Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

Evolutionary institutionalism: New perspectives

  • Kai Fürstenberg (a1)

Background. Institutions are hard to define and hard to study. Long prominent in political science have been two theories: Rational Choice Institutionalism (RCI) and Historical Institutionalism (HI). Arising from the life sciences is now a third: Evolutionary Institutionalism (EI). Comparative strengths and weaknesses of these three theories warrant review, and the value-to-be-added by expanding the third beyond Darwinian evolutionary theory deserves consideration.

Question. Should evolutionary institutionalism expand to accommodate new understanding in ecology, such as might apply to the emergence of stability, and in genetics, such as might apply to political behavior?

Methods. Core arguments are reviewed for each theory with more detailed exposition of the third, EI. Particular attention is paid to EI’s gene-institution analogy; to variation, selection, and retention of institutional traits; to endogeneity and exogeneity; to agency and structure; and to ecosystem effects, institutional stability, and empirical limitations in behavioral genetics.

Findings. RCI, HI, and EI are distinct but complementary.

Conclusions. Institutional change, while amenable to rational-choice analysis and, retrospectively, to critical-juncture and path-dependency analysis, is also, and importantly, ecological. Stability, like change, is an emergent property of institutions, which tend to stabilize after change in a manner analogous to allopatric speciation. EI is more than metaphorically biological in that institutional behaviors are driven by human behaviors whose evolution long preceded the appearance of institutions themselves.

  • View HTML
    • Send article to Kindle

      To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

      Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      Evolutionary institutionalism
      Available formats
      Send article to Dropbox

      To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

      Evolutionary institutionalism
      Available formats
      Send article to Google Drive

      To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

      Evolutionary institutionalism
      Available formats
Corresponding author
Correspondence: Dr. Kai Fürstenberg, Department of Political Science, South Asia Institute, Heidelberg University, Heidelberg, Germany. Email:
Hide All
Kenneth A. Shepsle , “Studying institutions some lessons from the rational choice approach,” Journal of Theoretical Politics, 1989, 1(2): 131147.

B. Douglas Bernheim , Bezalel Peleg , and Michael D. Whinston , “Coalition-proof nash equilibria I. Concepts,” Journal of Economic Theory, 1987, 42(1): 112.

Peter W. Roberts  and Royston Greenwood , “Integrating transaction cost and institutional theories: Toward a constrained-efficiency framework for understanding organizational design adoption,” The Academy of Management Review, 1997, 22(2): 346373.

Kurt Weyland , “Limitations of rational-choice institutionalism for the study of latin American politics,” Studies in Comparative International Development, 2002, 37(1): 5785.

Sven Steinmo , “Historical institutionalism,” in Approaches and Methodologies in Social Sciences, Donatella Della Porta  and Michael Keating , eds. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), pp. 118141.

Peter A. Hall  and Rosemary C. R. Taylor , “Political science and the three new institutionalisms,” Political Studies, 1996, 44(5): 936957.

E. M. Immergut , “The rules of the game: The logic of health policy-making in France, Switzerland, and Sweden,” in Structuring Politics: Historical Institutionalism in Comparative Analysis, Sven Steinmo  and Kathleen Thelen , eds. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

Sven Steinmo  and Kathleen Thelen , eds., Structuring Politics: Historical Institutionalism in Comparative Analysis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

James Mahoney , “Path-dependent explanations of regime change: Central America in comparative perspective,” Studies in Comparative International Development, 2001, 36(1): 111141.

B. Guy Peters , Jon Pierre , and Desmond S. King , “The politics of path dependency: Political conflict in historical institutionalism,” The Journal of Politics, 2005, 67(4): 12751300 at p. 1283.

Orion A. Lewis  and Sven Steinmo , “How institutions evolve: Evolutionary theory and institutional change,” Polity, 2012, 44(3): 314339.

Ian S. Lustick , “Taking evolution seriously: Historical institutionalism and evolutionary theory,” Polity, 2011, 43(2): 179209.

Kirk Ludwig , “Rationality, language, and the principle of charity,” in The Oxford Handbook of Rationality, Alfred R. Mele  and Piers Rawling , eds. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 343362.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita  and Rose McDermott , “Crossing no man’s land: Cooperation from the trenches,” Political Psychology, 2004, 25(2): 271287.

Kent V. Flannery , “The cultural evolution of civilizations,” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 1972, 3: 399426.

Bruce G. Trigger , Understanding Early Civilizations: A Comparative Study (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 395.

Martín Medina-Elizalde  and Eelco J. Rohling , “Collapse of classic Maya civilization related to modest reduction in precipitation,” Science, 2012, 335(6071): 956959.

Kenneth A. Bollen  and Robert W. Jackman , “Democracy, stability, and dichotomies,” American Sociological Review, 1989, 54(4): 612621.

Peter K. Hatemi , John R. Hibbing , Sarah E. Medland , Matthew C. Keller , John R. Alford , Kevin B. Smith , Nicholas G. Martin , and Lindon J. Eaves , “Not by twins alone: Using the extended family design to investigate genetic influence on political beliefs,” American Journal of Political Science, 2010, 54(3): 798814.

Robert Bernstein , Anita Chadha , and Robert Montjoy , “Overreporting voting: Why it happens and why it matters,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 2001, 65(1): 2244.

Matt Ridley , Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience, and What Makes Us Human (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2003).

Margaret Levi , “Reconsiderations of rational choice in comparative and historical analysis,” in Comparative Politics: Rationality, Culture and Structure, Mark Irving Lichbach , ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp. 117133.

Colin P. Kelley , Shahrzad Mohtadi , Mark A. Cane , Richard Seager , and Yochanan Kushnir , “Climate change in the fertile crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2015, 112(11): 32413246.

Sven Steinmo , The Evolution of Modern States: Sweden, Japan, and the United States (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

Recommend this journal

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

Politics and the Life Sciences
  • ISSN: 0730-9384
  • EISSN: 1471-5457
  • URL: /core/journals/politics-and-the-life-sciences
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: 60
Total number of PDF views: 130 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 403 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 17th October 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.