[or] transformations that are probabilistic during any particular period.... Analysts who fail to be attentive to these slow-moving dimensions of social life are prone to a number of serious mistakes. They may ignore potentially powerful hypotheses. They are particularly likely to miss the role of many ‘sociological’ variables, like demography, literacy, or technology. Their explanations may focus on triggering or precipitating factors, rather than more fundamental structural causes. Indeed, by truncating an analysis of processes unfolding over an extended period of time, they may end up inverting causal relationships.... Perhaps most fundamental of all, they may fail to even identify some important questions...because the relevant outcomes happen to slowly, and are therefore simply off their radar screens.”
(Pierson, pp.13-14)

As Pierson shows, there are - as we might expect - certain regularities to be observed here. Threshold dynamics, for example, are particularly likely where actors face binary choices and where expectations re others’ choices have influence over their own, whilst slow-moving, cumulative structures are commonly the outcome of processes of cohort replacement or competitive selection. The most important section of the book, however, is that devoted to the question of institutional development, as it reframes arguably the central problem of the social sciences: that of institutions by drawing upon all the resources he has discussed...


“As social scientists have sought to explain institutional outcomes, there has been a strong tendency to employ...‘actor-based functionalism’ [which] typically rests on the claim that institutions take the form they do because powerful actors, engaged in rational strategic behavior, are seeking to produce the outcomes observed.... [However,] the adoption of an extended time frame reveals numerous problems for such accounts. Functional interpretations are often suspect because of the sizeable time lag between actors’ actions, and the long-term consequences of those actions. Political actors, facing the pressures of the immediate, or skeptical about their capacity to engineer long-term effects, may pay limited attention to the long term. Thus the long-term effects of institutional choices, which are frequently the most profound and interesting ones, should often be seen as the by-products of social processes, rather than embodying the goals of social actors.”
(Pierson, pp.14-15)

“Specific institutional arrangements invariably have multiple effects...[while] institutional innovations constitute ‘common carriers’ for coalitions of reformers, that support a particular innovation for disparate...perhaps conflicting or even contradictory [reasons].... The ‘designers’ may be a diverse set of negotiators, with multiple goals, making institutional choice a complex and pluralistic outcome, designers may not be thinking primarily in instrumental terms [but, rather, of ‘appropriate’ form;] they may be thinking instrumentally, but be preoccupied by short-term considerations; they may simply make mistakes; they may find that the institutions work less well as the surrounding environment changes; and they may be succeeded by actors with [different] preferences. In all these cases, we are likely to see an uneasy tension between institutional arrangements and the preferences of powerful actors. Convincing treatments of institutional development must take all these possibilities into account.... [Moreover,] complexity of context and limits of human cognition mean that mistaken understandings in politics often do not get corrected. An additional problem is that institutional revision generally requires ‘collective learning’ - large numbers of people within and across organizations must come to see things in a similar way. As Hannan and Freeman point out...‘when members of an organization have diverse interests, organizational outcomes depend heavily on internal politics...[and] outcomes cannot easily be matched rationally to changing circumstances.’ ...[In addition,] competitive processes are not irrelevant to the development of political institutions, but... in most cases...political institutions are not really subject to direct competition at all. Instead, single institutional arrangements, or sets of rules, typically have a monopoly over a particular part of the political terrain.”
(Pierson, pp.109-29)

“There are strong theoretical grounds for holding that institutional resilience in many settings is likely to be considerable.... Four major obstacles to revision need to be distinguished: coordination problems, veto points, asset specificity, and positive feedback. Together, these factors often make revision quite difficult [and,] equally important, they influence the conditions under which revisions will be possible, and favor certain kinds of revisions over others. They therefore constitute fundamental building blocks for an understanding of institutional change.”
(Pierson, p.142)

Co-ordination problems are basic - actors always have different needs, and no institution is likely to reconcile all of these, and thus extant solutions, however imperfect, tend to be resilient. However, as Pierson notes, the other three obstacles are likely to be present even when “learning effects, competitive pressures, challenges from below, or isomorphic pressures” are significant. Let’s look at them in turn:


“Institutional arrangements in politics are typically hard to change. As Goodin puts it, stability and predictability are achieved through ‘a system of “nested rules”, with rules at each successive level in the hierarchy being increasingly costly to change.’ ....For the study of institutional development, a crucial issue is not just the number of veto points, but their structure. Specifically, some institutional veto points are what Gary Miller has called ‘self-referencing’ - the actors protected by them control the process of institutional revision...[and] attempts at major institutional reform appear to have been much more common...in contexts where veto points were minimal (e.g., the French Fourth Republic) or not self-referencing (e.g., the repeated use of referenda in Ireland and Italy).”
(Pierson, pp.144-6)

“Resilience stems not only from the fact that coordination problems and the presence of veto points may make particular institutional revisions difficult. Even more important, individual and organizational adaptations to existing arrangements may also make reversal unattractive. Over time, actors may adapt to the new rules of the game, by making...commitments based on the expectation that these rules will continue...[and] these commitments, I wish to argue, are both extensive and diverse. Equally important, they are likely to accumulate with the passage of time...[and,] to the extent that their assets are specific, actors are likely to become more committed to the continuation of the activity where those assets are applied.... [In addition,] it is important to consider...the development of strong interlinkages among institutional arrangements over time. Once established, formal political institutions become an essential part of the infrastructure on which other, less foundational arrangements are constructed.... [And] where complementarities exist, the value of each component is enhanced by the presence of the others.... In short, while arguments about vetoes and (to a lesser extent) coordination imply stable costs of institutional revision over time, arguments about investments and positive feedback see these costs as dynamic: institutions are typically not only self-enforcing, but self-reinforcing...[and] institutions themselves shape the parameters of institutional development.”
(Pierson, pp.147-152)

And such development is the rule rather than the exception, so it is important not to mistake canalization - to borrow the biological term - for stagnation. Moreover, as we might expect, the four basic options facing potential reformers map quite well onto Mary Douglas’ grid/group theory...although I’ll leave it to you to make the (obvious) matches...


“In determining their best strategy, reformers must think about the costs and benefits of...reform from within, replacement of the existing institution, the layering of a new arrangement on top of the old one, or acquiescence to the institutional status quo.”
(Pierson, pp.155-6)

“At every step along the way, there [are choices] - political and economic - that provide...real alternatives. Path dependence is a way to narrow conceptually the choice set, and link decision making through time. It is not a story of inevitability in which the past neatly predicts the future.”
(Douglass North, in Pierson, p.52)

Now...at this point, I think it’s worth briefly trying to suggest some of the connections Pierson makes between such arguments and concrete examples - something which I have (as usual) scanted in my attempts to outline the theoretical grasp of the work. Here he notes certain robust patterns over time in modern democracies:


“[Josep] Colomer...observes tremendous stability in the broad regime characteristics of established democracies - majoritarian, PR, and presidential systems are rarely replaced by one of the other models. In all these settings, however, he argues that there are significant political pressures for increasing inclusiveness and pluralism over time. In presidential systems, this means shifting to majority runoff or qualified plurality rules...as well as efforts to heighten presidential accountability, and create a more balanced division of powers. In parliamentary systems, there have been clear trends toward greater proportionality in electoral systems.... In short, countries with different broad institutional regimes are unlikely to switch paths. Thus, in contemplating reform, they are effectively choosing from different menus.... [Another] promising line of argument...would examine interaction effects among multiple institutions.... At least two broad possible types of interactions seem particularly relevant...[as] if institutional development may be influenced by tight coupling or complementarities, there are also likely to be significant consequences of specific forms of ‘loose coupling’ as well...where there are substantial ambiguities about the allocation of authority amongst them...[which will] present opportunities for venue-shopping among institutional reformers.... Two types of institutional configurations offer clear instances of loose institutional coupling: federalism, and executive-judicial relations.....[but] there is a striking difference between the two.... In the case of judicial-executive relations, unanticipated consequences seem to run almost entirely in one direction: an expanded role for courts. In the case of federalism there is no such unidirectionality. Sometimes federal systems become more decentralized over time (e.g., Canada), and sometimes they become more centralized (e.g., the United States).”
(Pierson, pp.161-4)

As Pierson goes on to say, the explanations for the latter are clearly complex, although even the expansion of effective judicial review is hardly simple. Given the judiciary as a site of power in the first place - hardly a universal in itself - he links its inexorable expansion to the rapid rise of “law-centered actors” within such regimes and the ability of courts to create binding decisions...both of which create strong path-dependent outcomes that also drive other actors/institutions to adjust to increasingly “judicialized” decision environments.

One final point, well worth highlighting in Pierson’s approach, are his masterful analyses of the drawbacks of those narrow theoretical models all-too-prevalent in the social sciences. Whether by quotation of the incisive summations of others, or via careful (and often lengthy) dissections of his own, Pierson - as a genuine pluralist - never fails to balance the strengths and weaknesses involved...which, unfortunately, is a rare gift in the trench warfare which characterizes theorizing in the social sciences.

In this, I feel, he can probably offer lessons to almost all of us...


“Individual human beings are not perfect statisticians.... They make systematic errors in recording the events of history, and in making inferences from them. They overestimate the probability of events that actually occur, and of events that are available to attention because of their recency or saliency. They are insensitive to sample size. They tend to overattribute events to the intentional actions of individuals. They use simple linear and functional rules, associate causality with spatial and temporal contiguity, and assume that big events must have big causes.”
(Barbara Levitt &  James G. March, in Pierson, p.116)

“It is critical to highlight the considerable limitations of a game-theoretic framework for investigating temporal sequences. Four problems in particular deserve emphasis: 1. Game theory itself can say nothing about payoffs and preferences.... 2. Game theory needs to focus on relatively cohesive, well-integrated ‘composite actors’. Because game theory centers on strategic interaction, it has great trouble incorporating what Scharpf calls ‘quasi groups’ [such as voters] that cannot be treated as acting strategically, but whose ‘utility functions are interdependent in such a way that certain acts by some will increase or decrease the likelihood that others will act in the same way.” ...3. Games need to be kept very simple: few actors, few options...[and] 4. Sequences cannot be interrupted...[which] misses...precisely that sequence is given by the way in which important social interactions unfold in time, rather than being something that someone selects.... As Scharpf himself summarizes...game theory offers the greatest analytical leverage ‘in highly structured and frequently recurring interactions among a limited number of actors with a high capacity for strategic action, in situations where a great deal is at stake, and in interest constellations with a high level of conflict in which binding agreements are not generally possible.’”
(Pierson, pp.60-2)

“The downstream social and political consequences of formal institutions...contains a double irony for functionalist accounts. First, it suggests the idea that social environments ‘select’ for certain outcomes rather than others may often be plausible, but that societal functionalism has the causal arrow backwards. Rather than competitive environments selecting institutions that fit the needs of social actors, institutions, once in place, may ‘select’ actors. This would occur through two processes, familiar to those interested in evolutionary arguments. First, actors adapt to institutional environments...[and,] in the long run, actors’ very identities may be powerfully shaped by institutional arrangements. Second, individual and collective actors who do not adapt will often be less likely to survive.... The second, and broader, irony is that a snapshot view of such a process will mistakenly be viewed as a confirmation of actor-centered functionalism...[in its] relatively nice ‘fit’ between the preferences of powerful actors, and the functioning of institutions... This might suggest that we are in the realm of rational institutional design, but in fact, such an assertion would get the causality exactly backwards. Rather than these powerful actors generating the institution, the institutional arrangements may have played a powerful role in generating the properties of the actors.”
(Pierson, pp.152-3)

And here, particularly strongly, we can see how the broad implications of Pierson’s concentration upon “mechanism” delivers consilience w/not only W.G. Runciman’s social selection model, but also the sophisticated anthropological take on functionalism well represented by both Ernest Gellner, and Mary Douglas’ How Institutions Think (1986). In fact, this work could easily serve as the perfect bridge between the latter’s social cognitive emphasis, and Runciman’s balance between the micro-level of roles/practises, and his strong interest in macro- level historical sociology...also strongly complemented by Pierson’s temporal turn.

In all these ways, Paul Pierson’s Politics in Time is a key contribution to our understanding of social and political processes, straddling as it does the social sciences, non-linear approaches, and history with, thankfully, nary a hint of fashionable excess in its arguments. Similarly, Pierson - although not particularly an engaging writer - keeps social science-speak to a minimum, and shows an admirable even-handedness when addressing rival theories. The result is an unrivalled attempt to search for the recurrent temporal “mechanisms” which the social sciences have tended to neglect. In doing so, Pierson makes a strong case for path dependence as the most important of these, and outlines the preconditions which most commonly set up such outcomes.

Time has always been the most difficult of dimensions to get a grasp upon, so it is not surprising that we require such a variety of insights to help understand its many roles in our social worlds. Pierson’s part, here, is more on the micro- level than most we have examined on this site...but his emphasis upon so-called “mechanisms” with widespread applicability is a crucial part of the mix. Moreover, Pierson himself is admirably aware of the importance of rich, pluralistic approaches to the difficulties we face in understanding humanity, and so I feel it entirely appropriate to leave the last word - as, of course, is usual in this forum - to him...


“A clearly developed theory is likely to have numerous additional implications, beyond the suggested correlation between dependent and independent variable. [Thus,] richer theories increase the prospects for surmounting, or at least diminishing, the ‘many variables, few cases’ problem.... [Moreover,] the arguments about temporal processes explored in this book have not advanced any particular theory of any specific political or social phenomena. Instead, I have drawn on many claims by social scientists, working in various theoretical traditions, to illustrate promising approaches.... This agnostic stance on grand theoretical divides may elicit more frustration than it should.... As Jepperson demonstrates, there are many plausible relationships among theoretical imageries. They may possess poorly articulated boundary conditions...[or] they may be asking the same thing thing in different ways. They may address different phenomena, or ask different questions. They may focus on different aspects of important phenomena.... To emphasize that different imageries entail different strengths and weaknesses, that they can generate distinctive insights, as well as possess distinctive limitations, is not a plea that we ‘split the difference’ among alternative approaches. It is, however, a plea for pluralism, for an acknowledgement that all angles of vision create distortions. In studying the social world, we need to adopt multiple angles, or be willing to rely on the help of others, to see more clearly.”
(Pierson, pp.174-8)



John Henry Calvinist