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Published online by Cambridge University Press: 13 June 2011
The causal logic behind many arguments in historical institutionalism emphasizes the enduring impact of choices made during critical junctures in history. These choices close off alternative options and lead to the establishment of institutions that generate self-reinforcing path-dependent processes. Despite the theoretical and practical importance of critical junctures, however, analyses of path dependence often devote little attention to them. The article reconstructs the concept of critical junctures, delimits its range of application, and provides methodological guidance for its use in historical institutional analyses. Contingency is the key characteristic of critical junctures, and counterfactual reasoning and narrative methods are necessary to analyze contingent factors and their impact. Finally, the authors address specific issues relevant to both cross-sectional and longitudinal comparisons of critical junctures.
1 Of course, this dual model of institutional development is not the only one used by historical institutionalists: important recent contributions have emphasized alternative causal models such as layering, conversion, and drift. See, for instance, Thelen, Kathleen, “How Institutions Evolve,” in Mahoney, James and Rueschemeyer, Dietrich, eds., Comparative HistoricalAnalysis in the Social Sciences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)Google Scholar; Schickler, Eric, Disjointed Pluralism: Institutional Innovation and the Development of the U.S. Congress (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001)Google Scholar; and Hacker, Jacob, “Privatizing Risk without Privatizing the Welfare State,” Privatizing Risk without Privatizing the Welfare State, 98 (May 2004)Google Scholar. See also Thelen, Kathleen, Union of Parts (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991), 21–24Google Scholar; Thelen, Kathleen and Steinmo, Sven, “Historical Institutionalism in Comparative Politics,” in Steinmo, Sven et al. , Structuring Politics: Historical Institutionalism in Comparative Analysis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 16–18Google Scholar; North, Douglass, “Five Propositions about Institutional Change,” in Knight, Jack and Sened, Itai, eds., Explaining Social Institutions (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), 18Google Scholar.
2 These moments of fluidity are also referred to in the literature with terms such as “turning point,” “crisis,” and “unsettled times.” We will use the term “critical juncture” throughout our analysis.
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6 As discussed below, Mahoney (fn. 4) is a significant exception.
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20 Mahoney (fn. 4).
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36 Some scholars employ the expression “moments,” which, even when used in a metaphorical sense, may be misleading.
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40 Though Pierson also categorizes causal processes in terms of the time horizon of their outcome, he recognizes that this is problematic in cases where there is a temporal separation between the cause (which takes place in the critical juncture) and the effect (which takes place at the end of the path-dependent process); see Pierson (fn. 3), 95. The distinction between the effect (outcome) to be explained and the path-dependent process that generates it is a matter of conceptualization of the effect itself and depends on the specific research question.
41 See, for example, Collier and Collier (fn. 4), 29–30; Abbott (fn. 25); Gal and Bargal (fn. 17), 437; Hogan (fn. 17).
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51 Thelen and Steinmo (fn. 1), 17.
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82 One must consider the lowest probability of the outcome during rather than simply immediately prior to the critical juncture exactly because not all critical junctures result in change: considering only the probability before and after the juncture would lead analysts to ignore the criticalness of critical junctures that result in re-equilibration of the pre—critical juncture status quo.
83 If CJy ≤ 0, then CJ was not a critical juncture with respect to outcome Y.
84 We take the natural log of (Tx/Tx) in order to discount the effect of time. Otherwise, critical junctures occurring in the distant past would produce the highest criticalness measures, even if they had a very modest impact on the probability of the outcome.
85 In arguments built on increasing returns and path dependence, the probability of the outcome of interest at the beginning of the path cannot equal 1, as this would deny the very logic of self-reinforcing mechanisms. Our formula captures this idea, in that if the outcome of interest happens immediately after the end of the critical juncture, the “temporal leverage” fraction would have a numerator of 0 and taking the natural log would give a result of negative infinity, rendering the CJ score meaningless.
86 While historical arguments relied on assessments of the likelihood of various outcomes, it is obviously problematic to assign precise probabilities to predictions in historical explanations; see Weber, Max, Methodology in the Social Sciences, ed. and trans. Shils, Edward and Finch, Henry A. (New York: Free Press, 1949), 183Google Scholar.
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105 Pierson (fn. 14), 264.
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