The Varieties of Comparative Institutional Analysis

27 Pages Posted: 17 Oct 2012 Last revised: 26 Mar 2013

See all articles by Daniel H. Cole

Daniel H. Cole

Indiana University Maurer School of Law; Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs

Date Written: March 24, 2013


This paper, written as a contribution to a festchrift in honor of Neil Komesar, subjects his "comparative institutional analysis" (CIA) to a comparative analysis with various other social-scientific approaches to CIA.

Neil Komesar is among the very few legal scholars who has taken to heart Ronald Coase's call for comparative institutional analysis (CIA) of alternative "social arrangements." While Komesar has plowed a relatively lonely furrow in the legal academy, scholars from across the social sciences have been engaged in CIA (broadly defined), using various terminologies, methodologies, and evaluative criteria. This paper takes a pluralistic approach to understanding the differences in approach to CIA and seeks to explain them functionally. That is, scholars' preferred definitions of terms like "institution" and "organization," as well as different methods and criteria for comparison, can best be explained in light of the specific kinds of questions they are seeking to answer.

After delineating and categorizing along two dimensions 17 distinct definitions of the term "institution," as used in the social-scientific literature, this paper examines more closely the two, significantly different, approaches to CIA taken, respectively, by Neil Komesar and the late Elinor Ostrom. The purpose of the comparison is not to argue that one's approach is necessarily preferable to that of the other, but merely to illustrate how differences in approaching CIA may depend on what social phenomena the scholar is attempting to understand and explain, and whether the purpose of the analysis is positive or normative.

The paper concludes with a call for more cross-disciplinary communication among scholars engaged in various forms of CIA, not necessarily for the purpose of consolidation or standardization, but simply to better understand one another and the possible functional reasons for differences in approach.

Keywords: Comparative Institutional Analysis, Institution, Organization, Rule, Action Situation, Framework, Model, Theory

JEL Classification: D23, D71, H3, H4, K1, K4, L22, L51, P5

Suggested Citation

Cole, Daniel H., The Varieties of Comparative Institutional Analysis (March 24, 2013). Indiana University, Bloomington School of Public & Environmental Affairs Research Paper No. 2012-10-03, Available at SSRN: or

Daniel H. Cole (Contact Author)

Indiana University Maurer School of Law ( email )

211 S. Indiana Avenue
Bloomington, IN 47405
United States

Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs ( email )

1315 East Tenth Street
Bloomington, IN 47405
United States

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