Alternative Visions of Change in Douglass North’s New Institutionalism

The aim of this essay is to explore the implications of the concept of “gradualism” in Douglass C. North’s recent works. Such a concept is mostly implied in his discourse, as a logical consequence (or premise) of his reasoning, but despite its strategic function it is rarely given theoretical treatment. In particular, the essay seeks to show that the gradualistic view of institutional change is not utilizable in many respects, although it performs an indisputable role as an explanatory category in a number of cases addressed by North. In my view, this conclusion arises from North’s research itself. Consequently, the first section of this essay discusses the terms in which North deals with gradualism. The second section shows how the non-convergent times of transformation, of both formal and informal constraints, introduce the problem of conflict between these two basic kinds of norm. The third section deals with some problems arising from coexistence between competing or conflicting rules (both formal and informal). Within this framework, the role of contingencies emerges as influencing the path of institutional change, especially when the distance between formal and informal rules increasingly diminishes (fourth section). These various arguments induce reconsideration of North’s notion of gradualism, and a sign of such revision seemingly emerges from a recent contribution by the author (written with Arthur D. Denzau) in which the dynamics of both institutions and “shared mental models” are treated in terms of “punctuated equilibria” theory, that is, in anti-gradualistic terms (fifth section). The accepted heritage of both Stephen J. Gould’s and Thomas S. Kuhn’s approaches evidently poses new problems, yet it opens a number of stimulating perspectives for interpretation of institutional change.

Released: Replika 74, 187–204.
Replika block:
Zsuzsanna Kiss