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The Study of Critical Junctures: Theory, Narrative, and Counterfactuals in Historical Institutionalism

  • Giovanni Capoccia (a1) and R. Daniel Kelemen (a2)


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.

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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); Schickler, Eric, Disjointed Pluralism: Institutional Innovation and the Development of the U.S. Congress (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001); and Hacker, Jacob, “Privatizing Risk without Privatizing the Welfare State,” Privatizing Risk without Privatizing the Welfare State, 98 (May 2004). See also Thelen, Kathleen, Union of Parts (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991), 2124; 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), 1618; North, Douglass, “Five Propositions about Institutional Change,” in Knight, Jack and Sened, Itai, eds., Explaining Social Institutions (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), 18.

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.

3 Pierson, Paul, Politics in Time (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 135. See also Mahoney, James, “Path Dependent Explanations of Regime Change,” Studies in Comparative and International Development, 36, no. 1 (2001), 114.

4 See, for example, Moore, Barrington, Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966); Lipset, Seymour M. and Rokkan, Stein, “Cleavage Structures, Party Systems and Voter Alignments: An Introduction,” in , Lipset and , Rokkan, eds., Party Systems and Voter Alignments (New York: Free Press, 1967); Collier, Ruth Berins and Collier, David, Shaping the Political Arena (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991); Mahoney, James, The Legacies of Liberalism: Path Dependence and Political Regimes in Central America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002).

5 For example, Collier and Collier (fn. 4), 27; Mahoney (fn. 4), 7.

6 As discussed below, Mahoney (fn. 4) is a significant exception.

7 Pierson (fn. 3); Page, Scott, “Path Dependence,” Quarterly Journal of Political Science 1, no. 1 (2006).

8 Counterfactual reasoning is essential in the construction of causal arguments in general; see King, Gary, Keohane, Robert O., and Verba, Sidney, Designing Social Inquiry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 7780. However, the role of counterfactual analysis is enhanced in the critical juncture framework. The institutional fluidity during critical junctures expands the range of possible decisions for key actors and increases their potential impact, thus making counterfactual scenarios both more plausible empirically and more important heunstically.

9 Polanyi, Karl, The Great Transformation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1944), 4.

10 Lipset and Rokkan (fn. 4), 37–38. While Lipset and Rokkan say that the “variety of empirical party systems” can be reduced to a “set of ordered consequences of decisions and developments” at critical junctures, their analysis is couched in a largely structural language, leaving little place for more fine-grained analysis of political decision making and meaningful choices during critical junctures; Lipset and Rokkan, 44.

11 Verba, Sidney, “Sequences and Development,” in Binder, Leonard, Coleman, James S., LaPalombara, Joseph, Pye, Lucian W., Verba, Sidney, and Weiner, Myron, Crises and Sequences in Political Development (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), 308.

12 See David, Paul, “Clio and the Economics of QWERTY,” Clio and the Economics of QWERTY, 75 (May 1985).

13 Arthur, W. Brian, “Competing Technologies, Increasing Returns, and Lock-in by Historical Events,” Economic Journal 99 (March 1989); idem, Increasing Returns and Path Dependence in the Economy (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994).

14 Pierson, Paul, “Increasing Returns, Path Dependence, and the Study of Politics,” American Political Science Review 94 (June 2000).

15 Eldredge, Niels and Gould, Stephen Jay “Punctuated Equilibria: An Alternative to Phyletic Gradualism,” in Schopf, Thomas J. M., ed., Models in Paleobiology (San Francisco: Freeman, Cooper, 1972); and Gould, Stephen Jay, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2002).

16 Krasner, Steven, “Approaches to the State,” Approaches to the State, 16 (January 1984); Gans, Carl, “Punctuated Equilibria and Political Science,” Punctuated Equilibria and Political Science, 5 (February 1987); Somit, Albert and Peterson, Steven, The Dynamics of Evolution: The Punctuated Equilibrium Debate in the Natural and Social Sciences (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992); Baumgartner, Frank and Jones, Bryan, Agendas and Instability in American Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993); Hall, Peter, “Policy Paradigms, Social Learning, and the State,” Comparative Politics 25 (April 1993).

