In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The New Institutionalism Revisited

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • One Approach or Many?

Political Science The New Institutionalism Revisited
B. Guy Peters
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 August 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0149


Political science has its roots in the study of institutions. Aristotle’s discussion of good and bad forms of government was essentially a discussion of institutions. Much of the traditional, formal/legal political science also was about institutions. In this traditional version of the discipline the assumption was that formal constitutional structures would indeed determine outcomes. With the behavioral “revolution” in political science, followed by the emphasis on rational choice models, the emphasis shifted from institutions to individuals but, to some extent, has now shifted back to consider the importance of institutions. This review attempts to cover the principal approaches to institutions utilized in political science. As well as considering the theoretical and analytical approaches, this review also demonstrates how the approaches have been applied to attempt to explain policy outcomes and political processes. Further, this review considers some of the principal challenges to institutional theories, notably the difficulties of integrating change into theories that are more concerned with stability. The majority of the items included in the bibliography are from political science, but some also are drawn from sociology, economics, and management. The advocacy of the return to institutional analysis is a claim that we can better understand politics as a function of the interaction of institutions and organizations, rather the product of more or less atomistic individual behaviors. Thus, institutionalism represents a fundamental claim about the nature of politics and also constitutes an alternative paradigm for political analysis. That said, however, to understand institutions we may also need to understand the behavior of the individuals who comprise those institutions. This linkage of structural and individual elements in institutional theories represents one of the most abiding challenges to the approach and also one of the major strengths. The emphasis is clearly on the role of structure, but at the same time individuals influence the behavior and very nature of institutions, and institutions may shape individuals. This linkage is one factor helping to make institutional theory a possible contender for a paradigm for political science.

General Overviews

There are several general overviews that address institutional theory and its application in political science. Two of these overviews are in the form of written books that ask a number of theoretical questions about institutionalism as an approach to political science (and to a lesser extent the social sciences more generally), while the other is a major handbook on political institutions. One of the written books is Peters 2011, cited under One Approach or Many?). The other, Lowndes and Roberts 2010, considers the approaches together and asks a series of questions about their status as theory. The other general overview of institutional theory is the Oxford Handbook of Political Institutions, edited by R. A. W. Rhodes, Sarah Binder, and Bert Rockman. This comprehensive handbook examines institutional questions in political science from a variety of directions, including looking a number of strands of theoretical analysis and also discussing theoretical and analytical approaches to specific institutions. Because institutionalism is a rather varied approach that comes from and is used in a number of areas of political science, it is difficult to identify specific journals that are likely to have articles in this field more readily than are others. That said, institutional theories tend to be employed more commonly by scholars working in public administration and public policy than by other segments of the discipline. Therefore, institutionalist articles are more likely to be found in these journals than in others.

  • Lowndes, V., and M. Roberts. Why Institutions Matter: The New Institutionalism in Political Science. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2010.

    This book asks a number of central questions about institutional theory. As well as describing the various approaches to institutionalism Lowndes and Roberts address questions such as structure and agency, change, and design. Although this book assumes some knowledge of the basic approaches, it provides an excellent overview of the use of institutional theory and the challenges it faces in providing explanations.

  • Rhodes, R. A. W., S. A. Binder, and B. A. Rockman. The Oxford Handbook of Political Institutions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

    Institutions are a major component of political life and of political science, and this handbook provides a comprehensive collection of articles on theory and individual institutions. The handbook also addresses some interesting analytic questions in institutionalism, such as the links with development and conceptions of institutional change.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.