This paper summarizes the main theories conventionally associated with the sociology of development as well as the arguments of the principal scholars focused on what “works” to bring about economic development and social progress. This line of argument ushered the rising consensus across the social sciences that the prime causal role belongs to institutions. However, the empirical literature that has followed from this consensus has been marred by a lack of proper definition of the concept and a tendency to use nations as units of analysis, neglecting their internal complexity. The last sections summarize a recently completed study of twenty-three Latin American institutions in five countries. The study shows the feasibility of studying institutions empirically and highlights a series of important differences among then and across countries. The solution provided by Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) to the defining determinants of a developmental institution highlights the central role of meritocracy, absence of internal cliques and, in particular, proactivity toward the external environment. The theoretical and practical implications of this study are discussed.

Sociology's contribution to the study of international development registers several notable contradictions. On the one hand, it has produced over the years many significant contributions, engaging the minds of some of the discipline's most distinguished scholars. On the other hand, development never achieved a central role in the discipline, particularly in the United States. Until recently, there was no section of the American Sociological Association specifically devoted to this topic. Until very recently, it appeared that any sociologists who became famous had to dedicate some time to saying something significant about Third World development. This was as true for scholars embracing a consensual functionalist paradigm as for those working from a Marxist-influenced conflict perspective.1 Yet in the end those ideas proved to be of little practical use and thus as peripheral as the very countries whose situation they addressed.

In my view, this paradox is a consequence of two different trends. First, there is, understandably, a tendency of First World scholars to make their own countries their main priority. While sociology in Latin America and elsewhere in the less advanced countries is, first and foremost, a sociology of development, in Europe and North America, the ideas applied to this field have been mostly an extension of ideas coined to make sense primarily of processes in the First World. For example, from an orthodox functionalist perspective development was primarily a matter of infusing the values and motivations of the advanced West into less “modern” societies, and from an opposing Marxist perspective the poverty and other woes in Third World countries were mainly the flip side of the dynamics of capitalism in the industrialized world.

This first trend is fairly obvious, but the second one is not. It pertains to the peculiar characteristics of the theories that dominated the field until recently. While apparently opposite and competitive, they shared one key trait: their diagnoses of the causes of backwardness in the Third World did not produce plausible solutions to overcome that situation. Since the fundamental reason to study development is precisely to bring it about, failure to advance credible answers to the problems of less advanced countries pretty much condemned the field to irrelevance. All that it yielded were accounts of a general condition that could not be overcome or for which the suggested solutions ranged from the impractical to the catastrophic. It is worth dwelling on this point at some length.

SOCIOLOGY'S DEVELOPMENTAL TRILOGY

The three successively hegemonic theoretical perspectives in this field have been reviewed many times before and do not require repetition here. Modernity, dependency, and world-systems were and are the labels by which they are known. The first theory, extending the functionalist paradigm to the analysis of poorer societies, emphasized culture and psychosocial transformation. For it, backwardness was primarily a matter of the “wrong” values and motivations. The right ones were those of the advanced West, and the way to overcome underdevelopment was to diffuse them to the lands that needed them (Lerner 1965; Levy 1966; Inkeles 1969).

This approach ultimately led to impractical and even farcical solutions, such as changing the content of children's textbooks or encouraging people to watch more Hollywood movies or otherwise expose themselves to Western media in hopes that the “virus” of modernity would catch on. The fundamental flaw of modernization theory was precisely its culturalistic, psychosocial roots that led it to perceive society numerically and additively. Thus the greater the number of people embracing modern values and motivations, the greater the probabilities for social transformation in the desired direction (McClelland 1966; Inkeles 1969). The existence of structures reflecting historical forces, class interests, and power never entered into these theoretical disquisitions. Consequently, while modernity theory did advance some concrete policy solutions, they were superficial and were never seriously implemented. Attempts by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and other international organizations to diffuse “modern” values among the population of poorer countries led to naught as they confronted the realities of durable structures of power and inequality (Sunkel and Paz 1970; Cardoso 1974; Portes 1976).

The second moment of this story came with the unexpected irruption of a Latin American critique of modernization theory into North American and European social science. Marxist-inspired dependency theory eschewed psychosocial individualism, shifting to a political economic approach that emphasized power and exploitation. Causes of Third World poverty were squarely assigned not to the cultural shortcomings of poorer countries but to their domination by advanced capitalism. Dominant nations extracted raw materials and other valuable resources at cheap prices from a powerless periphery and filled it with manufactured goods sold at high profit. Unequal exchangebecame the favorite term to portray this trade of more for less (Wolpe 1975; Sunkel 1972; Cardoso 1974).

