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Path Dependence and Change in International Governance Institutions


Subject Matter

It is a common observation that intergovernmental, supranational, and transnational governance institutions have been burgeoning since the end of WWII. But even though scholars agree that the post-WWII international system has seen remarkable institutional activity, they have paid less attention to the significant variation in the scope, pace, and direction of institutional creation and change. One reason for neglect of this variation is that change is complex and our tools for analyzing it are rather limited. In order to get at a dynamic understanding of international institutions we require a more sophisticated understanding of how, why, and when change occurs. The concept of path dependence has the potential to help us understand how process, sequence, and temporality can be incorporated into social explanation. Path dependence is a situation in which the set of choices available at any given moment are contingent on the choices made in previous periods. It focuses on the importance of “critical junctures” and “unintended consequences” which 05 alter outcomes or decisions in specific and systematic ways. Within political science path dependence has been mostly addressed by comparative politics research. The historical institutionalist perspective on critical junctures, for example, has produced a rich literature in comparative politics, predominantly analysing the comparative formation and reproduction of states and state institutions. But there is much work to be done on developing the concept, and a focus on global institutions provides a fresh empirical slate to tackle outstanding conceptual problems.

The current generation of path dependence research challenges us to push the concept of path dependence beyond this simple insight and to deepen its theoretical foundations. History certainly “matters” but what are the specific ways in which history shapes specific issue areas and future choices? And how do agents react to the constraints and opportunities of history? This project not only traces the role of temporality on outcomes, but also considers questions of irreversibility, efficiency, and agency, such as: Are there conditions under which path dependence can be reversed? (How) Are agents able to escape lock-in? Under what conditions does the lock-in of path dependence lead to inefficiencies or efficiencies?

Relationship to the Research Unit’s Program

With its emphasis on supranational and transnational transformations, the TKI research unit is committed to understanding institutional change. In particular, it brings attention to the unintended consequences that can result from long-term trends in institutional change. In this same spirit, the path dependence research project aims to systematically develop and employ the path dependence concept as an analytical tool for understanding the dynamics of international governance institutions.


Rixen, Thomas and Viola, Lora (2009): Uses and Abuses of the Concept of Path Dependence: Toward a Clearer Theory of Institutional Change. Paper presented at the American Political Science Association Annual Meeting, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 3-6 September 2009.