Urban Politics and the New Institutionalism
in Susan Clarke, Peter John and Karen Mossberger(eds), The Oxford Handbook of Urban Politics, Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 51-70
27 Pages Posted: 2 Jun 2012
Date Written: August 1, 2009
When political science first emerged as a social scientific discipline in the early 1900s scholars tended to study the political world by carefully describing the legal and formal structures that defined the state. At mid-century, a revolution occurred as scholars began to argue that the narrow focus on institutions failed to explain important political outcomes like the rise of Nazism or the domination of elite preferences in policy making. The field as a whole came to embrace the tools of social psychology focusing on the behavior of individuals to understand political phenomena. But, over time, these explanations also came to be viewed as incomplete as Marxist and other structural explanations came to the fore. The rise of new institutionalism from the mid-1980s represented yet another field-wide turning point. Scholars turned toward analyzing the ways in which formal and informal institutions create and constrain individual behavior and the ways in which individuals affect the establishment and transformation of the structures themselves. Since this time the study of institutions has played a prominent role in political science research.
This chapter explores the development and applications of neo-institutionalist thought in urban politics, evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches and identifying gaps in the field for further research. It demonstrates how institutional theories have, in various guises, come to dominate urban political research. The chapter suggests that institutionalism has a bright future in urban politics, although there are potent criticisms and lacunae, which the next generation of studies will need to address. The chapter proceeds by first outlining the distinction between ‘old’ and ‘new’ institutionalisms and then it explores the dominant neo-institutional approaches in the urban field, rational choice, sociological and historical institutionalisms. It subsequently looks at ways in which new institutionalist theory has been applied in practice, before discussing controversies and limitations and suggesting directions for future research. In conclusion, we argue that there is tremendous opportunity for growth in the field of urban institutionalism.
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