Bernhard Ebbinghaus
Institutional Change in Advanced Democracies

Oxford Bibliographies in Political Science. 2013. New York, NY: Oxford University Press

Since the late 1980s, an institutionalist turn in political, economic, and other social sciences has led to renewed interest in questions of enduring institutions and their rather conditional change. Globalization and secular socioeconomic changes in modern economies have pushed advanced democracies, developed welfare states, and postindustrial economies to adapt. However, seminal comparative analyses have shown that institutional diversity remains salient, related to longstanding political traditions, welfare state regimes, or “varieties of capitalism.” How can one explain such institutional persistence? Path dependency, the sunken investment in past decisions and its increasing returns, is seen as explanations of institutional lock-in. More generally, that “history matters” has become a common theme of new institutionalism thinking in institutional economics, organizational sociology, and historical institutionalism. Institutions are seen as the “rules of the game,” norms taken for granted, or cultural scripts that remain durable. Yet multiple examples of change are also found, not so much via “big bang” reforms but often through long-term stepwise transformations. The theoretical agenda and empirical focus subsequently shifted in a second wave to institutional change instead of durability. How does institutional change occur? The processes and mechanisms leading to the evolution of institutions have been explored in recent years, mirroring the recognition of rather gradual but ongoing changes in advanced democracies and their political economies. The global diffusion of democratic aspirations and market principles has been the real-world context in which to reconsider the impact of institutional change from a variety of disciplinary and theoretical perspectives.