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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.

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Corresponding author
Correspondence: Dr. Kai Fürstenberg, Department of Political Science, South Asia Institute, Heidelberg University, Heidelberg, Germany. Email:
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