17 On national social welfare policy, see Gal, John and Bargal, David, “Critical Junctures, Labor Movements and the Development of Occupational Welfare in Israel,” Social Problems 49, no. 3 (2002); Bernard Ebbinghaus, “Can Path Dependence Explain Institutional Change?” Discussion paper no. 2 (Max-Planck-Institut, Cologne, March 2005); Hacker, Jacob, “The Historical Logic of National Health Insurance: Structure and Sequence in the Development of British, Canadian and US Medical Policy,” Studies in American Political Development 12, no. 2 (1998); and Lynch, Julia, Age in the Welfare State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006). On U.S. constitutional law, see Ackerman, Bruce, We the People, vol. 1, Foundations (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991); idem, We the People, vol. 2, Transformations (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998); Burnham, Walter Dean, “Constitutional Moments and Punctuated Equilibria,” Yale Law Journal 108, no. 8 (1999); Balkin, Jack and Levinson, Sanford, “Understanding the Constitutional Revolution,” Virginia Law Review 87, no. 6 (2001). On EU law, see Bignami, Francesca, “Creating European Rights: National Rights and Supranational Interests,” Creating European Rights: National Rights and Supranational Interests, 11 (Spring 2005); and on budgetary policy, see Laffan, Brigid, “The Big Budgetary Bargains,” Journal of European Public Policy 7, no. 5 (2000). On labor unions, see Thelen, Kathleen and Kume, Ikuo, “The Rise of Non-market Training Regimes: Germany and Japan Compared,” Journal ofJapanese Studies 25, no. 1 (1999); Hogan, John, “Testing for a Critical Juncture: Change in the ICTU'S Influence Over Public Policy in 1959,” Irish Political Studies 20, no. 3 (2005); Erk, Jan, “Sub-state Nationalism and the Left-Right Divide: Critical Junctures and the Formation of Nationalist Labour Movements in Belgium,” Nations and Nationalism 11, no. 4 (2005), 551. On agenda setting in policy-making, see Kingdon, John, Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies (Boston: Little, Brown, 1985); Baumgartner and Jones (fn. 16); True, James, Jones, Bryan, and Baumgartner, Frank, “Punctuated Equilibrium Theory,” in Sabatier, Paul, ed., Theories ofthe Policy Process (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1999), 175202. On devolution in the U.K., see Bulmer, Simon and Burch, Martin, “Organising for Europe: Whitehall, the British State and the European Union,” Public Administration 76, no. 4 (2000). On regulation of competition in product markets and banking, see Djelic, Marie-Laure and Quack, Sigrid, “Re-thinking Path Dependency: The Crooked Path of Institutional Change in Post-war Germany,” in Morgan, Glenn, Whitley, Richard, and Moen, Eli, eds., Changing Capitalism? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 137–66. On regionalism in East Asia, see Calder, Kent and Ye, Min, “Regionalism and Critical Junctures: Explaining the ‘Organization Gap’ in Northeast Asia,” Journal of East Asian Studies 4, no. 2 (2004). On foreign policy, see Ikenberry, John, “Conclusion,” in Ikenberry, John, Lake, David A., and Mastanduno, Michael, eds., The State and American Foreign Economic Policy (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989), 219–43. On comparative political economy, see Gourevitch, Peter, Politics in HardTimes (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1986), 239; and Pempel, T. J., Regime Shift: Comparative Dynamics of the Japanese Political Economy (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998), 13. On the modern state, see Krasner (fn. 16); and Ertman, Thomas, The Birth of the Leviathan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). On the causes of war, see Jack Levy and Gary Goertz, eds., “Causal Explanations, Necessary Conditions, and Case Studies: World War I and the End of the Cold War” (Manuscript, 2005), 26–27. On the end of the cold war, see Herrmann, Richard and Lebow, Richard Ned, eds., Ending the Cold War (New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2004), 10. For macrohistorical analyses of the development of regimes or entire regions, see Collier and Collier (fn. 4); Luebbert, Gregory, Liberalism, Fascism, or Social Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991); Mahoney (fn. 4); Putnam, Robert, Making Democracy Work (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 179–81; Karl, Terry, The Paradox of Plenty (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); Jones-Luong, Pauline, Institutional Change and Political Continuity in Post-Soviet CentralAsia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 257 ff; and Ertman, Birth ofthe Leviathan, 320–21.

