Institutional Theories – Historical, Sociological, and New Institutionalism

… a core term used in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100


Writing in The Handbook of Public Administration (reference below), Jean-Claude Thoenig describes recent developments in institutional theory:

“Since the 1970s public administration institutions as a research domain has increasingly opened up to contributions from other social sciences such as history, political science and sociology of organizations. It has become less normative and more empirical, considering institutions as dependent variables as well as autonomous actors. New schools of thought have emerged in academic circles. Institutional theory is a label that oversimplifies the fact that such schools are not exactly alike: they do not share the same agenda. … Each develops a more or less specific set of theoretical as well as empirically grounded interpretations. Each also covers major facets of what institutionalization processes are. Political and administrative machineries experience path dependencies. They are embedded in societal environments. They function like specific social systems. They produce social norms and cognitive references. Therefore interactions between societal change and administrative reform become key issues.”

Thoenig’s article includes the following descriptions of the three main streams:

Historical institutionalism

“Historical institutionalism considers that outcomes of public policies do not just reflect the preferences or interests of the strongest social forces. They are also channeled by existing and past arrangements. Policy choices made in the past shape choices made today. Political and administrative organizations, conventions and procedures regulating the relationships between economic actors and the state, are therefore path-dependent. Radical and voluntary changes in public administration are to a large extent a hopeless endeavor in such contexts. Existing institutions structure the design and the content of the decisions themselves.”

Sociological institutionalism

“Compared to historical institutionalism, the sociological perspective defines institutional broadly. Beside formal rules and procedures, it includes symbols, moral models, and cognitive schemes. Institutions provide frames of meaning which guide human action and therefore are similar to cultural systems. Institutionalization is a cognitive process that models the sense people give to events or acts. Institutionalized myths are central to explanation. Formal structures should be understood as composed of myths and ceremonies … influencing the conduct of public administrators not only by influencing what they have to do, but also by shaping the imagination of the actors about alternatives and solutions. Society or culture as a whole determines the acts and non-acts, the structures and the values of the public sector.”

New institutionalism

“The founders of new institutionalism suggest alternative ideas or hypotheses to such perspectives. They question how far organized action can be planned the product of design or authoritarian will, and to what degree some public order is achievable in pluralistic societies. Public institutions may experience a large degree of autonomy and follow logics of their own, independently of outside influences or requirements. The historical process happens to select organizational forms that are not always efficient. Symbols, myths and rituals have more impact upon political and administrative events than immediate, narrow and selfish economic or power interests. In other terms the logic of consequentiality is an illusion. Action in organizations is not to any great extent instrumentally oriented, and only bounded rationality is available. Public administrators make decisions according to some criterion of satisficing. They make tradeoffs between the content of the problem they address and the level of uncertainty they face in real time.”

Atlas topic, subject, and course

The Study of Governance and Institutions (core topic) in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100 Governance and Institutions.


Jean-Claude Thoenig, 2011. Institutional Theories and Public Institutions: New Agendas and Appropriateness, in Peters B.G. and J. Pierre eds. The Handbook of Public Administration, Sage, pp.185-101. At, accessed 5 August 2016.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 5 August 2016.