Taking Stock of the Explanatory Power of Ideas

Insights from a roundtable at the CES annual conference in Madrid, June 2019


Scholarship emphasizing the explanatory power of ideas for political outcomes started growing in the late 1980s. By 2010, Béland and Cox summarized that “across the social sciences, ideas are increasingly recognized as major factors in politics. One could go so far as to say […] that ideas are a primary source of political behavior” (2010, 3). Having established that ideas explain phenomena as diverse as monetary policy, citizenship, or social democracy, what are the remaining theoretical and epistemological challenges? Is there agreement on the causal role of ideas relative to institutions and material interests? What are the best theoretical models for mechanisms of ideational stability and change? Which established and emerging methods best allow us to study ideas empirically?

During the 2019 annual conference, hosted by the Council for European Studies, four panelists came together for a roundtable to discuss possible answers to these questions: Erik Bleich (Middlebury College), Kathleen McNamara (Georgetown University), Jason Wittenberg (UC Berkeley) and Christina Zuber (Konstanz University). An active audience of anthropologists, geographers, historians, political scientists, and sociologists helped broaden the discussion beyond political science, the home discipline of all four panelists. The main insights from the roundtable can be structured along three themes: The relationship between ideas research and contemporary political science, recent advances in ideas research, and remaining challenges.


Intellectual context: from fighting for acceptance to the heart of the discipline?

In the late 1980s, when ideational explanations were on the rise, political scientists suggesting such explanations often had to defend their work against harsh critique. In particular, rational choice theorists were eager to reduce all motivations for political behavior to the material incentives of a given choice situation. Much of the earlier ideational work therefore spent considerable energy on demonstrating that ideas are indeed causally important beyond the residual, with optimal research designs involving test situations where the material incentives would predict different choices than actors’ dominant ideas. This “old school approach” (McNamara) had a rather limited view of ideas, seeing them predominantly as a property of the actors making the political decisions.

By the 2000s, ideational scholarship had opened up to a much broader agenda. Ideas are no longer only studied as cognitive beliefs (a property of decision-makers). Rather, the field is now placing more emphasis on the role of ideas in societal interactions, looking at how ideas become shared and eventually form part of the societal repertoire of traditions, norms, and cultural practices. Panelists are tracing ideas in the communicative frames through which actors influence others actors’ ideas (Bleich, Zuber), or study how they are embodied in cultural practices, symbols and processes of identity construction (McNamara) or how they stabilize as beliefs of the mass public and thereby endure even severe historical ruptures (Wittenberg).

An earlier more defensive posture has given way to the recognition that the dichotomy between material interests and ideas is often a false one. Arguing that political behavior results not just from material incentives, but is also influenced by actors’ beliefs about their interests, or their perceptions of relative social status, has become much more widely accepted in the discipline. This broader acceptance of the causal role played by beliefs, perceptions, and values has been strengthened by the experimental turn in political science. As rational choice models were being increasingly challenged by a growing number of laboratory and field experiments, scholars began to search for alternative models in social psychology. In social psychology, seeing behavior as a result of beliefs about the utilities of expected outcomes andbeliefs about descriptive and prescriptive norms, group identities, and social status had never been that controversial to begin with (cf. the prominent reasoned action approach by Fishbein and Ajzen, 2010).


Recent advances: practices, salience, dispositions, and legacies

Against such a background of broader acceptance, all panelists engage in research that advances ideational theories in ways that emphasize that the field is moving from demonstrating that ideas matter to developing more refined theories of how exactly it is that they matter. In doing so, they are aware of differences between the ideas of elite decision-makers, and ideas at the macro level of society, and they strive to theorize how the two interact. Each panelist had a concept that was central to their most recent work on ideas: cultural practices (McNamara), salience (Bleich), dispositions (Zuber), and legacies (Wittenberg).

