and tell how scholars in many disciplines and from many nations are joining in dialogue to promote the study of the stuff of social and economic life.
Research into institutions is characteristic of several schools across the social sciences and the humanities, yet there is little constructive dialogue between disciplines and schools of thought. Sadly, attempts by economists and others to build a multi-disciplinary approach to institutional analysis are perceived as invasions and provoke allegations of empire-building and enduring disputes over the appropriate way to do it. But cross-discipline working is a unifying approach – one that the World Interdisciplinary Network for Institutional Research (WINIR) has pursued the since it was formed in 2013.
“Contributions from any theoretical perspective that helpus improve our understanding of the institutional foundations of socio-economic phenomena are welcome.”
WINIR is an inclusive platform for bridging the divides between disciplines. We signal this by having keynotes representing multiple disciplines. We also explicitly rule out subscribing to a given approach or methodology. Contributions from any theoretical perspective that help us improve our understanding of the institutional foundations of socio-economic phenomena are welcome. This openness to dialogue is what attracts people to WINIR and pushes them to contact us to help them organise their own events.
WINIR, emerged after our former PhD supervisor and then colleague, Geoff Hodgson, asked us to help him set up a new membership association devoted to the promotion of interdisciplinary research into institutions. And this common interest in institutions remains the main thing that unites WINIR members.
As WINIR’s mission statement explains, institutions – broadly defined as systems of functioning social rules – are the stuff of social and economic life. They use systems of shared rules to structure interactions by creating convergent expectations and regularities of behaviour, at individual and collective levels.
Clearly, virtually all human cooperation and organisation are rule-governed: legal rules, social conventions and so on. An important implication in this is that human action cannot be viewed outside its historical context and other contexts. So there are limits to what we can learn from the universal concept of economic man and there are things we can learn from other disciplines like history, law, political science and sociology.
“Institutions – broadly defined as systems of functioningsocial rules – are the stuff of social and economic life.”
We aren’t making a claim to originality. In Germany and elsewhere in Europe, from the 1840s to the 1920s, the emphasis on historical context was a common way of doing economics. In America, during the interwar period, self-described “institutionalists” cultivated interdisciplinary connections, held positions in top universities, served as presidents of major scholarly societies such as the American Economic Association, founded major research organisations (most notably the National Bureau of Economic Research) and were heavily involved in policy, particularly during the New Deal. Institutionalism was the mainstream.
But this way of thinking was brushed aside in the formalist revolution of post-war economics. The simultaneous rise to dominance of neoclassicism and Keynesianism, as well as the profession’s embrace of new econometric methods, transformed the standards of economic science. Interdisciplinarity lost value. Unrealistic assumptions about economic man were no longer seen as problematic. Technical sophistication and prediction became the name of the game.
More recently, economists have come to appreciate the importance of institutions in a wide range of areas, including the analysis of exchange, markets, firms, states, distribution, money, human well-being, economic development, and much else. A new institutional economics has emerged. Policy, particularly development policy (as conceived for example by the World Bank and similar organisations), has been profoundly transformed. This is good news.
Unfortunately, the field remains fragmented. Defenders of the kind of institutionalism developed prior to the formalist revolution criticise new institutionalists on the grounds that they retain the universal concept of the economic agent, who invariably maximises utility. So the old guard cast the new institutionalists as engaging in economics imperialism when working with historians, lawyers, political scientists or sociologists.
There is certainly some truth in these claims. But this doesn’t mean that new institutionalism is to be discarded or that it hasn’t advanced our understanding of the economy.
“A new institutional economics has emerged. Policy, particularly development policy, has been profoundly transformed. This is good news.”
No school of thought has a monopoly on the truth. Getting stuck on the distinctions between old and new institutionalism, or labels such as orthodox and heterodox, favours intra-group cohesion, but does little to advance knowledge. While such labels capture substantive differences, being dogmatic about them closes down dialogue.
The acceptance of this idea is what had initially attracted us to working with Geoff. Neither of us liked churches and the dogma that defined allegiances within the economics profession. In Geoff we saw not simply what corresponded to our own outlook, but also an embodiment of what the future of our embattled discipline might look like.
Contrary to many people, Geoff would never dismiss the prospect of learning from someone on the grounds that they were mainstream. While he remains a fierce critic of the mainstream, including its reliance on utility-maximising agents with given preferences and its abuse of mathematics, Geoff has criticised alternative traditions, including the ones he is deeply involved in. After all, each school of thought has its own mainstream, its own dogma, its own network of more-or-less organised devotees.
“Many of these alternative schools find natural alliancesagainst a common enemy – the mainstream – and congregate under the heterodox economics’ umbrella.”
Many of these alternative schools find natural alliances against a common enemy – the mainstream – and congregate under the heterodox economics’ umbrella. Geoff does not subscribe to such selective pluralism, choosing instead to promote and engage in constructive conversations with all scholars around common objects of analysis. We are happy to subscribe to this kind of pluralism.
A similar approach underpins the editorial philosophy of the Journal of Institutional Economics, a journal sponsored by WINIR, which Geoff launched in 2004 under the auspices of the European Association for Evolutionary Political Economy, another scholarly society he helped establish in 1988. The journal has become a renowned channel for multi-disciplinary studies of economic institutions and institutional thought. It draws in a broad range of economists and other social scientists, regardless of which tradition or paradigm they belong to or which methodologies they work with.
The collection of articles in Geoff’s honour we recently put together under the title, Institutions and Evolution of Capitalism, is a testament to widespread respect this stance has earned. Taken together, the 19 chapters written by some of the world’s leading scholars reveal key features of the Hodgson brand, including a firm commitment to pluralism and interdisciplinarity; a rare capacity to integrate insights from the social sciences and the natural sciences; and a recurring insistence that mutually beneficial dialogue among researchers is seriously impaired by the absence of linguistic precision and clear definitions. As an inclusive platform aiming to develop cross-disciplinary consensus about the nature and importance of institutions, WINIR is built on these very same features.