Informal Institutions and Comparative Politics: A Research Agenda
Author: G Helmke and S Levitsky
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How do informal institutions influence political behaviour and institutional outcomes? How and why do informal institutions arise, and how can we identify them? This article from the journal 'Perspectives on Politics' outlines a typology of informal institutions and some areas for future research. It argues that institutional analysis has neglected informal institutions, thereby missing out many of the incentives and constraints underlying political behaviour.
Informal institutions are sets of socially shared rules that are created, communicated and enforced outside official channels. Four principal types of informal institution can be identified, based on the degree of convergence between formal and informal institutional outcomes and the effectiveness of formal institutions,: (i) Complementary: reinforcing formal institutions and playing a key role in making them work, (ii) Accommodating: allowing actors to change institutional outcomes they do not like without violating formal rules, (iii) Competing: creating multiple systems of legal obligation, (iv) Substitutive: achieving what weak formal institutions were designed to, but fail to achieve.
Empirical literature on informal institutions has neglected questions of why and how they arise in the first place. The resulting static, functionalist analyses underestimate how these institutions are adapted or reinvented over time.
- Informal institutions may be established to fill gaps that formal institutions have not recognised. They may also be the next best strategy for those unhappy with formal institutions but unable to change them. Finally, they may allow actors to pursue unpopular activities less conspicuously.
- To understand how informal institutions arise it is necessary to identify the relevant actors and interests behind them, and the process by which rules are formulated and communicated.
- Some institutions may be susceptible to changes in formal institutional design, whereas some may be more affected by changes in formal institutional strength. Changes related to cultural factors will be incremental, whereas coordination around an alternative equilibrium of power may trigger rapid collapse.
There are several important research challenges associated with bringing informal institutions into mainstream comparative institutional analysis:
- Identification of informal institutions: (i) What are the shared expectations? There is a need to examine the mutual understanding, (ii) What is the community to which the rules apply? It is often difficult to discern the domain of informal institutions, (iii) How are informal rules enforced? There must be a sanction.
- Identifying these mechanisms can be difficult and there is probably no substitute for intensive fieldwork. However, developing a broader body of theory will require the use of other methods as well.
- There is a need to posit and test theories about how informal rules shape formal institutional outcomes.
- There is a need for theories more rigorously about the emergence of informal institutions.
- There is not enough understanding of the sources of informal institutional stability and change.
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Helmke, G. and Levitsky, S., 2004, ‘Informal Institutions and Comparative Politics: A Research Agenda’, Perspectives on Politics, Vol. 2, No. 4, pp. 725-740