Kathleen McNamara argued that we should move beyond a sole focus on ideas to a broader development of the role of culture and identity in producing important outcomes in political life.  Whereas ideas can be understood in cognitive terms, as the property of discrete actors—a property that we carry about with us to generate understandings of the world—thinking instead of culture as the broader social structures we participate in allows for much more powerful analysis. McNamara posited in her early work that ideas were crucial to the cooperation around the creation of the euro (McNamara 1998), but she argued that, today, she would study instead meaning making, as she has done in her recent book The politics of Everyday Europe: The Construction of Political Authority in the European Union (2015). Thinking of culture as the key foundation for meaning making allows for a more profound understanding of how key social processes shape political life than a focus on the relatively thin, actor-centered notion of ideas. This broader take empirically brings ideational scholarship in political science into closer connection with anthropological and cultural studies research on cultural practices and identities. It also requires bridging between structural accounts of culture and actor-centered theories of identity construction.

Erik Bleich argued that we should think of ideas at the societal level in terms of a distribution—a diverse repertoire—rather than in terms of a unified set. Ideas are distributed across a population, and across subsets of the population defined by social identities. In addition to the older view that ideational change works by replacing one set of ideas with another, change can then also occur when elites successfully emphasize some elements of the ideational repertoire over others, modulating the salience of ideas. For example, analyzing forty years of French Supreme Court (Conseil Constitutionnel) decisions in hate speech cases, Bleich showed how a far-right affiliated group raised the salience of the long-standing idea of judicial neutrality to push for its goal of seeing hate speech persecuted also when it targeted majorities (whites, French people, Catholics, and Christians), and not only when it targeted minorities (as had been the case in all convictions until the mid-1990s) (Bleich 2018). He concluded that “efforts to modulate the salience of existing ideas among key actors are, to me, just as interesting and important as stories of ideational change.”

Christina Zuber was interested in how ideas become inscribed into the societal repertoire in the first place. She sees behavior as a consequence of incentives and dispositions. Incentives result anew from each choice situation; dispositions stem from social values and identities acquired through socialization and are much more stable (Chong 2000). From the snapshot perspective of a single choice situation, discursive ideas can influence outcomes by heightening the salience of some incentives or dispositions over others. In the long run, however, ideas can become inscribed into the very repertoire of dispositions that can be activated in relation to a policy problem. This happens if 1) discursive consensus coordinates political elites on a dominant policy idea, and 2) stable organizational routines reinforce that idea at the practical level of policy implementation. As dispositions, ideas can then influence choice in analogous future situations. For example, the European minority regions of Catalonia and South Tyrol made their first experience with migration during industrialization, and in the form of internal migration. Catalans controlled regional industries, while South Tyroleans were excluded from economic progress. Both regions retained dominant ideas of migration as opportunity (Catalonia), respectively threat (South Tyrol) when confronting international migration half a century later, even though economic and institutional circumstances had changed radically (Zuber 2019).

Jason Wittenberg connected work in the growing field of historical legacy research to ideational scholarship. He did this with the insight that “identifying a ‘legacy effect’ in contemporary politics is equivalent to establishing the causal or at least correlational primacy of ideas over material interests and institutional incentives.” Legacy explanations trace the causes of contemporary political outcomes back to a vanished historical constellation of actors, interests and institutions that can no longer exercise a direct effect on the outcome. Mechanisms that transmit the legacy from the past to the present are therefore of crucial importance, and legacy research locates these mechanisms predominantly in the ideas of the mass public. For example, ideas inculcated under communism survived the demise of communist regimes. And even ideas inculcated under pre-communist regimes survived both the rupture brought by communism as well as the one brought by its demise (Wittenberg 2006). Legacy research also shows that once they have become part of the societal repertoire, ideas connected to long gone regimes can be reactivated later on, which ties in with both Bleich’s view of salience modulation and Zuber’s mechanism of ideational stabilization.


Remaining challenges: levels of analysis and scope conditions

In their interventions, panelists also discussed remaining challenges and opportunities for improving theoretical and empirical work on ideas. Two of these challenges stood out in particular: Drawing connections between contributions studying ideas at different analytical levels, and delineating the scope conditions for ideational causation more clearly.

