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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.

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