The New Institutional Synthesis: Rules and Organizations in Institutional History

Peter Conti-Brown

It can be said that definitional imprecision leads to theoretical confusion, and nowhere more plainly than in institutional history, where two key terms—institutions and organizations—are used by many historians as essentially synonymous. Meanwhile, new institutional economists who delve deeply into economic history see the concepts as terms of art: institutions are the “rules of the game” or “equilibria” whereas organizations are agents that seek to optimize scarce resources and otherwise operate within their institutional constraints.

In this essay, I argue that a new institutional history represents a challenge to both definitional approaches. Without doing so explicitly, a new generation of institutional historians have profitably explored institutions as both organizations and rules, neither too closely wedded with a single organizational entity nor lost in the long and slow change of the rules over millennia. Historians have begun to see how formal and informal rules that govern politics, society, and the economy change through organizations in both short bursts and over long horizons. The key insight is that this new institutional history can build a theoretically robust methodology that can take its place among the other historiographic subdisciplines, whether business, political, economic, cultural, social, legal, or intellectual history.