What is HI? - University of Sheffield

What is Historical
Institutionalism?: How might it
aid criminologists in their
Stephen Farrall, Sheffield University
1: Define and introduce historical institutionalism (HI).
2: Outline some of the main concepts and ideas within
3: Briefly review the sorts of methodologies consistent
with HI.
4: Demonstrate it’s applications in our on-going work.
5: Hope to show how ideas from HI can be of use to
What is HI?
• Institutions are: “… the formal rules, compliance procedures, and
standard operating practices that structure the relationship between
individuals in various units of the policy and economy” (Hall, 1986: 19).
• HI is concerned with illuminating how institutions and institutional
settings mediate the ways in which processes unfold over time (Thelen
and Steinmo, 1992: 2)
• “… neither a particular theory nor a specific method. It is best understood
as an approach to studying politics. This approach is distinguished from
other social science approaches by its attention to real world empirical
questions, its historical orientation and its attention to the ways in which
institutions structure and shape political behaviour and outcomes.”.
Steinmo, 2008.
What is HI?
• Institutionalists are interested in how institutions are constructed,
maintained and adapted over time.
• Institutions do not simply channel policies; they help to define policy
concerns, create the objects of any policy and shape the nature of the
interests in policies which actors may have.
• Politics does not simply create policies; policies also create politics.
HI is an attempt to develop understanding of how political and policy
processes and relationships play out over time coupled with an appreciation
that prior events, procedures and processes will have consequences for
subsequent events.
What are the main
concepts within HI?
• Path Dependencies: what happened at an earlier point will affect what can
happen in the future. Reversal costs are high and institutional
arrangements hard to completely ‘undo’. Policy concerns and interests
become constructed within certain parameters.
• Positive feedback loops: once a set of institutions is in place, actors,
organisations and other institutions adapt their activities in ways which
reflect and reinforce the path.
• Timings and event sequences: both the timing and ordering of events can
shape outcomes.
The speed of causal processes and outcomes: there are both fast- and
slow-moving causal processes and outcomes (cumulative, threshold and
chain causal processes).
Last two radically alter the time-frames of our explanations.
What are the main
concepts within HI?
• Critical junctures: those rare and relatively short-lived periods when
institutional arrangements are placed on a particular path. During these
periods actors may be able to produce significant change.
• Punctuated equilibrium: long-run stability in policy-making is subject to
occasional seismic shifts when existing institutions and issue definitions
break down and pressure for change accumulates to the point where is
cannot be ignored.
Criticisms: ideas also matter too (not just institutions); too much focus on
reproduction of institutions?; focus on political elites (little about the
populous); important to remember that not all institutions will be
changed/maintained and that the speeds of change may be variable too.
Which methodologies are
most appropriate?
• Initially the focus was on office-holders who shaped politics, processes
and policies (so autobiographies, elite interviews, speeches, documents
• As well as using these methodologies, one can use any methods which
enable one to explore how processes unfold over time.
• For our project we use a range of data, both quantitative and qualitative:
officially recorded data
social survey data
coding of Queen’s speeches
Using these ideas in our
Exploring Housing Policy
Temporal Diagram of
Thatcherite Policy Spillover
Ends up in CJS change
Outline of future work
• ESRC grant with Colin Hay, Emily Gray and Will Jennings.
1. Data sets to be made available
2. Training workshop (with UK Data Service)
3. Documentary Film
4. Dissemination events and publications
5. Email list ([email protected])
6. Twittering: Thatcher’s Legacy

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