Political Process

A conception of politics as decision making is at least as old as Plato and Aristotle. It is reflected in the language and concerns of political thought, from the earliest political philosophers through Bentham to Merriam and Lasswell. Who gets what and how? For the most part, contemporary theory in political science considers politics and political behavior in such instrumental terms. The intent of actions is found in their outcomes, and the organizing principle of a political system is the allocation of scarce resources in the face of conflict of interest. Thus, action is choice, choice is made in terms of expectations about its consequences, meanings are organized to affect choices, and symbols are curtains that obscure the real politics, or artifacts of an effort to make decisions.

Parts of the new institutionalism are challenges to this primacy of outcomes. These challenges echo another ancient theme of political thought, the idea that politics creates and confirms interpretations of life. Through politics, individuals develop themselves, their communities, and the public good. In this view, participation in civic life is the highest form of activity for a civilized person. The ideas find post-Hellenistic voices in J. S. Mill, Pateman (1970), and Lafferty (1981). Politics is regarded as education, as a place for discovering, elaborating, and expressing meanings, establishing shared (or opposing) conceptions of experience, values and the nature of existence. It is symbolic, not in the recent sense of symbols as devices of the powerful for confusing the weak, but more in the sense of symbols as the instruments of interpretive order.

The primary source of the institutionalist challenge is empirical. Observers of processes of decision making regularly discern features that are hard to relate to an outcome-oriented conception of collective choice. The pleasures are often in the process. Potential participants seem to care as much for the right to participate as for the fact of participation; participants recall features of the process more easily and vividly than they do its outcomes; heated argument leads to decisions without concern about their implementation; information relevant to a decision is requested but not considered; authority is demanded but not exercised (Feldman and March, 1981; March and Olsen, 1976). These observations are often reported as anomalies, as symptoms of some kind of perversity in the systems that were observed, paradoxical. The appearance of paradox, however, is a product of our theoretical presumption that the main point of a decision-making process is a decision. For many purposes, that presumption may be misleading. The processes of politics may be more central than their outcomes."


The New Institutionalism: Organizational Factors in Political Life, as printed in The American Political Science Review

See also

Symbolism in politics

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