18 Pierson (fn. 14).

19 Collier and Collier (fn. 4), 29. See also Dan Slater and Erica Simmons, “Informative Regress: Critical Antecedents and Historical Causation” (Paper prepared for presentation at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Chicago, August 2007).

20 Mahoney (fn. 4).

21 Mahoney, James, “Path Dependence in Historical Sociology,” Path Dependence in Historical Sociology, 29 (August 2000), 513; and Mahoney (fn. 3), 113.

22 Mahoney (fn. 4), 7. For an analysis that emphasizes the heightened significance of individual actors and their decisions during moments of crisis when “system creating choices are made,” see also Gourevitch (fn. 17), 239. See also Katznelson, Ira, “Periodization and Preferences,” in Mahoney, James and Rueschemeyer, Dietrich, eds., Comparative Historical Analysis in the Social Sciences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 270303.

23 Ebbinghaus (fn. 17); and Hogan (fn. 17); idem, “Remoulding the Critical Junctures Approach,” Canadian Journal of Political Science 39, no. 3 (2006).

24 A notable exception to this rule is Pierson (fn. 3), whose work we discuss below.

25 For example, Collier and Collier (fn. 4); and Abbott, Andrew, Time Matters (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).

26 Abbott (fn. 25).

27 For example, see Gould (fn. 15).

28 Ball, Philip, CriticalMass (London: Arrow, 2004).

29 See, for example, Greif, Avner and Laitin, David, “A Theory of Endogenous Institutional Change,” A Theory of Endogenous Institutional Change, 98 (November 2004), 640.

30 Ebbinghaus (fn. 17), 16.

31 Swidler, Ann, “Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies,” American Sociological Review 51, no. 2 (1986); and Katznelson (fn. 22).

32 Streeck, Wolfgang and Thelen, Kathleen, “Introduction: Institutional Change in Advanced Political Economies,” in , Streeck and , Thelen, eds., Beyond Continuity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 89.

33 Skowronek, Stephen, “Order and Change,” Polity 28, no. 1 (1995), 95; see also Orren, Karen and Skowronek, Stephen, “Beyond the Iconography of Order,” in Dodd, Lawrence C. and Jillson, Calvin, eds., The Dynamics of American Politics (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1994), 321; Julia Lynch and Tulia Falleti, “Context and Causal Homogeneity in Historical Research” (Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Philadelphia, September 2006).

34 Cortell, Andrew and Peterson, Susan, “Altered States: Explaining Domestic Institutional Change,” Altered States: Explaining Domestic Institutional Change, 29 (January 1999), 187.

35 Thelen (fn. 1), 213; see also Shermer, Michael, “Exorcising Laplace's Demon,” History and Theory 34, no. 1 (1995), 71.

36 Some scholars employ the expression “moments,” which, even when used in a metaphorical sense, may be misleading.

37 In the literature on evolution, from which much of the social science literature on institutional evolution draws inspiration, scholars who reject the notion of punctuated equilibrium emphasize precisely this point; see, for example, Dawkins, Richard, The Blind Watchmaker (New York: Norton, 1996).

38 Pierson (fn. 3), 92ff.

39 For encompassing typologies of models of institutional change, see Streeck and Thelen (fn. 32); Pierson (fn. 3), 134–66; Thelen, Kathleen, “Historical Institutionalism in Comparative Politics,” Annual Review of Political Science 2 (1999); idem (fn. 1); idem, How Institutions Evolve: The Political Economy of Skills in Germany, Britain, the United States, andJapan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); Hacker (fn. 1); and Peters, B. Guy, Pierre, Jon, and King, Desmond S., “The Politics of Path Dependency: Political Conflict in Historical Institutionalism,” Journal of Politics 67, no. 4 (2005).

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).

42 Pierson (fn. 14).

43 King et al. (fn. 8), 128–37; and Geddes, Barbara, Paradigms and Sand Castles (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003). See also Collier, David and Mahoney, James, “Insights and Pitfalls: Selection Bias in Qualitative Research,” Insights and Pitfalls: Selection Bias in Qualitative Research, 49 (October 1996).

44 Capoccia, Giovanni, Defending Democracy: Reactions to Extremism in Interivar Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).

