#5Papers, May 2016

by Nivek K Thompson


Dryzek, J.S. The Informal Logic of Institutional Design in The Theory of Institutional Design Goodin, R.E. (ed.) 1996 Cambridge University Press Cambridge pp103-125

What attracted me to this Article / Chapter?     

Selen Ercan referred me to this chapter as she thought it would be relevant to my research. Thanks Selen!

What is it about? (Problem / Purpose / Research Questions)

Dryzek is proposing a particular approach to achieving institutional change/redesign. He suggests there is an important relationship between attempts at institutional design and discourses – what he calls the “informal aspect of institutional design” p103

He uses an analogy saying, “Discourses may best be treated as institutional software.” p104. Dryzek believes that without taking discourses into account institutional (re)design can only be maintained through dictatorship.

Where does this come from? (Literature / Theoretical Framework)   

Dryzek’s main argument is that there are systematic methods to analyse the ‘informal logic of institutional design’ in particular political discourse analysis and the associated Q methodology.

What did they do? (Methodology & Method)    

Dryzek counter poses his informal logic to the formal logic of institutional design that focuses on the ‘hardware’ of institutions e.g. rules. His informal logic has three components:

  1. multiple dimensions of human subjectivity
  2. accepts ambiguity when consider interactions between people and rules
  3. methodologically flexible with an emphasis on critique (see p106)

Dryzek applies his theoretical approach to particular case studies to demonstrate its value. His first example relates to the regulation of pollution comparing old style ‘command and control’ approaches with incentive and trading schemes. He notes that despite analysts promoting incentive approaches over 20 years, the old approaches have been maintained. He argues that this is evidence of the limits of formalist approaches to institutional design. His argument is that proposals for institutional design can not be considered without looking at the prevailing discourses (note there are often more than one) and the success of particular proposals will depend on how they ‘fit’ with the prevailing discourses, do they reinforce or undermine existing discourses (p112).

What did they learn? (Results / Discussion)       

Dryzek concludes that it is possible to undertake empirical work to test whether prevailing discourse/s are hegemonic or not. In particular he suggest Q methodology as valuable approach, for which he provides a brief explanation (see p113-114).

He uses an example of a US study undertaken by Berejikian and himself around discourses on democracy (not from an institutional design perspective). This study identified four discourses around democracy: contented republicanism; deferential conservatism; disaffected populism; and private liberalism. Dryzek argues that these discourses provide both a constraint on some types of change as well as providing potential resources for others.

Dryzek continues on to consider his earlier reference that the methodology relevant to the study of the informal aspects of institutions is critical, although he canvasses different ‘levels’ of critique.

Finally Dryzek identifies a range of ‘realistic constraints’ on institutional design/change, noting that whilst his previous discussion focuses on ‘ideas’ he recognises that there are material forces which constrain these forces, in particular ‘the state’ – “the set of individuals and organizations legally authorized to make binding decisions for a society.” p121 And so he suggests that change can only occur in the “spaces that remain once these constraints are taken into account.” p12 identifying a number of such ‘spaces’ which would seem to mainly (although not totally) to align with the ideas of ‘punctuated change’ in traditional institutional theory.

What did I learn?                 

I’ve been looking for authors who identify the role of, what I identify as ‘narratives’ (based on Lowndes & Roberts view that institutions are made up of rules, practices and narratives), in institutional design/change and here it is! My gut sense was that if narratives don’t change then changes to rules and practices aren’t likely to happen. Dryzek’s argument is similar, although he approaches it from a different angle. He says “Formalists who hope that supportive discourses will simply fall into place once the hardware has been established are likely to be disappointed.” p122

Another nice quote is “institutional reshaping… is likely to prove fruitful to the extent that (a) these constraints are recognized and identified, and (b) contributions to the conversation are imaginative in terms of locating or creating islands of freedom in seas of structural necessity and discursive hegemony.” p122

I need to look at how different theorists define/interpret the terms ‘narrative’ vs. ‘discourses’ – in what ways are they similar and different?

It would be interesting to see if Dryzek or anyone else has reviewed what changes in discourses lead to the introduction of incentive schemes in the area of pollution in more recent times.

I love this quote, when talking about the possibility of change, “The key here is to map the prevailing constellation of discourses with a view to identifying locations in which the existing political order is vulnerable.” p113

I found his suggestions about creative use of particular discourses to support change sounded similar to the ideas coming from the Common Cause organisation who think about these things in terms of values and frames. So now I ask myself what is the relationship between discourses, narratives, values and frames?

I wonder how the four discourses Dryzek and Berejikian uncovered relate to that other major discourse many argue is crucial to the western form of democracy i.e. economic liberalism? None of them appear to encompass the economic sphere and yet the link between representative democracy and economic liberalism seems pretty tight to me.