How institutions form and change over time | Interview with Dr. Kathleen Thelen

How institutions form and change over time | Interview with Dr. Kathleen Thelen

We met with MIT’s Ford Professor of Political Science, Dr. Kathleen Thelen to talk about the politics of labor and unions, how institutions form over time, and so much more. Enjoy!

Top political scientist Dr. Kathleen Thelen talks Nordic capitalism vs. American, the politics of labor and unions, how institutions form over time, atypical sources of change in politics, and challenges for married academics who need to work together locally. Ford Professor of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. Thelen talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.

That means, big companies like Amazon, do not run afoul of American antitrust, why? Because they're good for consumers, they deliver things faster, they deliver things cheaper. And so it's the application of a new set of interpretations to what is still basically the same rule.” – Dr. Kathleen Thelen

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Interview with Political Scientist Dr. Kathleen Thelen

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

00:28The path to political science

Jed Macosko: Hi, this is Dr. Jed Macosko from and Wake Forest University. And today we have a very special guest, professor Kathleen Thelen from MIT. So she’s gonna tell us a little bit about how she got into her particular field and what it might be like to practice in Political Science, so go ahead, take it away, Professor Thelen.

Kathleen Thelen: So I think mine was a somewhat circuitous path, I think the way that I originally got into or got interested in politics may have been my brother-in-law. I come from South Dakota, and he was a delegate for George McGovern back in the day when McGovern was running for president. The way that I got into comparative politics is that I did a junior year abroad, which was extremely important in my intellectual trajectory. When I went to college, I was actually, an English major, English literature. And I hadn’t really thought about switching over to political science until I did a junior year abroad, and I did it in Munich, Germany. And the reason I chose Germany, by the way, is because where I went to school, and I went to high school in South Dakota and the only foreign language that was offered was German. And so this kind of narrowed my horizons a bit.

But I did this junior year abroad in Munich and it happened to be an election year, and so I sort of was swept up in the discussion there and in the political debates. And when I came back, I switched my major from English to Political Science, and I was very, very, very strongly supported in all of my decisions as a college student.

I was actually one of the first in my family to get a PhD. And I was very much encouraged to pursue a PhD by my undergraduate advisor, Ron Francisco at the University of Kansas, who has in the meantime passed away, but who was extraordinarily influential in encouraging me to go on a path that wasn’t obvious to my family, for example. [chuckle]

Jed: And yet you still had that background with your relative being a delegate for McGovern, so you did have that.

And that was while you were in high school? Okay, so you had a little inkling, even though you went off to University of Kansas as an English major, you still had a little bit of political inklings, huh?

Kathleen: Yeah, I think so, it wasn’t very nurtured at the time, but it was certainly sort of somehow there.

03:30PhD work and switching to Comparative Politics

Jed: So tell us how you then decided on a PhD program, and what did you end up doing for your PhD work?

Kathleen: So this undergraduate advisor that I was just referring to, Professor Francisco, I didn’t know really how to go about applying for graduate school or which graduate schools to apply for. And so he really took me by the hand and really walked me through that whole process. He was a scholar of international relations, and so that’s what I thought I wanted to study at the time. And so he gave me tips on which schools would be best to apply to. And he was very influential in guiding me toward University of California, Berkeley, which is where I applied and where I wound up going to doing my PhD, although there too, I switched over from International Relations to Comparative Politics. And in particular Comparative Political Economy in this first year that I was there, and that’s where I’ve basically stayed ever since.

Jed: Very cool.

Now, at your time at Berkeley, how did you know that you wanted to switch out of International Relations and into Comparative Politics? What was it that triggered it? You mentioned the time in Munich was formative for some of that, but how did it kinda connect once you got to Berkeley?

Kathleen: You know, the people who were most influential in my graduate work, partly it was my advisor who sort of opened my eyes to the world of political economy and what was interesting about political economy, but honestly, I was in a seminar with a couple of other graduate students, they were a little more advanced than I was, but who were extremely influential. My advisor was a student of finance, so he studied business and he studied financial institutions and so on, but a couple of the most active members of the seminar who are now dear friends of mine, were really constantly drawing his attention back to issues of labor.