45 Arthur (fn. 13,1994); David (fn. 12); and North, Douglass, Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

46 Collier and Collier (fn. 4), 27; Mahoney (fn. 4), 7.

47 Arthur (fn. 13,1994), 14.

48 Paul David, “Path Dependence, Its Critics and the Quest for ‘Historical Economies’” (Manuscript, Oxford and Stanford, 2000), 10.

49 See, for instance, Moe's work adapting principal-agent theory to the world of politics; Moe, Terry, “The New Economics of Organization,” The New Economics of Organization, 28 (November 1984).

50 See, for example, Hall, Peter and Taylor, Rosemary, “Political Science and the Three New Institutionalisms,” Political Science and the Three New Institutionalisms, 44 (December 1996); Luebbert (fn. 17), 312; Keeler, John, “Opening the Window for Reform: Mandates, Crises and Extraordinary Policy-Making,” Opening the Window for Reform: Mandates, Crises and Extraordinary Policy-Making, 25 (January 1993), 434, 477–80; Cortell and Peterson (fn. 34), 187–89; Garrett, Geoffrey and Lange, Peter, “Internationalization, Institutions and Political Change,” Internationalization, Institutions and Political Change, 49 (Fall 1995), 629–31; and Jones-Luong (fn. 17), 276ff. We do not mean to suggest that accidental concatenations of unrelated, contingent, events—so-called Cournot effects—cannot play an important role in influencing the outcome of a critical juncture; see Pierson (fn. 3), 57. Events can obviously play an important role in influencing decisions and their consequences. What counts as “contingent” and “unrelated,” however, depends on the theoretical framework adopted.

51 Thelen and Steinmo (fn. 1), 17.

52 Kincaid, Peter, The Rule ofthe Road (Westport: Greenwood, 1991), 241.

53 George, Alexander, “Case Studies and Theory Development: The Method of Structured, Focused Comparison,” in Lauren, P. G., ed., Diplomacy: New Approaches in History, Theory and Policy (New York: Free Press, 1979); George, Alexander and McKeown, Timothy, “Case Studies and Theories of Organizational Decision-Making,” in Coulam, Robert and Smith, Richard, eds., Advances in Information Processing in Organizations, vol. 2 (Greenwich: JAI Press, 1985); George, Alexander and Bennett, Andrew, Case Studies and Theory Development (Boston: MIT Press, 2005).

54 Hall, Peter, “Aligning Ontology and Methodology in Comparative Politics,” in Mahoney, James and Rueschemeyer, Dietrich, eds., Comparative Historical Analysis in the Social Sciences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 330–59; and idem, “Systematic Process Analysis: When and How to Use It,” European Management Review 3, no. 1 (2006), 2431.

55 Bates, Robert H., Greif, Avner, Levi, Margaret, Rosenthal, Jean-Laurent, and Weingast, Barry R., Analytic Narratives (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998); Levi, Margaret, “Producing an Analytic Narrative,” in Bowen, John R. and Petersen, Roger, eds., Critical Comparison in Politics and Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); and idem, “Modeling Complex Historical Processes with Analytic Narratives,” in Shapiro, Ian, Smith, Rogers M., and Masoud, Tarek E., eds., Problems and Methods in the Study of Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

56 Berlin, Isaiah, “Historic Inevitability,” in Gardiner, Patrick, ed., The Philosophy of History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974), 176.

57 A “foresight” perspective is obviously necessary to identify correctly those critical junctures that did not in the end lead to change.

58 Bulhof, Johannes, “What If? Modality and History,” History and Theory 38, no. 2 (1999); Bunzl, Martin, “Counterfactual History: A User's Guide,” American Historical Review 109, no. 3 (2004).

