Paradigm Man vs. the Bricoleur: An Alternative Vision of Agency in Ideational Change

Martin B. Carstensen

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The status of ideational explanations in political science has been strengthened by the argument that institutionalized ideas structure actors’ identification of their interests as well as the interests of their political adversaries. Despite its utility, the focus on the institutionalization of ideas has had the unfortunate consequence that actors are often, implicitly or explicitly, believed to internalize ideas, making it difficult to understand how actors are able to change their ideas and institutions. Drawing on cultural sociology and ideational theory, the paper introduces the ‘bricoleur’ as an alternative vision of agency. It is argued, first, that actors cannot cognitively internalize highly structured symbolic systems, and ideas are thus ‘outside the minds of actors’. Second, using the cognitive schemas at their disposal, actors construct strategies of action based on pre-constructed ideational and political institutions. Third, actors must work actively and creatively with the ideas and institutions they use, because the structure within which actors work does not determine their response to new circumstances. Fourth, as a vast number of ideational studies have shown, actors face a complex array of challenges in getting their ideas to the top of the policy agenda, which makes it all the more important to act pragmatically, putting ideas together that may not be logically compatible but rather answer political and cultural logics. In sum, agency often takes the form of bricolage, where bits and pieces of the existing ideational and institutional legacy are put together in new forms leading to significant political transformation.
Original languageEnglish
JournalEuropean Political Science Review
Issue number1
Pages (from-to)147-167
Publication statusPublished - 2011
Externally publishedYes

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