Ideas are currently studied at different levels by different subfields. Political communication is mostly interested in the micro-level of beliefs held by individuals and studies how these can be affected by communicative frames employed by elites. This type of research is firmly grounded in psychological theories of belief and attitude formation, but tends to have a very narrow view of what ideas are (e.g. seeing them as dimensions of consideration or mental models). The field of policy studies is mostly interested in ideas at the level of elite decision-makers and representative organizations. Here, ideas are mostly seen as programmatic beliefs and as policy frames employed in discourse. Theories are brought forward of which attributes of carriers and context make some ideas more influential than others. In legacy research (and also in Bleich’s recent work), we find a focus on ideas as distributed at the aggregate macro level of society at large. There are obvious connections to be made between these different approaches, connections that could yield a more complete picture of how and why certain elite ideas resonate with the public, and under which conditions ideas stabilize or change over time.

A second challenge lies in delineating scope conditions of ideational explanations. Older debates spun around the question of whether ideas had explanatory power at all. Now that many careful studies have shown that ideas can be identified as causes of many political outcomes, scholars could focus on pinning down when exactly they are likely to matter most (or least). Based on his research, Bleich saw courts as optimal arenas for ideas to enter decision-processes because participants have to bring forward arguments drawing on one or the other legal principle. We might therefore distinguish between institutional arenas that are more and less conducive to ideational influence. Some institutional arenas by design require actors to exchange ideas and engage in arguing, rather than bargaining. Similarly, different substantive policy areas may be more or less amiable to ideational influence. Migration and integration policy is by its very nature closely connected to shared norms and social identities. It might therefore not be that surprising that we find societal dispositions and their activation in elite discourse to influence policy choices that define who can become an accepted member part of the political and cultural community. Similarly, it may be no coincidence that much ideational work has focused on macro-economic policy where we find clear established paradigms and paradigmatic divisions. The fact that policy research rarely cuts across different policy areas has so far inhibited more general statements of which areas are more and which are less likely to ideational influence. Such a comparative assessment across policy areas would certainly be a welcome future research agenda.

Once the discussion opened to the audience, the roundtable became living proof that ideas play an important role for the analysis of social phenomena across different disciplines and fields of study. The fact that as a concept, ideas already play a role across the social sciences can be seen as a promising basis for future ideational explanations of social phenomena that go beyond the usual repertoire of political science.



By Christina Isabel Zuber, drawing on contributions by Erik Bleich, Kathleen McNamara, Jason Wittenberg and members of the audience present at the round table.

Christina Isabel Zuber is Assistant Professor of German Politics at the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Konstanz, Germany. Her background is in comparative politics and her main research areas are comparative federalism, party politics and migration. Before joining the University of Konstanz, she held postdoctoral positions at the University of Bremen and at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, and lectured at the Universities of Zurich and Lucerne. She is currently finalizing a book that uses the concept of ideational legacies to explain how historical industrialization processes influence the contemporary politics of migration in European minority regions. 



Béland, Daniel & Cox, Robert Henry, eds. (2010). Ideas and Politics in Social Science Research. New York: Oxford University Press.

Bleich, Erik. (2018). Historical institutionalism and judicial decision-making: Ideas, institutions, and actors in French high court hate speech rulings. World Politics, 70(1), 53–85.

Chong, Dennis. (2000). Rational lives: Norms and values in politics and society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fishbein, Martin & Ajzen, Icek (2010). Predicting and changing behavior. The reasoned action approach. New York: Psychology Press/Taylor & Francis.

McNamara, Kathleen R. (1998). The currency of ideas: monetary politics in the European Union. Cornell University Press.

McNamara, Kathleen R. (2015). The politics of everyday Europe: Constructing authority in the European Union. Oxford University Press.

Wittenberg, Jason. (2006). Crucibles of political loyalty: Church institutions and electoral continuity in Hungary. Cambridge University Press.

Zuber, Christina I. (2019). Preserving Inclusive Ideas. Histories of industrialization and contemporary politics of migration in European minority regions, book manuscript presented at the conference on “The Effects of Multilevel Governance”, European University Institute, Florence, May 23-24, 2019.


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