And so these guys, there are really three of them in particular, two of whom are still in the field, and one of whom has left the field, but is very much working on similar kinds of issues in a more consulting capacity. But they really influenced my trajectory by opening my eyes to the world of labor and unions and in particular, two of them, one of them is Swedish and the other is of Nordic descent. And they were very much drawing all of our attention to the Nordic model of social democracy, which I found fascinating and as a potential model of how to have a vibrant successful capitalist system, which however, generates higher levels of equality than the American version of capitalism.

And so I grew interested in... I continued my interest in the German case, but I also sort of extended it to study the Nordics as well, so that all of my work since then, or a lot of my work since then has really focused on labor politics, social policy, labor market institutions, training institutions, in this sort of northern European realm.

Jed: That’s fascinating. That’s near and dear to my heart, I met my Danish wife at Berkeley, when I was a PhD student, and we travel a lot to Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and I just love it. I just love the way that their society helps each other, Germany too, and now if you look at what countries have done well in COVID, it’s that little bubble of those Nordic countries, plus Germany that seem to have really kept watch over each other. We’ll put on the masks, did the social distancing. Got through it quickly. I’m just so jealous. [chuckle] I wish I was right there.

Kathleen: Right, right.

08:08After Berkeley

Jed: So where did your career go after Berkeley? So tell us a little bit about how that unfolded.

Kathleen: So my first job, my husband’s also an academic, and so the last year of graduate school, he studies Latin America, he studies business politics in Latin America. I study labor politics in rich democracy. So as we like to joke, he studies rich people in poor countries, and I study poor people in rich countries, but the last year of graduate school, we put up a map on the wall of all the places that he was getting interviews and all the places that I was getting interviews. And first of all, there weren’t that many stick pins on this map to begin with, and those that were there were pretty far apart. So the first job that he got was at Princeton, and the first job that I got was at Oberlin, which is a wonderful small college.

Jed: I know of it. Yeah. I love that school.

Kathleen: Yeah. Wonderful small college in Ohio. We drove all of our worldly possessions across the country, and I got off at Oberlin and he got off at Princeton, and we commuted for that first year. And during that year, we both made it clear that we had to both of our institutions that we needed to, this might not be a long-term solution, or wasn’t gonna be a long-term solution, and so that we would have to stay on the job market. And so that very year, I was lucky enough to get offered two jobs that would have eliminated the commute. One was at Swarthmore and the other was at Princeton itself. And so I obviously took the job at Princeton. And so we wound up together, we’re like the luckiest academic couple, we’ve always been able to move together. So that’s the only year that we had to commute. And it was not that bad a commute because by mid-year, we basically knew that we could see the end of it.

10:18From Princeton to MIT

Jed: Right. That’s always a reassuring feeling. [chuckle] Well, I’m so thankful that you guys ended up at Princeton, and then how did you end up at MIT? Were there any journeys between Princeton and MIT?

Kathleen: There were. There were. We loved Princeton, and it was a wonderful, wonderful experience, but Northwestern offered us two jobs to move together, and so we had I think in the 14 really glorious years also at Northwestern, some of my dearest friends are still there. And it was really actually, a pretty hard decision actually to leave Northwestern because the political science department there is so unique and so interesting and so well aligned with the kind of work that I do, certainly.

But after 14 years, MIT made us again, a double offer, and it seemed like a good time to turn the page and have a new chapter, not least because Cambridge is itself just such an enormously vibrant intellectual environment. And so it has been wonderful, as hard as it was. I always have a hard time leaving each of the places, I had a hard time leaving Oberlin, which I loved. Hard time leaving Princeton, which I loved. Hard time leaving Northwestern, which I loved. But Cambridge, I have to say, has been super stimulating intellectually. And I work really closely with a couple of colleagues at Harvard who have just made it a really wonderful intellectual experience for me.

Jed: That’s fascinating. That’s great.

And what year was that that you ended up in Cambridge?

Kathleen: We moved to Cambridge about 10 years ago, 12 years ago, maybe.

Jed: Okay, wonderful.

So it’s been a bit of a home for you for now?

Kathleen: Yeah, oh yeah. No, we definitely put down roots.

12:33Tracking the evolution of institutions

Jed: So now let’s talk a little bit more about what you’re doing right now. You said that it’s always been sort of the Northern European and Nordic countries. It’s always been a little bit about labor.

Tell us a little bit, for those of us who are not political scientists, like what is it that you do? And that’s of course, allowed you to become one of the more influential political scientists out there, according to our lists, and stuff. So, what is it you do?

Kathleen: So, there is a substantive aspect to what I do, and a kind of more methodological aspect to what I do. The substantive aspect is to look at the development, the historical evolution of different systems of economic regulation. Some of the institutions that we associate with the more egalitarian varieties of capitalism, have their roots in the late 19th century. And so, one of the things that I’ve... Some of my, I guess, most influential work has been to trace the roots of institutions that we now very closely associated with the more social varieties of capitalism in the scene, indeed to be kind of essential to achieving high degrees of equality. Things like wage bargaining systems, things like training systems, things like systems of social provision, and tracing them back to their historical roots.

And this is interesting, because it turns out that some of the institutions that we now associate with high levels of economic equality and strong unions, were actually have their roots in a very different kind of social coalition. So, one of the more dramatic examples of this is the German system of training, which we now see as something that really supports high levels of wage quality, and that offers opportunities for kids from sort of more modest backgrounds to acquire skills that allow them to secure stable, well-paid employment, especially in manufacturing, but also in services.

It turns out that that system has its roots in... Was not designed for this purpose, it was not designed to be helpful to labor unions. It was designed by pretty reactionary artisanal producers, who were very ambivalent about the evolution of capitalism. And so one of the things that I do, is I sort of track the evolution of these institutions, that’s just one example, to the present period. And that sort of gives you a signal of the kind of methodological work that I’m associated with, which is I’m associated pretty strongly with a particular view of institutions, it’s known in the subfield as historical institutionalism, or comparative historical analysis.

And basically, the line of argument that the kind of methodological contribution that I’ve made is to draw attention to the way in which institutions, the important institutions, this structure, political and political economic life, they’re not just created in some big bang moments, like after a world war or something like that, but rather they evolve slowly and incrementally, over long periods of time, often in ways that are pretty paradoxical.

And so, this is a line of argument that I’ve been developing, both at the level of looking historically at particular institutional configurations, but also elaborating a theory of institutional change, that looks at how institutions, over time, can be really reconfigured very significantly, without any big breakpoints. And so, again, the German case is a nice one, because Germany actually experienced a whole bunch of big breakpoints in the late 19th to 20th century, including losing a couple of world wars.

Jed: Yeah.

Kathleen: Many regime changes, and so on. And so, one of the things I track is some really striking continuities in some of these institutions over time, while at the same time their functions, and especially their political meaning, gets completely reconfigured, over this long span of time.

Jed: Wow.

Kathleen: So, that’s generally what I’ve been thinking about, for the last several decades.

Jed: So, on one hand, it’s the content of looking at those institutions and explaining to people how they’ve changed over time, and really maybe using those as examples for us to learn from, for a modern day political systems. And, on the other hand, it’s the methodology of how do you track an institution, like this German training program, as it evolves over time.

So you’ve developed that methodology and shown some examples, and that’s helped your field do... Other people are probably doing the same thing on different institutions, right?

Kathleen: Right.

Jed: They’ve taken the methodology and adapted it to whatever they’re particularly studying.

Kathleen: Exactly.

Jed: Very, very cool.

[overlapping conversation]

Jed: Go ahead. What are the lessons we can learn, from some of the institutions you’ve tracked? Like that German training program, is there anything that we can apply to the United States, or to modern times?

Kathleen: Yeah, so the idea is that you can add elements to old institutions in ways that can slowly over time change their trajectory. That’s one aspect of it. Another aspect of what I’ve been thinking about a lot is the way in which an institution or a rule, institutions and political science are often sort of thought not just as organizations, but also as rules. How rules, the meaning and the political sort of valence of rules can be completely re-configured and can in some cases, turned on its head through actions of say, the judiciary. So re-interpretation of a rule can really change the meaning and the functions of that rule 100%, but not in ways that show up in the formal writing of the rule, right?

Jed: Mm-hmm.

So a lot of what political scientists study are elections and political parties and so on, but I'm arguing actually, if you wanna understand how institutions change, you have to sort of step back and pan out a bit and look at the other arenas in which the meaning of rules gets re-negotiated.” – Dr. Kathleen Thelen

Kathleen: So you can have a rule like the Commerce Clause, which is designed for one particular purpose, but which over time through its re-interpretation takes on very different meaning and has very different political significance over time. So part of what I’ve been doing is trying to draw attention, the attention of political scientists to arenas that are not necessarily at the forefront of what political scientists typically study. So a lot of what political scientists study are elections and political parties and so on, but I’m arguing actually, if you wanna understand how institutions change, you have to sort of step back and pan out a bit and look at the other arenas in which the meaning of rules gets re-negotiated. That can be the courts, and that can also be the bureaucracy because it’s... Just the written, the formal rule doesn’t matter as much as how it’s instantiated and how it’s enforced and how it’s implemented on the ground.

And so a lot of the action in politics is actually... You know, outside the realm that we typically focus on when we think about politics. And actually goes to these other realms that we may even think of as formally politically neutral, like the bureaucracy as the implementer of rules that are decided by politicians or the courts, which have this... aura of neutrality but where hugely important political decisions are taken, that can change the meaning of these rules and these institutions pretty dramatically.

21:13The Sherman Antitrust Act

Jed: Sounds so fascinating. Now, I really think it would help people like me who are not political scientists to get a specific example of something that has just changed a lot in the courts or in the bureaucracy, and how you’re bringing attention to that and how that might play out in real life, from away from the ivory tower and into what we all experience day to day.

Kathleen: Okay, so antitrust. So antitrust, what was it originally, what was the Sherman Antitrust Act originally designed to do? It was designed to get rid of these big monopolistic, these big firms that were developing and gobbling up smaller competitors and taking over control of whole markets in the late 19th century. The courts interpreted the Sherman Act in ways that were hugely consequential. First of all, it was very light on what are thought of as vertical combinations, so mergers and trusts for that matter, it was much lighter on those than it was on horizontal combinations sort of agreements among small producers.

That’s hugely consequential, because the late 19th century, early 20th century in the United States, experienced an enormous concentration of industrial power in that very period, in the very period when antitrust had just been implemented. The courts played the crucial role in that, fast forward to the 1960s, and 1970s, and 1980s, antitrust in the meantime, has taken on a very different meaning. It has taken on the meaning of taking care of... Or sort of it is applying a consumer welfare standard to antitrust. That means big companies like Amazon do not run Afoul of American antitrust, why? Because they’re good for consumers, they deliver things faster, they deliver things cheaper. And so it’s the application of a new set of interpretations to what is still basically the same rule, but it’s all about the interpretation. And so now companies like Amazon are A-okay in the United States, they’re not A-okay in other countries where similar rules are interpreted rather differently by their judiciary. So that’s just one example of a set of rules that over time has remained pretty stable, pretty static, but where the interpretation has changed really pretty radically over a long period of time.

24:08Sign off

Jed: Well, Professor Thelen, it has been so interesting to hear about how what you do in the ivory tower can translate into what people are doing in the real world, to try to change the way institutions that have been around for a long time can better serve our purposes. So we really appreciate that you take some time today to explain all of it to us and we really appreciate you being here.

Kathleen: It’s my pleasure. It’s fun talking to you.

Jed: Okay, thanks so much.

Kathleen: Bye-bye.

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