What is ‘new’ with ‘new institutionalism’? [Part I]

Vivien Lowndes (2010), in her chapter on institutionalism, enumerated the features of new institutionalism, which distinguish it from the traditional approach. There are six. In this essay, I will try to explain the differences in a less theoretical way (hopefully), and present examples based on my own research in order to bring down the discussion to a level that can be understood by all. I will also integrate the insights from other authors and scholars of new institutionalism like Elinor Ostrom (2007), Douglass North (1990), and B. Guy Peters (2012).

From organizations to rules
It is true that the study of politics has been focused on the study of institutions. In new institutionalism, a reconceptualization of institution was made. Students when asked to give examples of institutions would most probably answer “congress,” “university,” or “church.” Traditionally, these could pass as institutions. However, with new institutionalism, the focus of analysis moved away from institutions as organizations to institutions as rules.

A distinction between institutions and organization should be made. Institutions are the rules of the game. They do not determine the behaviour of individuals, but provide the framework for understanding such behaviour. Actions of the players are based on these rules. Organizations, on the other hand, are like individual actors. They are players in the game.

But why institution as rules? New institutionalists claim that all institutions are expressed through rules. Rules prescribe, prohibit and punish actions of players. So rules, in this case, create the positions to be filled up by actors, determine how actors will have to act, and what outcomes are permitted. North also calls these constraints. Institutions, as rules, create the conditions and contexts for actions of players.

For example, a local government is considered an organization composed of various institutions. There are several rules operating within the local government, like the Local Government Code of 1991, the ordinances passed by the local council, and circulars issued by the national government agencies affecting the local governments. These rules provide constraints on the actions that can be taken by the local politicians and bureaucrats.

From formal to informal
If new institutionalism remains focused on formal rules, it is not new. It will simply be a revival of the traditional form. We might as well call it institutionalism. However, new institutionalism changed its focused from the very limited formal rules to the broader informal rules. For new institutionalists, effective political institutions are those that are lived by actors. This justifies the bias towards informal rules.

Formal rules, or the rules-in-form, are written, codified statements setting out the parameters for participation and involvement within an organization. They identify, in form, the actors, and their positions, authority, and limitations. North devised a hierarchy of formal rules: constitutions, statute and common laws, specific bylaws, and individual contracts.

Informal rules, or the rules-in-use, are the unwritten rules. They are largely based on norms, customs and behaviours shaped by the day-to-day interaction of actors. According to Ostrom, rules-in-use are the distinctive ensemble of ‘dos and don’ts that one learns on the ground. Compared to rules-in-form, rules-in-use are the actualized version of the rules, not necessarily conforming to the prescription. In fact, rules-in-use can be a different set of rules.

It is important to note here is that not all norms or behaviours are rules-in-use. For this reason, it is helpful to look at Hall’s idea of the standard operating procedures. Hall said that the rules-in-use should be recognized by the actors, and can be explained clearly by the same actors to the researcher. It should also be remembered that some actors act with regularity but without recognition that it is already a rule-in-use. These make the rules-in-use invisible.

So, between the formal and informal rules, there is preference for the latter. New institutionalists are interested with the expressed, but they appreciate more the real ones. This is because actors do not always follow rules. They may adjust or devise their own ‘rules,’ or simply ignore the existing ones.

The rules I enumerated earlier are formal institutions. The 1987 Constitution, the LGC of 1991, ordinances, and circulars are written rules. These rules govern over the local government units in the performance of their functions. The rules-in-use are the actual usage of the rules. A municipal mayor may be more powerful informally than what is provided by law.

[To be continued…]


  • Lowndes, Vivien. “The Institutional Approach.” In Theory and Methods in Political Science. 3rd ed., edited by David Marsh and Gerry Stoker, 60-79. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
  • North, Douglass C. Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
  • Ostrom, Elinor. “Institutional Rational Choice: An Assessment of the Institutional Analysis and Development Framework.” In Theories of the Policy Process, edited by Paul A. Sabatier, 21-64. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2007.
  • Peters, B. Guy. Institutional Theory in Political Science: The ‘New Institutionalism’. 3rd ed. London and New York: Continuum, 2012.
What is ‘new’ with ‘new institutionalism’? [Part I]

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