Hostname: page-component-848d4c4894-m9kch Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-05-24T06:26:47.127Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

Increasing Returns, Path Dependence, and the Study of Politics

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 August 2014

Paul Pierson*
Harvard University


It is increasingly common for social scientists to describe political processes as “path dependent.” The concept, however, is often employed without careful elaboration. This article conceptualizes path dependence as a social process grounded in a dynamic of “increasing returns.” Reviewing recent literature in economics and suggesting extensions to the world of politics, the article demonstrates that increasing returns processes are likely to be prevalent, and that good analytical foundations exist for exploring their causes and consequences. The investigation of increasing returns can provide a more rigorous framework for developing some of the key claims of recent scholarship in historical institutionalism: Specific patterns of timing and sequence matter; a wide range of social outcomes may be possible; large consequences may result from relatively small or contingent events; particular courses of action, once introduced, can be almost impossible to reverse; and consequently, political development is punctuated by critical moments or junctures that shape the basic contours of social life.

Copyright © American Political Science Association 2000

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)



Abbott, Andrew. 1983. “Sequences of Social Events: Concepts and Methods for the Analysis of Order in Social Processes.” Historical Methods 16 (Fall): 129–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Abbott, Andrew. 1990. “Conceptions of Time and Events in Social Science Methods: Causal and Narrative Approaches.” Historical Methods 23 (Fall): 140–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Alchian, Armen A. 1950. “Uncertainty, Evolution and Economic Theory.” Journal of Political Economy 58 (06): 211–21.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Arthur, W. Brian. 1994. Increasing Returns and Path Dependence in the Economy. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bachrach, Peter, and Baratz, Morton S.. 1962. “The Two Faces of Power.” American Political Science Review 56 (12): 947–52.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Berger, Suzanne, and Dore, Ronald, eds. 1996. National Diversity and Global Capitalism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Collier, Ruth Berins, and Collier, David. 1991. Shaping the Political Arena: Critical Junctures, the Labor Movement, and Regime Dynamics in Latin America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Cornes, Richard, and Sandler, Todd. 1996. The Theory of Externalities, Public Goods and Club Goods. 2d ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
David, Paul. 1985. “Clio and the Economics of QWERTY.” American Economic Review 75 (05): 332–7.Google Scholar
Denzau, Arthur D., and North, Douglass C.. 1994. “Shared Mental Models: Ideologies and Institutions.” Kyklos 47 (1): 331.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Ertman, Thomas. 1996. Birth of the Leviathan: Building States and Regimes in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Fearon, James D. 1996. “Causes and Counterfactuals in Social Science: Exploring an Analogy between Cellular Automata and Historical Processes.” In Counterfactual Thought Experiments in World Politics: Logical, Methodological and Psychological Perspectives, ed. Tetlock, Philip E. and Belkin, Aaron. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Pp. 3967.Google Scholar
Gaventa, John. 1980. Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.Google Scholar
Geddes, Barbara. 1997. “The Use of Case Studies in Path Dependent Arguments.” Department of Political Science, University of California at Los Angeles. Typescript.Google Scholar
Gerschenkron, Alexander. 1962. Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
Greider, William. 1982. The Education of David Stockman and Other Americans. New York: Dutton.Google Scholar
Hacker, Jacob. 1998. “The Historical Logic of National Health Insurance: Structure and Sequence in the Development of British, Canadian, and U.S. Medical Policy.” Studies in American Political Development 12 (Spring): 57130.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hall, Peter. 1993. “Policy Paradigms, Social Learning, and the State: The Case of Economic Policymaking in Britain.” Comparative Politics 23 (04): 275–96.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hall, Peter. 1999. “The Political Economy of Europe in an Era of Interdependence.” In Change and Continuity in Contemporary Capitalism, ed. Kitschelt, Herbert, Lange, Peter, Marks, Gary, and Stephens, John D.. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pp. 135–63.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hall, Peter, and Soskice, David. 2000. “An Introduction to Varieties of Capitalism.” Harvard University. Typescript.Google Scholar
Harsanyi, John C. 1960. “Explanation and Comparative Dynamics in Social Science.” Behavioral Science 5 (04): 136–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Heclo, Hugh. 1974. Modern Social Politics in Britain and Sweden. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
Hill, Greg. 1997. “History, Necessity, and Rational Choice Theory.” Rationality and Society 9 (05): 189213.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hirsch, Fred. 1977. The Social Limits to Growth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hollingsworth, J. Rogers, and Boyer, Robert. 1997. Contemporary Capitalism: The Embeddedness of Institutions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Homans, George. 1967. The Nature of Social Science. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.Google Scholar
Ikenberry, John. 1994. “History's Heavy Hand: Institutions and the Politics of the State.” University of Pennsylvania. Typescript.Google Scholar
Jackson, John E. 1996. “Political Methodology: An Overview.” In New Handbook of Political Science, ed. Goodin, Robert E. and Klingemann, Hans-Dieter. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pp. 717–48.Google Scholar
Katznelson, Ira. 1997. “Structure and Configuration in Comparative Politics.” In Comparative Politics: Rationality, Culture, and Structure, ed. Lichbach, Mark Irving and Zuckerman, Alan S.. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pp. 81112.Google Scholar
Keohane, Robert O. 1984. After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Knapp, Peter. 1984. “Can Social Theory Escape from History?History and Theory 23 (1): 3452.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Krasner, Stephen. 1989. “Sovereignty: An Institutional Perspective.” In The Elusive State: International and Comparative Perspectives, ed. Caporaso, James A.. Newbury Park, CA: Sage. Pp. 6996.Google Scholar
Krugman, Paul. 1991. “History and Industry Location: The Case of the Manufacturing Belt.” American Economic Review 81 (05): 80–3.Google Scholar
Krugman, Paul. 1996. Pop Internationalism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
Levi, Margaret. 1997. “A Model, a Method, and a Map: Rational Choice in Comparative and Historical Analysis.” In Comparative Politics: Rationality, Culture, and Structure, ed. Lichbach, Mark I. and Zuckerman, Alan S.. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pp. 1941.Google Scholar
Liebowitz, S. J., and Margolis, Stephen E.. 1995. “Path Dependence, Lock-In, and History.” Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization 11 (1): 205–26.Google Scholar
Lindblom, Charles E. 1977. Politics and Markets. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
Lipset, Seymour Martin, and Rokkan, Stein. 1967. “Cleavage Structures, Party Systems and Voter Alignments: An Introduction.” In Party Systems and Voter Alignments, ed. Lipset, Seymour Martin and Rokkan, Stein. New York: Free Press. Pp. 164.Google Scholar
Lukes, Steven. 1974. Power: A Radical View. London: MacMillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Mahoney, James. N.d. “Uses of Path Dependence in Historical Sociology.” Theory and Society. Forthcoming.Google Scholar
Mannheim, Karl. 1952. “The Problem of Generations.” In Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge, ed. Kecskemeti, Paul. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. Pp. 276320.Google Scholar
Marwell, Gerald, and Oliver, Pamela. 1993. The Critical Mass in Collective Action: A Micro-Social Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
McDonald, Terrance J., ed. 1996. The Historic Turn in the Human Sciences. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Milgrom, Paul, and Roberts, John. 1990. “The Economics of Modern Manufacturing: Technology, Strategy, and Organization.” American Economic Review 80 (06): 511–28.Google Scholar
Moe, Terry. 1984. “The New Economics of Organization.” American Journal of Political Science 28 (11): 739–77.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Moe, Terry. 1990. “The Politics of Structural Choice: Toward a Theory of Public Bureaucracy.” In Organization Theory: From Chester Barnard to the Present and Beyond, ed. Williamson, Oliver E.. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pp. 116–53.Google Scholar
Mueller, Dennis C. 1989. Public Choice II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
North, Douglass C. 1990a. Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
North, Douglass C. 1990b. “A Transaction Cost Theory of Politics.” Journal of Theoretical Politics 2 (10): 355–67.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
North, Douglass C. 1993. “Institutions and Credible Commitment.” Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics 149 (03): 1123.Google Scholar