59 Fearon, James D., “Counterfactuals and Hypothesis Testing in Political Science,” Counterfactuals and Hypothesis Testing in Political Science, 43 (January 1991); Immergut, Ellen, “Historical Institutionalism in Political Science and the Problem of Change,” in Wimmer, Andreas and Kossler, Reinhart, eds., Understanding Change (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2005); Lebow, Richard Ned, “What's So Different about a Counterfactual?” What's So Different about a Counterfactual? 52 (July 2000); Sen, Amartya, Rationality and Freedom (New Dehli and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002); and Tetlock, Philip and Belkin, Aaron, “Counterfactual Thought Experiments in World Politics: Logical, Methodological, and Psychological Perspectives,” in , Tetlock and , Belkin, eds., Counterfactual Thought Experiments in World Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 138; interview with Przeworski, Adam, “Adam Przeworski: Capitalism, Democracy, and Science,” in Munck, Gerardo L. and Snyder, Richard, eds., Passion, Craft, and Method in Comparative Politics (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007), 479.

60 As mentioned above, our reference to counterfactual analysis here is more specific than simply considering them as a necessary logical part of a causal argument; see King et al. (fn. 8), 88–89. In the critical juncture framework, it is possible to reconstruct plausible counterfactual scenarios that could have had a large causal effect on outcomes.

61 Mahoney (fn. 21), 513; and Mahoney, James and Goertz, Gary, “The Possibility Principle,” The Possibility Principle, 98 (November 2004).

62 Tetlock and Belkin (fn. 59), 23–24.

63 Mahoney (fn. 21), 513.

64 See Lebow (fn. 59), 559; and Turner, Henry Ashby Jr., “Human Agency and Impersonal Determinants in Historical Causation,” History and Theory 38, no. 3 (1999), 300–306. As Turner points out, reducing history to impersonal causes gives rise to “a deterministic version of the past that lends a spurious air of high probability to what happened and blots out the effects of contingency that spring from immediate circumstances and individual choices” (p. 305). Lebow (fn. 59) argues that affected by this “certainty of hindsight bias,” structural explanations “fail to recognize the uncertainty under which actors operated and the possibility that they could have made different choices that might have led to different outcomes” (p. 559). See also Sewell, William H., “A Theory of Structure: Duality, Agency, and Transformation,” AmericanJournal ofSociology 98, no. 1 (1992), 2.

65 See, for example, Lebow, Richard Ned, “Contingency, Catalysts, and International System Change,” Political Science Quarterly 115, no. 4 (2000).

66 Polanyi (fn. 9); see also Turner (fn. 64), 302.

67 Biithe, Tim, “Taking Temporality Seriously,” Taking Temporality Seriously, 96 (September 2002), 483.

68 See Barry Weingast, “Off-the-Path Behaviour,” in Tetlock and Belkin (fn. 59), 230–45. See also Carpenter, Daniel, “What Is the Marginal Value of Analytic Narratives?” Social Science History 24, no. 4 (2000). In his critique of the “analytic narratives” approach, Carpenter maintains that making explicit the counterfactuals by applying formal methods to historical accounts is of no value added, since it specifies only some of the possible (potentially infinite) counterfactuals. Carpenter misses the distinction between plausible and nonplausible counterfactuals. While game-theoretic modeling might not make explicit all the possible counterfactuals, it can clarify the most plausible ones and exclude others as nonplausible.

69 Ferejohn, John, “Rationality and Interpretation: Parliamentary Elections in Early Stuart England,” in Monroe, Kirsten Renwick, ed., The Economic Approach to Politics (New York: Harper, 1991); Avner Greif, “Self-Enforcing Political Systems and Economic Growth,” in Bates et al. (fn. 55); idem, Institutions and the Path to Modern Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

70 This is one of the main points in critiques of Analytic Narratives; see Elster, Jon, “Rational Choice History,” Rational Choice History, 94 (September 2000); or the symposium in Social Science History 24, no. 4(2000).

71 Linz, Juan J. and Stepan, Alfred, eds., The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978).

72 George and McKeown (fn. 53); and George and Bennett (fn. 53), 205–38.

73 It should be noted that process tracing is not incompatible with the use of formal methods and rational choices analysis; see George and Bennett (fn. 53), 205–32.

74 Sartori, Giovanni, “Comparing and Miscomparing,” Journal of Theoretical Politics 3, no. 3 (1991).

75 Büthe (fn. 67).

76 Kalyvas, Stathis, The Rise of Christian Democracy in Europe (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1996).

77 Capoccia (fn. 44).

78 Bermeo, Nancy, “Democracy and the Lessons of Dictatorship,” Democracy and the Lessons of Dictatorship, 24 (April 1992).

