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Because of the institutions

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“There can be no types of things unless there are causes which, though operating in different places and at different times, always and everywhere produce the same effects. And where is the object of social science if the lawgiver can organize and direct social life as he pleases?” Emile Durkheim, Montesquieu’s Contribution to the Rise of Social Science

I had not read Durkheim’s Latin Thesis on Montesquieu before. Which is published, in the English translation anyway, together with his essay on Rousseau. The latter piece was published posthumously. I first read The Division of Labour in Society more than 50 year ago. I wrote a seminar paper then. I have no idea what I said. In the 1980s I wrote an article discussing The Elementary Forms of Religious Life and read his and Mauss’ Primitive Classification together with the rest of Durkheim’s work on moral philosophy and Mauss’ pieces on The Gift and on The Nation. Durkheim is certainly the most influential sociologist among sociologists, in large part because of the interpretation of his work to be found in Parsons’ The Structure of Social Action. To the extent that sociology has a theory, that theory is structural-functionalism, which is traced back to Durkheim. Who, however, was not a functionalist, but that is another matter.

I went back to Durkheim in order to remind myself what role institutions played in his work. And that because I have been trying to make sense of the claim by Acemoglu and Johnson in Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty that institutions cause development or stand in its way.1 So, that would be, from a disciplinary point of view, a sociological explanation. They, however, opt for a political explanation.

So, basically, the distribution of power sustains institutions which, depending on what they are, either help growth and development, or keep countries and economies behind. The problem with that thesis is that politics or rather power relations change or can change rather quickly, while institutions are much more enduring, at least from a sociological point of view.

And that is where Durkheim’s two essays come in. In his Latin Thesis on Montesquieu, he discusses the autonomy of sociology. While in his essay on Rousseau he looks at the relation between politics and sociology. The latter theme was not of paramount importance to Durkheim because his main methodological argument was with psychological explanation of social phenomena. He did not discuss economics a lot (except in a way in The Division of labour in Society), but he would have certainly criticised the reliance on individual preferences to explain social phenomena. He was not, however, critical of individualism, which often is where sociologists end up. His main interest was to argue for the autonomy of sociology, which is to say to reject reductionism, primarily to psychology. What that means is this: social facts are things that should be explained by laws and causes which are social, i.e., by sociology. Those explanations may very well be moral, morality being social, but are not to be reduced to politics, economics, or psychology.

Thus, if institutional explanation is to be offered to account for progress, the topic he treats in his Latin Thesis, the laws and causes relied on have to be sociological.

Laws and causes are endogenous to the subject matter, which does not mean that they are not related to exogenous laws and causes. I say laws and cause because Durkheim refers to them interchangeably, but it is to be understood that his aim was to carve up the science of sociology, so he has in mind general social regularities, which is to say scientific laws. So, for instance, if one wants to explain the stability of institutions, one needs to refer to laws of social life, which is to say to rely on sociology. That is not to say that psychology, economics, politics and other external sciences – external to sociology, that is – and their specific laws and causes are not consequential for social life. Thus, the autonomy of the social is not to be seen as coming at the expense of the individual. Sociology is individualist, but it explains social facts and thus has explanatory autonomy.

Acemoglu and Johnson explain the diverse influence of colonialism on economic development by the difference in the colonial institutions and by their persistence after independence (The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development: An Empirical Investigation). The first part is convincing, though debatable. Depending on circumstances, colonial powers bring in institutions which are suitable to these circumstances. For instance, if colonies are plagued by infectious diseases with high mortality for the colonizers, the latter do not settle, do not form colonies, and rely on centralisation of power over the domestic population, on command rather than law. By contrast, in milder circumstances, colonists settle and have an interest in bringing in the rule of law to govern over themselves. The former colonies perform worse than the latter even long after they gain independence.

So, the question is how do the lawless institutions on one side and lawful on the other persist? And thus, economic consequences, bad and good respectively, also persist. The answer is that the explanation is institutional. The institutions that colonizers created are left after the colonial power retreats and continue to be those the countries live by, thus the enduring negative or positive effect on their economic development. So, that is the institutional explanation in the sense that it is the institutions which are causes of economic performance, e.g., of economic growth.

Now, the colonial example invites a political explanation of the character of the institutions. It is about using power to force people to do what is in the interest of the colonial rulers. And if the colony is uninhabitable, power needs to substitute for the presence of colonisers, and law may only get in the way. There are obvious other negative effects of this colonial exploitation on economic development. All that may be absent in colonies where people from the colonial power settle and where the use of power may be inferior to the rule of law, at least at some level of coercion.

It is still not clear: why do the colonial institutions persist once the colonial power is sent home? Saying that this is because of the institutions that are left behind is not convincing. So, in the more general theory that Acemoglu and Johnson develop, power continues to be what the explanation relies on. To the question of why power is not used to change the institutions, the answer is that the costs of change are high and the loss of power probable. So, the powerful, though now from the domestic population, have little interest in relying on the rule of law and the powerless cannot afford the costs of a political revolution. It is again hard to see how that is an institutionalist explanation.

What would a Durkheimian explanation be? He and his nephew Mauss did write on nationalism and in particular on the German question, but that is not of great interest to me. There is very interesting discussion of the French revolution at the end of the Elementary Forms, but that is an example one needs to get to. And indeed, in his two essays on Montesquieu and Rousseau, Durkheim does provide a theory of institutions and their change which is not political and is not psychological.

He praises Montesquieu for developing a social science rather than engaging in political art. This distinction between science and art is like the distinction between sociology and politics, as is clear from his essay on Rousseau. Assume that there are ancient institutions, which is really what one takes to be the institutional facts, the things that sociology is in the job of explaining. They are not there to support the form of government; it is the form of government that conforms to the institutions. All kinds of different conditions, not all social, influence the institutions of a society and its form of government. Geography plays a role, demographics play a role, climate plays a role, and he would have certainly taken into account the general health conditions as important. There will be other influences too. Institutions will be social organisations conditional on these circumstances. But though social institutions would be conditioned by these exogenous causes, they still conform to social laws and respond to social causes. That would be Montesquieu’s argument.

Let it be the case, however, that the form of government does not conform to these institutions, which would be Rousseau’s assumption, then what gives? The form of government as in the French Revolution, would be the sociological claim.

So, colonising is one thing, running a colony another. Chances are colonial power will rely on local institutions, so the form of government will not accord with the social institutions. Once the colonial power breaks down, the country is left with its institutions and may have problems adjusting to changing circumstances.

Peščanik.net, 08.03.2021.


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  1. See also D. Acemoglu, S. Johnson, J. A. Robinson, “Institutions as a Fundamental Cause of Growth” in Handbook of Economic Growth 1A, 2005.