Skip to main content

Increasing Returns, Path Dependence, and the Study of Politics

  • Paul Pierson (a1)

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.

Hide All
Abbott Andrew. 1983. “Sequences of Social Events: Concepts and Methods for the Analysis of Order in Social Processes.” Historical Methods 16 (Fall): 129–47.
Abbott Andrew. 1990. “Conceptions of Time and Events in Social Science Methods: Causal and Narrative Approaches.” Historical Methods 23 (Fall): 140–50.
Alchian Armen A. 1950. “Uncertainty, Evolution and Economic Theory.” Journal of Political Economy 58 (06): 211–21.
Arthur W. Brian. 1994. Increasing Returns and Path Dependence in the Economy. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Bachrach Peter, and Baratz Morton S.. 1962. “The Two Faces of Power.” American Political Science Review 56 (12): 947–52.
Berger Suzanne, and Dore Ronald, eds. 1996. National Diversity and Global Capitalism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
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.
Cornes Richard, and Sandler Todd. 1996. The Theory of Externalities, Public Goods and Club Goods. 2d ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
David Paul. 1985. “Clio and the Economics of QWERTY.” American Economic Review 75 (05): 332–7.
Denzau Arthur D., and North Douglass C.. 1994. “Shared Mental Models: Ideologies and Institutions.” Kyklos 47 (1): 331.
Ertman Thomas. 1996. Birth of the Leviathan: Building States and Regimes in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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.
Gaventa John. 1980. Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Geddes Barbara. 1997. “The Use of Case Studies in Path Dependent Arguments.” Department of Political Science, University of California at Los Angeles. Typescript.
Gerschenkron Alexander. 1962. Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Greider William. 1982. The Education of David Stockman and Other Americans. New York: Dutton.
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.
Hall Peter. 1993. “Policy Paradigms, Social Learning, and the State: The Case of Economic Policymaking in Britain.” Comparative Politics 23 (04): 275–96.
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.
Hall Peter, and Soskice David. 2000. “An Introduction to Varieties of Capitalism.” Harvard University. Typescript.
Harsanyi John C. 1960. “Explanation and Comparative Dynamics in Social Science.” Behavioral Science 5 (04): 136–45.
Heclo Hugh. 1974. Modern Social Politics in Britain and Sweden. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Hill Greg. 1997. “History, Necessity, and Rational Choice Theory.” Rationality and Society 9 (05): 189213.
Hirsch Fred. 1977. The Social Limits to Growth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Hollingsworth J. Rogers, and Boyer Robert. 1997. Contemporary Capitalism: The Embeddedness of Institutions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Homans George. 1967. The Nature of Social Science. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.
Ikenberry John. 1994. “History's Heavy Hand: Institutions and the Politics of the State.” University of Pennsylvania. Typescript.
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.
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.
Keohane Robert O. 1984. After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Knapp Peter. 1984. “Can Social Theory Escape from History?History and Theory 23 (1): 3452.
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.
Krugman Paul. 1991. “History and Industry Location: The Case of the Manufacturing Belt.” American Economic Review 81 (05): 80–3.
Krugman Paul. 1996. Pop Internationalism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
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.
Liebowitz S. J., and Margolis Stephen E.. 1995. “Path Dependence, Lock-In, and History.” Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization 11 (1): 205–26.
Lindblom Charles E. 1977. Politics and Markets. New York: Basic Books.
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.
Lukes Steven. 1974. Power: A Radical View. London: MacMillan.
Mahoney James. N.d. “Uses of Path Dependence in Historical Sociology.” Theory and Society. Forthcoming.
Mannheim Karl. 1952. “The Problem of Generations.” In Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge, ed. Kecskemeti Paul. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. Pp. 276320.
Marwell Gerald, and Oliver Pamela. 1993. The Critical Mass in Collective Action: A Micro-Social Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
McDonald Terrance J., ed. 1996. The Historic Turn in the Human Sciences. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Milgrom Paul, and Roberts John. 1990. “The Economics of Modern Manufacturing: Technology, Strategy, and Organization.” American Economic Review 80 (06): 511–28.
Moe Terry. 1984. “The New Economics of Organization.” American Journal of Political Science 28 (11): 739–77.
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.
Mueller Dennis C. 1989. Public Choice II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
North Douglass C. 1990a. Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
North Douglass C. 1990b. “A Transaction Cost Theory of Politics.” Journal of Theoretical Politics 2 (10): 355–67.
North Douglass C. 1993. “Institutions and Credible Commitment.” Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics 149 (03): 1123.
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.
Olson Mancur. 1965. The Logic of Collective Action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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.
Pierson Paul. 1993. “When Effect Becomes Cause: Policy Feedback and Political Change.” World Politics 45 (07): 595628.
Pierson Paul. N.d.a. “The Limits of Institutional Design: Explaining Institutional Origins and Change.” Governance. Forthcoming.
Pierson Paul. N.d.b. “Not Just What, but When: Timing and Sequence in Political Processes.” Studies in American Political Development. Forthcoming.
Polsby Nelson W. 1963. Community Power and Social Theory. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Romer Paul M. 1986. “Increasing Returns and Long-Run Growth.” Journal of Political Economy 94 (10): 1002–37.
Romer Paul M. 1990. “Are Nonconvexities Important for Understanding Growth?American Economic Review 80 (05): 97103.
Rose Richard. 1990. “Inheritance before Choice in Public Policy.” Journal of Theoretical Politics 2 (07): 263–91.
Sartori Giovanni. 1970. “Concept Misinformation in Comparative Politics.” American Political Science Review 64 (12): 1033–53.
Seabrook John. 1997. “Tackling the Competition.” The New Yorker, 08 18, pp. 4251.
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.
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.
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.
Skocpol Theda. 1992. Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard.
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.
Skowronek Stephen. 1993. The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to George Bush. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard.
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.
Spruyt Hendrik. 1994. The Sovereign State and Its Competitors. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Stinchcombe Arthur L. 1968. Constructing Social Theories. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Tetlock Philip E., and Belkin Aaron, eds. 1996. Counterfactual Thought Experiments in World Politics: Logical, Methodological, and Psychological Perspectives. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Thelen Kathleen. 1999. “Historical Institutionalism and Comparative Politics.” Annual Review of Political Science 2: 369404.
Tilly Charles. 1984. Big Structures, Large Processes, Huge Comparisons. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Tyson Laura D'Andrea. 1993. Who's Bashing Whom? Trade Conflicts in High Technology Industries. Washington, DC: Institute for International Economics.
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.
Williamson Oliver E. 1993. “Transaction Cost Economics and Organization Theory.” Industrial and Corporate Change 2: 107–56.
Wolfinger Raymond A. 1971. “Nondecisions and the Study of Local Politics.” American Political Science Review 65 (12): 1063–80.
Wuthnow Robert. 1989. Communities of Discourse: Ideology and Social Structure in the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and European Socialism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

American Political Science Review
  • ISSN: 0003-0554
  • EISSN: 1537-5943
  • URL: /core/journals/american-political-science-review
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 348 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 5252 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 16th January 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.