79 Büthe (fn. 67).

80 The significance of such learning effects is evident in the rapidly growing literature on policy diffusion. For a recent review, see Simmons, Beth, Garrett, Geoffrey, and Dobbin, Frank, “Introduction: The International Diffusion of Liberalism,” International Organization 60, no. 4 (2006).

81 See, for example, Mahoney (fn. 4), 26–27. Mahoney remarks on Yashar's interpretation of regime development in Costa Rica and Guatemala; Yashar, Deborah J., Demanding Democracy (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1997). Lynch's (fn. 17) work on the development of pension systems in Italy and the Netherlands includes the analysis of two different critical junctures in each country.

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), 183.

87 The actual duration of a critical juncture obviously depends on the object of the analysis. Collier and Collier's critical junctures lasted between nine and twenty-three years; see Collier and Collier (fn. 4), 32. In Ackerman's theory of American constitutional development, the critical junctures, or “constitutional moments,” lasted up to a decade; see Ackerman (fn. 17). See also Ziblatt, Daniel, Structuring the State (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006). Ziblatt identifies “national critical junctures” in Italy and Germany, leading up to national unification, in “the decisive years of the late 1850s and 1860s” (p. 24).

88 Ziblatt (fn. 87).

89 Linz and Stepan (fn. 71); Capoccia, Giovanni, “Defending Democracy: Strategies of Reaction to Extremism in Inter-War Europe,” European Journal of Political Research 39, no. 4 (2001); and idem (fn. 44).

90 Turner, Henry Ashby, Hitler's Thirty Days to Power (Reading, Mass.: Perseus, 1996).

91 Listing the key players, Turner (fn. 90) maintains that “it was one of these frequent junctures in human affairs when the fates of many rested with very few” (p. 166).

92 If this were true, then there would be very little “critical” in the events of January 1933 in Germany: structural conditions would create formidable organized interests that would then impose certain courses of action on whoever happened to be in positions of power in an ostensibly critical phase.

93 Turner (fn. 90), 168.

94 Weiler, Joseph H., “The Transformation of Europe,” Yale Law Journal 100 (1991); Alter, Karen, Establishing the Supremacy of European Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001); and Sweet, Alec Stone, The Judicial Construction of Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

95 Balkin and Levinson (fn. 17).

96 Article 177 gives all national courts the option of making references to the ECJ in cases hinging on EU law and obliges finalcourts of appeal to do so.

97 Keohane, Robert, Moravcsik, Andrew, and Slaughter, Anne-Marie, “Legalized Dispute Resolution,” International Organization 54, no. 3 (2000), 483.

98 Sweet, Alec Stone, Governing with Judges (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); Alter (fn. 94); and Alter, Karen, “Private Litigants and the New International Courts,” Private Litigants and the New International Courts, 39 (February 2006).

99 Burley, Anne-Marie and Mattli, Walter, “Europe before the Court,” International Organization 47 (1993); and Alter (fn. 94).

100 Stone Sweet (fn. 98).

101 Alter (fn. 94).

102 Direct effect (Van Genden Loos, Case 26/62, [1963] ECR1) provides that EU law creates rights for individuals that they can rely on directly within their national legal systems, whereas supremacy (Costa v ENEL, Case 6/64, [1964] ECR 585) holds that EU law takes primacy over conflicting national laws.

103 Stone Sweet (fn. 98); and Alter (fn. 94).

104 Thelen (fn. 1); and Streeck and Thelen (fn. 32).

105 Pierson (fn. 14), 264.

* The authors thank Michael Bailey, Nancy Bermeo, Melani Cammett, John Gerring, Peter Hall, Stephen Hanson, Sara Hobolt, Jack Levy, Parina Patel, Michael Rosen, Margaret Stevens, the participants to the panel “Critical Junctures, Path Dependency and Process Tracing” at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Washington, D.C., September 1–4,2005, and the seminar on Comparative Political Economy in the Department of Politics and IR at Oxford University, as well as three anonymous reviewers for their comments and suggestions. The usual disclaimer applies.

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The Study of Critical Junctures: Theory, Narrative, and Counterfactuals in Historical Institutionalism

  • Giovanni Capoccia (a1) and R. Daniel Kelemen (a2)


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