North, Douglass C., and Barry R, Weingast. 1989. “Constitutions and Commitment: The Evolution of Institutions Governing Public Choice in Seventeenth Century England.” Journal of Economic History 49 (12): 803–32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Olson, Mancur. 1965. The Logic of Collective Action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
Orren, Karen, and Skowronek, Stephen. 1994. “Beyond the Iconography of Order: Notes for a ‘New Institutionalism.’” In The Dynamics of American Politics, ed. Dodd, Lawrence and Jillson, Calvin. Boulder, CO: Westview. Pp. 311–30.Google Scholar
Pierson, Paul. 1993. “When Effect Becomes Cause: Policy Feedback and Political Change.” World Politics 45 (07): 595628.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Pierson, Paul. N.d.a. “The Limits of Institutional Design: Explaining Institutional Origins and Change.” Governance. Forthcoming.Google Scholar
Pierson, Paul. N.d.b. “Not Just What, but When: Timing and Sequence in Political Processes.” Studies in American Political Development. Forthcoming.Google Scholar
Polsby, Nelson W. 1963. Community Power and Social Theory. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
Romer, Paul M. 1986. “Increasing Returns and Long-Run Growth.” Journal of Political Economy 94 (10): 1002–37.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Romer, Paul M. 1990. “Are Nonconvexities Important for Understanding Growth?American Economic Review 80 (05): 97103.Google Scholar
Rose, Richard. 1990. “Inheritance before Choice in Public Policy.” Journal of Theoretical Politics 2 (07): 263–91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Sartori, Giovanni. 1970. “Concept Misinformation in Comparative Politics.” American Political Science Review 64 (12): 1033–53.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Seabrook, John. 1997. “Tackling the Competition.” The New Yorker, 08 18, pp. 4251.Google Scholar
Sewell, William H. 1996. “Three Temporalities: Toward an Eventful Sociology.” In The Historic Turn in the Human Sciences, ed. McDonald, Terrance J.. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. Pp. 245–80.Google Scholar
Shepsle, Kenneth A. 1986. “Institutional Equilibrium and Equilibrium Institutions.” In Political Science: The Science of Politics, ed. Weisberg, Herbert F.. New York: Agathon. Pp. 5181.Google Scholar
Shepsle, Kenneth A. 1991. “Discretion, Institutions and the Problem of Government Commitment.” In Social Theory for a Changing Society, ed. Bourdieu, Pierre and Coleman, James. Boulder, CO: Westview. Pp. 245–63.Google Scholar
Skocpol, Theda. 1992. Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Skocpol, Theda. 1999. “How Americans Became Civic.” In Civic Engagement in American Democracy, ed. Skocpol, Theda and Fiorina, Morris P.. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press and the Russell Sage Foundation. Pp. 2780.Google Scholar
Skowronek, Stephen. 1993. The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to George Bush. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard.Google Scholar
Soskice, David. 1999. “Divergent Production Regimes: Coordinated and Uncoordinated Market Economies in the 1980s and 1990s.” In Change and Continuity in Contemporary Capitalism, ed. Kitschelt, Herbert, Lange, Peter, Marks, Gary, and Stephens, John D.. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pp. 101–34.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Spruyt, Hendrik. 1994. The Sovereign State and Its Competitors. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Stinchcombe, Arthur L. 1968. Constructing Social Theories. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
Tetlock, Philip E., and Belkin, Aaron, eds. 1996. Counterfactual Thought Experiments in World Politics: Logical, Methodological, and Psychological Perspectives. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Thelen, Kathleen. 1999. “Historical Institutionalism and Comparative Politics.” Annual Review of Political Science 2: 369404.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Tilly, Charles. 1984. Big Structures, Large Processes, Huge Comparisons. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.Google Scholar
Tyson, Laura D'Andrea. 1993. Who's Bashing Whom? Trade Conflicts in High Technology Industries. Washington, DC: Institute for International Economics.Google Scholar
Weingast, Barry R., and Marshall, William J.. 1988. “The Industrial Organization of Congress; or, Why Legislatures, Like Firms, Are Not Organized as Markets.” Journal of Political Economy 96 (02): 132–63.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Williamson, Oliver E. 1993. “Transaction Cost Economics and Organization Theory.” Industrial and Corporate Change 2: 107–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Wolfinger, Raymond A. 1971. “Nondecisions and the Study of Local Politics.” American Political Science Review 65 (12): 1063–80.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Wuthnow, Robert. 1989. Communities of Discourse: Ideology and Social Structure in the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and European Socialism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar