Comparative Analysis of Political Institutions



Recent decades have seen a Renaissance of the systematic study of institutions as the
elementary components of political and economic systems. Particularly with the rise of
the New Institutional Economics (NIE), institutions have been conceptually defined and a
huge body of empirical evidence has been amassed (cf. Acemoglu and Johnson 2003,
North 1991, Platteau 1994 I). Working largely with historical data, NIE has acted as a
crucial link between historical analysis and economic theory (cf. Selzer 2008, Williamson
2000) in particular within the methodological framework of comparative history (cf. Greif
1998). Institutional theory encompasses a sizable body of literature that is not solely
confined to NIE but also includes attempts by political and intellectual historians to integrate
institutional concepts into their historical narratives (cf. Peters 2005, Sally 1998,
Timberlake 1993). One result of this cross-disciplinary expansion has been the diversification
of institutional concepts.



In this session, we focus on the significance of political institutions for the long-term development of pre-modern societies. In a wider sense, we want to discuss to what extent NIE and comparative institutional analysis – generally seen as frameworks emerging from economics and economic history – can be applied in historical research more generally, specifically in the context of medieval polities. Since institutionalist approaches have been at the core of a great number of recent methodological debates in comparative history (e.g. divergence, the study of revolutions etc.), a thorough discussion of its advantages and shortcomings (highlighted in the critique of rational choice, cf. Field’s 1981 response to North and Thomas 1995 [1977]; also Gorski 2000) may enable us to (re-)assess their conceptual validity.

Political institutions – rules and norms that mediate human interaction on a macro-social level, i.e. structures of governance, legal systems etc. – can be studied with the tools of economic analysis (in this case NIE) since the incentives underlying economic co-operation arise from ubiquitous patterns of social behaviour within groups (cf. Platteau 1994 II, Urpelainen 2011). Strayer’s book, which was initially directed at political scientists with an interest in medieval structures of governance, is an early example of analytical political history that emphasises the importance of micro-structures for the development of political entities. Diermeier and Krehbiel’s essay provides a comprehensive overview of the approaches and theories that have since been developed and applied in political science and history. Greif and Tabellini’s article demonstrates comparative institutional analysis in the context of the developmental trajectories of pre-modern China and Europe.

Against this background, we ask:

  1. Do institutionalist approaches depart from unreasonable assumptions (e.g. rational choice)? Is there a lack of empirical rigour in institutional models that complicate their application to medieval contexts?
  2. How can behaviour, identified by Diermeir and Krehbiel as “the crucial link between institutions and outcomes”, be analysed in medieval contexts given the general lack of reliable documentary evidence on individual sentiments and collective choices?
  3. Can political institutions be taken as endogenous factors in economic development even in cases in which there is little evidence on the historical processes from which they emerged in the first place (cf. Greif 1994)?
  4. From a historical perspective, how permissible are abstract categorisations of political institutions (for example, the Northian dualism of “formal” and “informal” institutions, cf. North 1991)? Can categories of this sort do justice to the complexity of medieval social institutions (e.g. the family) that are of critical significance to a multitude of social spheres (personal, economic, political)?
  5. Could there be a general theory of medieval political institutions? If so, what would be the role of (elite) kinship networks?

More generally, we are interested in the way social institutions – in the sense of norms, rules and mechanisms that mitigate individual behaviour – shaped networks of communication in medieval polities (cf. Dahl 1998, Wetterhall Thomas 2008, Wright 2000). Participants are invited to contribute relevant examples from their respective areas of study.


Core reading:

Diermeier, Daniel, Krehbiel, Keith: "Institutionalism as a Methodology", in: Journal of Theoretical Politics 15 (2003), No. 2, pp. 123-144.

Greif, Avner, Tabellini, Guido: "Cultural and Institutional Bifurcation: China and Europe Compared", in: American Economic Review 100 (May 2010), No. 2, pp. 135-140.

Strayer, Joseph R.: On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State, Princeton (N.J.): Princeton University Press, 2005 [1970], chapter I, pp. 3-56.


Recommended further reading:

Acemoglu, Daron, Johnson, Simon: "Unbundling Institutions", in: The Journal of Political Economy 113 (2005), No. 5, pp. 949-995.

Beck, Thorsten, Clarke, George, Groff, Alberto, Keefer, Philip, Walsh, Patrick: "New Tools in Comparative Political Economy: The Database of Political Institutions", in: The World Bank Economic Review 15 (2001), No. 1, pp. 165-176.

Dahl, Gunnar: Trade, Trust, and Networks: Commercial Culture in Late Medieval Italy, Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 1998.

Douglas, Mary: How Institutions Think, London: Routledge, 1987.

Harris, Ron: "The institutional dynamics of early modern Eurasian trade: The commenda and the corporation", in: Journal of Economic Behaviour & Organization 71 (2009), No. 3, pp. 606-622.

Field, Alexander J.: "The Problem with Neoclassical Institutional Economics: A Critique with Special Reference to the North/Thomas Model of Pre-1500 Europe", in: Explorations in Economic History 18 (1981), pp. 174-198.

Gorski, Philip S.: "Historicizing the Secularization Debate: Church, State, and Society in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ca. 1300 to 1700", in: American Sociological Review 65 (Feb., 2000), No. 1, pp. 138-167.

Greif, Avner: "Historical and Comparative Institutional Analysis", in: The American Economic Review 88 (May, 1998), No. 2, pp. 80-84.

Greif, Avner: Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy: Lessons from Medieval Trade, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. (Introduction)

Greif, Avner: "On the Political Foundations of the Late Medieval Commercial Revolution: Genoa During the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries", in: The Journal of Economic History 54 (Jun., 1994), No. 2, pp. 271-287.

Kingston, Christopher, Caballero, Gonzalo: "Comparing Theories of Institutional Change", in: Journal of Institutional Economics 5 (2009), No. 2, pp. 151-180.

North, Douglass C.: "Institutions", in: Journal of Economic Perspectives 5 (Winter 1991), No. 1, pp. 97-112.

North, Douglass C., Thomas, Robert Paul: The Rise of the Western World: a New Economic History, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Peters, B. Guy: Institutional Theory in Political Science - The 'New Institutionalism', London and New York: Continuum, 2005 (part. chapter 4: The legacy of the past: historical institutionalism)

Platteau, Jean-Philippe: "Behind the Market Stage Where Real Societies Exist - Part I: The Role of Public and Private Order Institutions", in: Journal of Development Studies 30 (1994), No. 3, pp. 533 – 577.

Platteau, Jean-Philippe: "Behind the Market Stage Where Real Societies Exist - Part II: The Role of Moral Norms", in: Journal of Development Studies 30 (1994), No. 4, pp. 753 – 817.

Sally, Razeen: Classical Liberalism and International Economic Order - Studies in theory and intellectual history, London and New York: Routledge, 1998 (esp. chapter 9: Classical liberalism and international economic order: a synthesis).

Selzer, Stephan: "Netzwerke im europäischen Handel des Mittelalters. Konzepte – Anwendungen – Fragestellungen", in: Fouquet, Gerhard, Gilomen, Hans-Jörg (eds.), Netzwerke im europäischen Handel des Mittelalters (Vorträge und Forschungen), Konstanz 2008.

Timberlake, Richard H.: Monetary policy in the United States: an intellectual and institutional history, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Urpelainen, Johannes: "The origins of social institutions", in: Journal of Theoretical Politics 23 (2011), No. 2, pp. 215–240.

Wetterhall Thomas, Martha: "Medieval origins of corporate communication: Sampson of Oxford and the Method of Letter-writing", in: Corporate Communications: An International Journal 13 (2008), No. 1, pp. 112 - 123.

Williamson, Oliver E.: "The New Institutional Economics: Taking Stock, Looking Ahead", in: Journal of Economic Literature 38 (Sep., 2000), No. 3, pp. 595–613.

Wright, Laura: "Social context, structural categories and medieval business writing", in: Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 3 (August 2000), No. 2, pp. 124-125.

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