Tue13Jun2017Wed14Jun2017Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse
Explaining Institutional Change in History
Why do institutions (laws, rules, sanctions, customs, and norms) in a given human society emerge, change, and disappear? Explaining institutional change has been a major theoretical and empirical challenge. A major obstacle facing explanations proposed by social scientists and historians is the peculiarities of the historical context. Historians tend to address this challenge by focusing on descriptions of what happened and emphasizing explanations that are contingent on the specific historical circumstances in which institutions evolve. Economists, other social scientists, and cultural evolutionists, on the other hand, tend to “generalize” and seek explanations that apply beyond the specific context of study. The tension between particular circumstances and general principles has not been resolved, with different scholars disagreeing as to the extent of permissible and empirically founded generalizations. Moreover, general principles in history are often as not as general as they may appear at first sight and are also bounded by the peculiarities of the data and the context.