Continuity and change in the organization of political parties.

AuthorSchwartz, Mildred A.


The long-run fate of political parties competing for office can be explained through a diverse range of organizational theories that locate them in the interplay between the universal and contending social forces of continuity and change (Clemens and Cook 1999). How these social forces play out is affected by three factors shaping all organizations. One is the institu-tionalization of practices and beliefs within parties, manifested in their structure (Scott 2001). Second is the environment that provides resources for sustaining parties and the milieu in which they compete with rivals (Pfeffer and Salancik 1978). And third are actions by party participants themselves (Donaldson 1996). Here I adapt the perspective of organizational coevolutionists (March 1991; Lewin et al. 1999; Rodrigues and Child 2008) to treat continuity and change in party organizations through the interaction between environmental and institutional factors with strategic actions.

Continuity is a general concept I use to cover the ways in which ongoing regularities in parties' existence over time may be explained. According to population ecology theory, (1) the normal state of organizations is inertia (Hannan and Freeman 1984). Organizations tend to resist change because of factors like sunk costs in existing practices, internal coalitions, and ties with other organizations. In other words, inertia is the result of both environmental and institutional factors with little weight given to the actions of individuals. The argument for downplaying the significance of those actions is tied to the complex world in which organizations exist, making it difficult, in a timely manner, for even prominent actors to assimilate and make use of all the information that affects their organization or to overcome the resistance of others. Although working with different assumptions, neo-institutional theorists argue that constraints from the institutional environment promote organizational isomorphism that comes to convey legitimacy, manifested as inertia (DiMaggio and Powell 1991a: 12; b: 65). Continuity can also stem from deliberate actions rooted in loyalty, the honoring of tradition, and preferences for the status quo.

Change, as well, is explained through a number of theoretical perspectives. For population ecologists, change is the result of adaptation to environmental pressures, mediated by institutional characteristics. Just as with their predictions of inertia, little credence is placed in what individual actors can accomplish. Among neo-institutionalists, change occurs through processes that lead organizations to imitate the forms and practices of those most successful in their field (DiMaggio and Powell 1991b: 64). Change, like continuity, is tied to the power and the interests of key participants (DiMaggio and Powell 1991a: 30-1). A new emphasis is added by those who recognize change in creative innovations (Bolton 1993; Cummings and O'Connell 1978). According to structural contingency theorists, change comes about through the actions of those who respond to altered conditions by adopting strategies to reshape their organization in ways that produce a better fit with the environment (Lawrence and Lorsch 1967; Donaldson 1996).

By recognizing that continuity and change do not exclude each other and are both affected by the same kind of social mechanisms, a number of important questions arise with specific relevance to the organization of political parties in general and Canadian and U.S. ones in particular. I use the organizational literature for guidance about what needs to be asked and here I restrict myself to three representative questions.

The first question asks, under what circumstances does innovation overwhelm the customary inertia? Organizational theorists see this happening when actors are stimulated by their organizations' poor performance to search for new and different approaches (Cyert and March 1963; Zaltman et al. 1973; Bolton 1993). Students of political parties recognize this same phenomenon when a period of continuing weakness in a party, particularly one that had been a major player in political life, leads to its openness to change. This is a phenomenon identified almost a century ago by Lippmann (1914), supported empirically by Lowi (1963), and made current by Galvin (2008). As Harmel and Janda (1994: 278) put it, "Parties will only change under pressure." Lowi (1963: 571) also raised the likelihood that similar tendencies might be found in multi-party systems through the innovative actions of the second minority party. That prediction is compatible with Pinard's (1975) argument that oneparty dominance in Canada's provinces gave rise to innovative new parties rather than to the remaking of the second of the two traditional major parties. The expectation, then, is that success, normally defined as governing status, will, over time, lead to inertia. The absence of such success should be a spur to innovation.

The two primary institutional sources of innovation are also the basis of continuity. The first of these involve continuing access to resources. Organizations attempt to overcome scarcity and competition from others by forming bridges to the environment (Pfeffer and Salancik 1978). But inertia can take over once they have stockpiled resources and lose a sense of urgency. Innovative organizations, in contrast, should be especially vigorous in pursuing new resources.

The second source stems from the need of every organization to provide some system of meaning that sets it apart from similar organizations and serves as a source of identification and a blue-print for action. As neo-institutional (DiMaggio and Powell 1991a; Scott 2001) and cultural theories (Trice and Beyer 1993) emphasize, institutions and culture constrain organizations' ability to adapt to changing conditions. In order to break from continuing along the same pathways, an emphasis on values promoting change becomes the essential spur to carrying out innovation (Damanpour 1991; Hage 1999: 601; Hage and Dewar 1973).

These general approaches to institutional sources of innovation lead to predictions about how innovation in parties will be manifested. It will be found in the use of new means for mobilizing resources, the search for added resources of money and support, and the promulgation of new and inspiring messages that convey the party's aspirations (Schwartz 2011).

The second question asks, when does the environment promote stability and when change? Answers are premised on viewing the environment as either stable or turbulent. It is not that stable environments are totally unchanging but that they change slowly, often predictably, and in incremental ways. Turbulence, in contrast, results from major and often unpredictable disruptions stemming from external events like financial crises, political upheavals, or large-scale demographic shifts. Contingency theorists argue that, at the ecological level, different structures will result from adapting to differing environmental conditions. Where the environment is stable, organizations that predominate are likely to be highly formal and centralized. However, where the environment is turbulent, adaptive organizations will be more loosely structured and more reliant on the personal qualities of participants (Lawrence and Lorsch 1967; Donaldson 1996). Yet Boyne and Meier (2009), in their study of public service organizations, found that environmental turbulence led organizations to perform poorly, especially when they attempted internal organizational changes. This led them to recommend that, under turbulent conditions, it is better to maintain structural stability. Such divergent expectations about the preferable way for organizations to respond to environmental conditions reflect the disruptiveness of both external turbulence and internal changes.

Structural responses to the environment pose special problems for political parties. Even though, in Figure 1, I present formal and presumably centralized organization as the most likely option where the environment is stable, this may, in fact, not be the best policy for parties. Instead, like other organizations with diverse interests and commitments, parties are normally best served by loosely coupled structures, regardless of environmental conditions. At the same time, within such organizations, loose coordination aids the emergence of innovative solutions to problems of turbulence. For example, Zaltman et al.'s (1973: 84) performance gap theory of change sees collective decision-making, manifested as decentralized authority, facilitating innovation. Loose coupling also allows the separation of arenas of action according to their strength, with stronger ones building up resources while weaker ones are isolated so as not to dilute the strength of others. (2)


As strategies of change are incubated in their own setting, they may arouse conflict elsewhere in the organization. The resolution of those conflicts and the spread of innovations may then require a different approach, one that relies on hierarchical structures characterized by professionalization in personnel and activities (Thompson 1967: 59; Damanpour 1991: 558). Zaltman et al. (1973: 144-5) argue that centralization is important for the implementation of innovations which Daft (1978: 206) associates with tight coupling. In parties, the consolidation of formal power relations will typically be manifested through centralization and professionalization--the adoption of practices designed to rationalize procedures and use personnel with specialized training (Gibson and Rommele 2009). In Figure 1, I label this response as phased loose coupling.

The third question asks: What makes party actors defend the status quo in contrast to seeking a break with the past? Given the experience that one's party is not winning office, would it not be rational to...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT