What is the main criticism directed at the New Institutionalism approach?
The main criticism directed at New Institutionalism is an amalgamation of problems derived from the treatment and definition of institutions in general. With the expansion of study within the overall approach of Institutionalism from formal to informal institutions comes the problem of defining exactly what an institution is. This most formative and necessary component of the Institutionalist approach has remained amorphous and undefined as it has been stretched to include all manner of different aspects, forms and characteristics. Because the “institution” is so integral to the approach at hand it is seen as a large critique that the approach has not come to define and determine what qualifies as worthy of study and what is in or out with reference to a viable institution.
This problem has created a few dilemmas within the New Institutionalism approach. The first is simply that of definition. Expanding the definition of an institution from the rigid and formal definition of the old Institutionalists to the more fluid and informal definition used by the New creates a dilution problem. The new definition of an institution as a ‘stable, recurring pattern of behavior’ risks expanding the definition to include almost anything possible. This, of course, also expands the possibilities of diluting the meaning of institutions themselves and rendering their relevance to nothing, exactly the opposite of the goal of the Institutionalist approach. The vague definition of an institution also affects the types of research that is possible as well as decreasing the quality of research. With a more vague definition, new possibilities of research are opened, like researching what types of morning rituals are more effective than others with regard to presidents or prime ministers. Yet, because of this vagueness, the research becomes irrelevant and the measurement and interpretation of what is important becomes completely subjective and (frankly) non-scientific.
With a lack of full definition of what exactly an institution is, the community of New Institutionalists also comes to another conundrum: determining and describing exactly where institutions come from and how they are formed, as well as how they change over time. There is a distinct lack of consensus within the corpus of new Institutionalist data as to how these phenomena are accomplished. In fact, the whole of the community is divided in many respects along lines related to these questions (as well as others related to how the institutions should be examined and how they interrelate with human behavior). The community is divided into roughly seven strains of thought concerning these issues: the Normative institutionalists, the Rational Choice institutionalists, the Historical institutionalists, the Empirical institutionalists, the International institutionalists, the Sociological institutionalists, and the Network institutionalists. Each of these groups adds something to the understanding of the how institutions are either formed or how they change over time. Yet, neither alone nor as a whole can they come together to give a proper and precise definition or description of what these processes should look like, or how they can be researched or observed.
So, why is this important? Why can’t they all have their own take on what they want to see and study without having an existential enigma facing them in the face collectively? Well, the problem is that they are all interconnected within a framework of New Institutionalism (a way of doing research, observing phenomena and looking at reality) and to have differing definitions and descriptions using the same terminology, yet stemming from completely different points of view would be confusing to say the least. As well, it would cause a lack of confidence in the system or approach in general, lending it a general aura of pseudo-scientific gobbledygook. With a lack of confidence in the tools of the approach and a lack of scientific appeal, the approach would quickly become a haven of non-scientific mysticism, having roughly the same relationship to the other political science approaches and frameworks as astrology has to modern astronomy. Both measure the movements of the heavens and the stars, yet one is based in solid mathematical fact and sound scientific approaches, while the other uses the information to extrapolate wildly unscientific and irrelevant pseudo-scientific drivel which is unfounded and superstitious at best.
So, not only will a lack of contiguous definition and description of what an institution is and how it develops and changes over time lead to a degradation of the new Institutionalist approach, it will also lend a lack of credibility to the approach in general. This lack of credibility reaches across all the sub-discipline strains of thought and raises questions about all of them. Furthermore, it is compounded by the actions of all of these factions, contributing more to the fractionalization within the discipline. Thus the main critique against New Institutionalism has both intra-cooperative effects between the differing strands of Institutionalist thought as well as a larger existential effect looming over the entire framework. All this, because they have not been able to adequately describe and define what an institution is exactly.