>Idiosyncrasy and comparative politics


I recently read Erik Jones’ ‘Idiosyncrasy and integration: suggestions from comparative political economy’ (Journal of European Public Policy, 10 (1) Feb 2003 140-158) in connection with a PhD viva I was involved in. Although for me this has the air of an overheard conversation among political economists, it contained some interesting ideas, I kept turning over – albeit ideas I can’t quite work out how to use in my own research.

Revisiting the argument that in the context of international economic integration domestic contexts and institutions matter, Jones – via a reflection on the work of Polyani and Myrdal – presents the notion of ‘idiosyncrasy’ as a way of conceptualizing national specificity and the inevitably specific paths of development in the face of seemingly uniform pressures from the international economy/EU– ‘countries develop idiosyncratically or not at all’, as he puts it (141). So far so familiar – domestic politics matters. What is interesting is the presentation of how and why

Even similarities across cases, Jones argues, may develop as part of different trajectories and may then – following those trajectories – have different implications and effects. Consociationalism in Belgium and Holland despite geographical and cultural proximity might emerge for different reasons, be sustained for different periods of time and naturally lead off in different directions after it breaks down. This is not just a matter of different ‘horizontal’ set of national institutions (party systems, wage bargaining structures, financial bodies – at the macro level; economic governance structures at the meso level; and micro-level structures of family structures and local relationships generating social capital (or not). Nor even ‘vertical’ structures’ of values and underlying ideologies which cut across them and link them up (pages 142-4)

Rather national institutions that ‘matter’ should be viewed a complex ‘cross hatch’ of causations (some circular) evolving over time reflecting historical origins, actors beliefs, context and timing. This is interesting both because it stresses that institutions are dynamic and evolving and because it seems to redirect our attention towards the trajectories and linkages of sets of social and political institutions, rather than the incentives offered by institutional structures per se

This admittedly doesn’t seem to take us radically beyond new institutionalist territory (in fact I think historical institutionalist territory) and seems focused on long term evolution of big economic and social institutions, rather than the more medium medium term outcomes and institutions that preoccupy me, but I liked the idea.


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