Political Theory and Institutions



Institutions are increasingly important in contemporary political philosophy. From Lea Ypi and Jonathan White’s work on parties to Bernardo Zacka’s on welfare bureaucracies and Lisa Herzog’s on complex organizations, broadly analytical political theory is focusing more and more on the goods realized and realizable by the organizations which make up the landscape of late capitalism. This institutional turn, towards taking seriously the mechanisms available for achieving any political goals, the commitments they may require and the values they may respect or promote, raises a wide range of questions. It interacts in various ways, for example, with sometimes rather abstract methodological debates about the role of ideal and non-ideal theory, as well as those around practice-dependence and independence and alleged realism and moralism.

Ought institutions to be understood as only feasibility constraints on the enactment of otherwise uncompromising a priori moral truths?

Alternatively, is considering the structure and operation of institutions the only realistic way of identifying principles which adequately capture the nature of the dilemmas to which they must speak?

Are these two positions in as much tension as this contrast suggests?

How does the appropriateness of any answer to a methodological question itself depend on considerations about structure institutions and the goods they might realize?

A turn to institutions also raises more concrete issues. What is an institution and what distinguishes institutions from other forms of organized human activity?

Which institutions should be studied, at what level of detail and with which aspirations for generality?

For example, how does the broader socio-economic framework structure the actions and so the goods realized by the staff of welfare institutions like those studied by Zacka?

Is it likely to be more useful to try to identify the distinctive value of one particular form of an institution, perhaps in a particular setting, or to specify the goods a kind of institution in general achievements?

Does it make sense to confine reflection on institutions and the way in which they can inform normative political theory to individual states and societies or is the methodological nationalism widely criticized in debates about global justice a more general problem?

How should different institutions be identified, never mind selected, for consideration?

Is there, for instance, a single global financial order, and when might political theorists appropriately turn their attention to it?

Political scientists, economists, sociologists, anthropologists, legal scholars and historians have all described, conceptualized and theorized institutions of various sorts. A further question posed by political theory’s institutional turn then is the extent to which political theorists should rely on the division of labour implied by these disciplinary divides, and how.

What can political theorists gain from the analyses of institutions proposed in these other fields?

Ought political theorists simply to take for granted the conclusions reported by other disciplines, and if so, what should they do in the case of conflict, either within or between disciplines?

Where other scholars have asked different questions than those in which they are interested, how, if at all, should they revise their views about what they need to understand?

This panel welcomes reflections on any and all of these questions, particularly where it occurs through discussions of particular institutions, values, principles or goods.

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