Formal versus informal institutions

By Anique Zwaan

Helmke and Levinsky state in their article a basic definition for institutions: “rules and procedures (both formal and informal) that structure social interaction by constraining and enabling actors’ behavior”. However, defining informal and formal institutions are fairly more difficult and many give different interpretations to the definitions.  One way of defining them is by explaining that informal institutions are cultural traditions, and formal institutions are state-enforced rules.

As becomes clear by the statement above, there is a certain gray area around the definitions of formal and informal institutions. One example, where it is difficult to decide whether a rule is formal or informal is the case of women wearing hats in the Dutch Reformed Church (Dutch: Gereformeerde Gemeenten in Nederland).

This church requires women and young girls to wear a hat, thus covering their heads when they attend a service. If they do not wear a hat, they are denied access to the church. The question here is: is this a formal or an informal institution? You could argue it is informal, because it is a rule within a church, and it is not stated in the Dutch Law that women have to cover their heads when they attend a church. Thus, this particular rule could be seen as a “cultural tradition”. On the other hand, the church is an organisation, with its own rules, which it enforces upon its members. When you become member of a particular church, you agree to follow its rules and abide by them. This makes you question: is this or is this not an informal institution?

War as a cause of state formation

By Anique Zwaan

As Herbst mentions, several scholars have addressed the topic of state formation and stressed the effects war has on state formation. Samuel P. Huntington argued: “war was the great stimulus to state building,” and Charles Tilly even stated “war made the state, and the state made war.”  While Herbst mostly focusses on state formation in Africa, he also states briefly mentions that in many cases in Europe, war has indeed been a cause of state formation.

The example that sprung to mind was the case of the formation of the Dutch Republic in 1581. For some historical background: before the Dutch republic was formed, the land that we now call The Netherlands and Belgium was known as the Spanish Netherlands, and was under full control of Philip II of Spain. The Netherlands were being oppressed by the Spanish, and the Roman Catholic faith was being forced upon the country. In 1568, the mainly Calvinist Netherlandish provinces started the Dutch Revolt, thus beginning the Eighty Years’ War. From the beginning, the country was divided (page 547) in two sections: the southern, catholic provinces (the land we now know as Belgium), and the northern, protestant provinces. In 1581, the northern provinces declared independence from the Spanish oppressors, creating the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands. And now, almost 500 years later, the land that once was declared the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, is currently known as The Netherlands.

This example perfectly illustrates how a war has crucial effects on a country, and the process of state formation. The Spanish Netherlands, that were once separated by and during war, continue to exist as separate countries, many centuries later. The southern provinces as Belgium, and the northern provinces as The Netherlands.

World War II: path dependence or autonomous choice?

By Anique Zwaan

One of the most iconic events in modern history is the Second World War (WW II). This event is still carved into many minds, and has left its marks on today’s society. Many scholars have debated and explained the origins and causes of this war, but in this blogpost we will look at it from a different perspective: was the occurance of WW II path depent or caused by choice?

The theory that WW II was path dependent would mean that the start of this war cannot be explained in terms of short-term processes and that multiple relatively small events have led to the war commence. In this case, one of the “relatively small events” would be the Treaty of Versailles, which stated Germany had to pay a great deal of money to various countries (e.g. the UK and France) in order to make up for the damage they had caused with World War I. This led to little to no economic growth in Germany in the interwar years; the country became poor, and an easy target for radicalization (i.e. Hitler and his beliefs). This would mean that once Hitler became powerful in Germany, WW II was bound to happen.

On the other hand, it could be argued that WW II was caused by decisions that had been made consciously, such as Churchill deciding to not interfere with Hitler’s propaganda before it was too late. Or Hitler’s decision to ignore the Treaty of Versailles and invade Poland, in order to realize his dreams of the Third Reich.

From this information, one could still not draw a conclusion whether WW II was indeed a path dependent event, or if it was caused by human made choices: it is up to the reader to decide.