World Politics

Research Article

The Study of Critical Junctures: Theory, Narrative, and Counterfactuals in Historical Institutionalism

Giovanni Capocciaa1 and R. Daniel Kelemena2*

a1 Oxford University,,

a2 Rutgers University,


The causal logic behind many arguments in historical institutionalism emphasizes the enduring impact of choices made during critical junctures in history. These choices close off alternative options and lead to the establishment of institutions that generate self-reinforcing path-dependent processes. Despite the theoretical and practical importance of critical junctures, however, analyses of path dependence often devote little attention to them. The article reconstructs the concept of critical junctures, delimits its range of application, and provides methodological guidance for its use in historical institutional analyses. Contingency is the key characteristic of critical junctures, and counterfactual reasoning and narrative methods are necessary to analyze contingent factors and their impact. Finally, the authors address specific issues relevant to both cross-sectional and longitudinal comparisons of critical junctures.

Giovanni Capoccia is a professor of comparative politics in the Department of Politics and IR, and Fellow of Corpus Christi College at Oxford University. He is the author of Defending Democracy: Reactions to Extremism in Interwar Europe (2005). He is currently completing a comparative project on extremism and fundamental freedoms in Western Europe. He can be reached at

R. Daniel Kelemen is an associate professor of political science at Rutgers University and is a visiting member of the Institute for Advanced Study (2007–8). He is author of The Rules of Federalism: Institutions and Regulatory Politics in the EU and Beyond (2004) and coeditor (with Keith Whittington and Gregory Caldeira) of The Oxford Handbook of Law and Politics (2007). He is currently writing a book on the judicialization of public policy in the European Union. He can be reached at

* The authors thank Michael Bailey, Nancy Bermeo, Melani Cammett, John Gerring, Peter Hall, Stephen Hanson, Sara Hobolt, Jack Levy, Parina Patel, Michael Rosen, Margaret Stevens, the participants to the panel “Critical Junctures, Path Dependency and Process Tracing” at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Washington, D.C., September 1–4,2005, and the seminar on Comparative Political Economy in the Department of Politics and IR at Oxford University, as well as three anonymous reviewers for their comments and suggestions. The usual disclaimer applies.