Political institutions have been around since nearly all human societies were organized tribally. Over time they have developed into various organizational features and eventually taken the shape they do today. They have proven to be fundamental in virtually all societies worldwide and by being so omnipresent we often take these institutions for granted and do not realize how vital they are for our society. Moreover, because they are so important and play such a big part in our society, there is a major purpose to compare them between time and place.
Therefore, this paper will first elaborate on explanations for political institutions and through that process come up with a working definition. Furthermore, it will explain why political institutions play such a major role in our society, and lastly it will argue for why we should compare these institutions. There are countless definitions of political institutions making the term somewhat vague (Klingemann & Goodin, 1996; Peters & Pierre, 1998).
It refers not only to formal political organizations such as political parties and parliament, but also to informal constraints such as customs, ideals, guidelines and actions (Peters & Pierre, 1998; North 1990). In addition, Wiens (2012) emphasizes that these formal and informal rules establish and stabilize roles. Moreover, although there is no consensus amongst theorists of what makes an institution political (Garret & Lange, 1995), Max Weber (cited in Gerth & Mills, 1946) and Moe (2005) argue that an institution is political if it influences the distribution of power.
As a result, for the purpose of this essay I will combine these scholars’ explanations to create a working definition. Political institutions are sets of formal and informal rules that influence the distribution of power, create roles and by combinations of standards, ethics, instructions and procedures stabilize interaction for occupants of those roles (Wiens, 2012; Peters & Pierre, 1998; North, 1990; Gerth & Mills, 1946; Hall, 1986). Thus for being so ubiquitous, political institutions have profound ramifications for politics and for society at large.
Political institutions have been developed by human beings throughout history to generate order and diminish insecurity (North, 1991) One of the main explanations to why they create order is because by influencing the way entities interact in politics, these political institutions significantly affect the potentials for individuals and groups to resolve collective problems and identify shared interest (Weir, 1992; Moe, 2005; Johnson, 2001). One apparent example is how parties create political alliances and in some cases governmental coalitions.
Therefore, political institutions are vital as they stabilize and structure interactions (Hall 1986; Przeworski, 2004), and by being forces of stability also offer predictability (Hague & Harrop, 2010). Furthermore, Moe (2005) claims that political institutions essentially exist and are significant because they make people better off. Whereas North (1981; 1990) and Minier (2001) do not fully share this opinion and rather contend that in order to benefit everyone in society and also for the economy to grow rulers have to adopt the correct political institutions.
Thus, in order to find what the “correct” political institutions might be, there is an intrinsic motivation to compare these between time and place. To be able to comprehend the bigger picture of political power it is crucial to understand how political institutions work and in order to develop deeper knowledge about those it is vital to compare them (Beck et al, 2001). Moreover, without comparing there is not much to acquire from a mere description (Pennings, Keman & Kleinnijenhuis, 2005).
In other words, returning back to North’s argument, one can hardly know which political institutions that are “correct” in bringing benefits to everyone by merely observing just one institution. Therefore, a vital reason to compare is to look for useful ideas and to see which political institutions might be good and bad at achieving specific political goals and see if these various institutions can survive in different political settings (Przeworski, 2004; Nikandrov, 1989).
In addition, by seeing similarity in difference and difference in similarity and linking ideas and theory to evidence we can gain greater insight and be more aware of alternatives (Friedman, 2011). However, some scholars point to the dangers of comparison (see Faure, 1994; Radhakrishnan, 2009) and it is important to acknowledge those risks. Nevertheless, as Friedman (2011) explains: “For all the problems and dangers of comparison, in the end it is worse not to compare than to compare” (p. 756).
To summarize, first of all political institutions are sets of formal and informal rules that have since the early ages of man stabilized and shaped interactions and outcomes by establishing roles and affecting power relations. Secondly, political institutions are important because they structure individuals and groups to overcome self-interest and rather cooperate for mutual gain. Furthermore, they create order and by offering predictability they reduce insecurity. In addition, arguably, political institutions can benefit everyone in the society and support in economic growth.
Thirdly, we should compare political institutions to learn about valuable ideas, be mindful about possibilities and to see how similar and different institutions functions in various contexts. Lastly, we should compare to get a wider and enhanced understanding of how political institutions function and thus also enables us to further comprehend the mechanics of political power. REFERENCE LIST: Beck, T. , Clarke, G. , Groff, A. , Keefer, P. , & Walsh, P. (2001). New tools in comparative political economy: The database of political institutions. World Bank Economic Review, 15(1), 165-176.
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