The history of international political orders is written in terms of continuity and change in domestic and international political relations. As a step toward understanding such continuity and change, we explore some ideas drawn from an institutional perspective. An institutional perspective is characterized in terms of two grand issues that divide students of international relations and other organized systems. The first issue concerns the basic logic of action by which human behavior is shaped. On the one side are those who see action as driven by a logic of anticipated consequences and prior preferences. On the other side are those who see action as driven by a logic of appropriateness and a sense of identity. The second issue concerns the efficiency of history. On the one side are those who see history as efficient in the sense that it follows a course leading to a unique equilibrium dictated by exogenously determined interests, identities, and resources. On the other side are those who see history as inefficient in the sense that it follows a meandering, path-dependent course distinguished by multiple equilibria and endogenous transformations of interests, identities, and resources. We argue that the tendency of students of international political order to emphasize efficient histories and consequential bases for action leads them to underestimate the significance of rule- and identity-based action and inefficient histories. We illustrate such an institutional perspective by considering some features of the coevolution of politics and institutions, particularly the ways in which engagement in political activities affects the definition and elaboration of political identities and the development of competence in politics and the capabilities of political institutions.
James G. March is Professor Emeritus of Management, Political Science, Sociology, and Education at Stanford University, Stanford, California.
Johan P. Olsen is Director of a research programme on the Europeanization of the nation state financed by the Norwegian Research Council and Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway.