Universal Suffrage as Change Driven by Ideas: A Case Study of Sweden

By Marleen Bornat

Traditional theories of institutionalism (rational choice, historical and sociological) are often criticised for being unable to explain institutional change given their relatively static view of institutions (Freidenvall 2008). In recent years, discursive/constructivist institutionalism has consequently emerged to address some of these criticisms, specifically by adding ideas to the analytical framework. In the following, I will illustrate Blyth’s (2002) hypotheses about how ideas can lead to institutional change by applying it to the introduction of universal suffrage in Sweden. Although Blyth mainly focuses on the role of economic ideas, I argue that ideas also provide an interpretative framework in non-economic processes.

The introduction of women’s enfranchisement  occurred at different times in different countries, but it was usually driven or at least pushed for by women’s organisations (Janz and Schonpflug 2014). In the case of Sweden, this process already started in the late 1800s with municipality reforms but it only took off when the National Suffrage Society was formed in 1902 (Dahlerup and Leyenaar 2013). The society organised thousands of women across the country and thus provided a basis for collective action and coalition-building (ibid.). The women’s organisation clearly defined its common end, already evident in its name: the universal suffrage in Sweden. It campaigned for this goal by “writing petitions, arranging demonstrations, and summoning public hearings (ibid.)”. To give an example, they once collected 360,000 signatures in favour of universal suffrage which put societal pressure on the ruling parties (ibid.).

In 1921, a coalition of liberals and social democrats introduced the equal and universal suffrage reforms which meant that women could finally vote and run for office in parliamentary elections (ibid.). The ideas of the National Suffrage Society thus formed the blueprint for the new institution, that is universal suffrage. It also structured the expectations various actors had about the institution. However, universal suffrage by itself did not achieve actual gender equality in politics and arguably, still has not up to this day. For that, one would have to challenge the underlying gendered informal institutions, which shows that ideas may compete and prevent formal change from being fully successful.

Hezbollah Made War and War Made Hezbollah

By Marleen Bornat


When people hear about the Lebanese organisation Hezbollah, they will most likely picture them as a terrorist organisation. Yet that portrayal fails to capture the many transformations the militant group has undergone since its formation in the 1980s; mainly from a resistance movement to a “state within a state” and an Islamic political party that is part of one of the dominating coalitions in the Lebanese Parliament (Davis 2007). In the following, I will apply Tilly’s (1985) theory of state making to Hezbollah to show that it is lacking a vital component of a state-building force, apart from the obvious lack of recognition by the international community.

According to Tilly (1985), there were four main processes to state formation in Europe. Among them is war making during which “states” eliminate their rivals outside of their own territory (ibid.). Although Hezbollah rarely engages in territory expanding activities, it led the struggle against Israel which strengthened its own regional basis (Davis 2007). Additionally, it possesses the unofficial monopoly of violence as it is much stronger than the Lebanese Armed Forces (ibid.).

Hezbollah also fulfils the protection element of state making. The organisation does not only defend the Lebanese people against outside forces but it also provides services that the state fails to care for, thus acting as a parallel authority. Additionally, it eliminates domestic enemies by punishing criminals according to Islamic law. The only state making element Hezbollah is really lacking is the ability to extract to realise the above-mentioned processes. According to Tilly (1985), European states had to extract resources for war efforts which required them to create bureaucratic institutions to secure regular income. Contrary to that, Hezbollah receives a lot of funding from its allies, today mainly from Iran (Davis 2007).

To summarise, although many sub-state groups or militant organisations have the strength to make war, build a state and protect, they often lack extractive institutions as they tend to rely on funding and plundering. This means that even though Hezbollah has in some parts established parallel state-like institutions that function better than the state-provided ones, as long as they are mainly a proxy for more powerful states, they will never be powerful enough to pose a real threat to the actual state.

Female political representation

By Marleen Bornat

Steinmo (2008)Bates (1998) and Tilly (1990) propose different approaches to the study of social science and history. Tilly (1990)  categorises these approaches by distinguishing between small-scale versus large-scale analysis and humanism versus social science. I will use my capstone topic, the political representation of women, and show how the two methods advocated by Bates (1998) and Steinmo (2008) would change the type of research question one would investigate and the kind of conclusions one is able to draw.

Bates (1998) proposes a method he dubs “analytical narrative” which combines historical narratives (accounts and stories) with the analytical rigor of rational choice theory, particularly game theory, to investigate a problem/puzzle. If one wants to examine the underrepresentation of women in the political sphere, one may for example ask: “Does clientelism pose an obstacle to women’s political representation?” To research this question, one would conduct interviews and surveys with politicians while also designing a game that helps to uncover behavioural patterns. This method may (i) yield new predictions that can be examined and (ii) provide a model that can be tested in other cases.

Steinmo (2008) advocates a different method named “historical institutionalism” which looks at institutions to unravel the sequencing and change of social, economic and political behaviour over time. It views human beings as both norm-abiding and self-interested and studies individuals as well as institutions in a particular context (ibid.). A research question one would investigate as a historical institutionalist would be: “How do institutions influence women’s descriptive representation in the German legislature?” Consequently, one would holistically analyse how institutions structure political behaviour, by for instance empowering and/or constraining male and female politicians differently across time. Historical institutionalism would only allow for conclusions to be made about how institutions constrain women’s representation in this particular context (this context can range from several countries to individuals).

Although the aforementioned methods as well as categories proposed by Tilly (1990) appear to be relatively fixed, most research rather falls somewhere along the continuum and usually only identifies to some extent with a particular category.