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

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 June 2011

Giovanni Capoccia
Oxford University,,
R. Daniel Kelemen
Rutgers University,


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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.

Research Article
Copyright © Trustees of Princeton University 2007


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), 2124Google 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), 1618Google 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.

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

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

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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), 7780Google Scholar. 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.

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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)Google Scholar, 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), 270303CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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

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26 Abbott (fn. 25).

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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)Google Scholar.

38 Pierson (fn. 3), 92ff.

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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).

42 Pierson (fn. 14).

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

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

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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.

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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.

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)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. 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)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and idem (fn. 44).

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

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.

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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.

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100 Stone Sweet (fn. 98).

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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.

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