The main tenets of dependency theory were described at great length in the sociological literature of the 1960s and 1970s. Marxist economists such as Samir Amin (1974, 1976) and Arghiri Emmanuel (1972) elaborated the concept of unequal exchange and provided a wealth of historical and contemporary evidence in its support. The dependency analysis of the dynamics of global capitalism left but one path open to its victims: withdrawal from the system and pursuit of an autarchic policy on the basis of their own human and material resources. This “development of underdevelopment” thesis, championed most prominently by Andre Gunder Frank (1967, 1969), described in poignant terms how engagement with the advanced capitalist world ceaselessly impoverished peripheral countries and claimed that the only effective alternative was revolutionary withdrawal.

Despite having its origins in Latin America, dependency theory ultimately became a core-centric approach not too different in this respect from its modernization predecessor: the core powers monopolized the dynamics of the global economy, leading it into one direction or the other and, in the process, compelling the periphery to do their bidding. Periods of relative prosperity in poorer lands came about not because of their internal economic dynamism but because of particular contingencies in the world economy, in particular wars among dominant nations that weakened for a while their oppressive hold (Frank 1967, 1969, 2004; Amin 1976). For Third World peripheries, the only real path of development was anticapitalist revolution.

This call to arms did resonate with leaders and masses in poorer countries and colonies, producing a number of successful revolutionary movements. Many of these aimed at and achieved political independence, but others went beyond it to implement a socialist autarchic route to development. For the most part, these experiments ended in tragedy, leading to murderous dictatorships as in Cambodia or self-perpetuating quasi-monarchies as in Cuba and North Korea (Debray 1969; Portes and Walton 1981; Eckstein 1977). Consistently, the solution to the problem of capitalist dependency turned out to be worse than the disease, confining the population of these lands to even greater poverty and unshakable political oppression. These sad results did away with the original popularity of dependency theory and the development-of-underdevelopment thesis.

The third moment of this saga did not differ much from the second, except in its broader scope. While dependency emerged from Latin America and Africa as an analytic effort by some of their scholars, the world-system approach was resolutely core-centric. Also Marxist-inspired, its original formulation by Wallerstein (1974a, 1976) and Arrighi (1994) focused not so much on the dynamics of the center-periphery relationships as on the historical evolution of the capitalistic core itself, from the fifteenth century onwards. The principal concerns of this historical analysis were less how colonies got acquired and exploited—a taken-for-granted matter—than what factors led to the rise and demise of core capitalist powers. For world-system theorists, the problems of underdevelopment came almost as an afterthought (Arrighi 1994; Goldfrank 1979).

For analysis of events in the periphery and its relationships with the centers, this approach also adopted the concept of unequal exchange, but with a fundamental twist, since what mattered most was the evolution of the world-system as a whole. It was futile for the system's poorer parts to seek redemption on their own. The only thing that “developed” was the system itself, and peripheral countries and colonies were no more capable of escaping it than richer ones (Wallerstein 1974b, 1976). The capitalist world operated as a unit, including struggles for hegemony among the core powers and evolving forms of unequal exchange, pulling all of its elements into an ever-tighter web.

The world-system perspective provided a persuasive critique of previous approaches, dismissing their proposed solutions to the problem of underdevelopment as either banal or counterproductive. More importantly, it put nothing in their place, affirming instead that the social and economic destinies of poorer lands depended, almost entirely, on the evolution of the system as a whole (Portes and Walton 1981: chap. 1; Gereffi 1979). This theory resonated, not with leaders and masses in the global South, whom it condemned to passivity, but with academics in the North. The popularity of this approach and the demise of prior theories effectively turned the sociology of development into the sociology of “underdevelopment,” condemning it to irrelevance (O'Brien 1975; Oxaal, Barnett, and Booth 1975). Since no parts of the system could move forward on their own, there was no point in seeking individual solutions. All that could be done was to describe and trace world capitalist dynamics.

WHAT IS TO BE DONE?

Other scholars attempted to overcome the limitations of the preceding trilogy with more focused empirical investigations, seeking to identify those factors that “worked” in the advancement of countries and regions. Authors like Marion Levy (1966) and Robert Bellah (1965) focused on the traditional value system of Japan, arguing that it was precisely the dominance of such values, including devotion to the emperor and a strong sense of duty and honor, that contributed to the seemingly miraculous transformation of the nation from a backward land to an industrial and military power.

Some economists and economic historians focused less on cultural values than on specific actions by certain organizations that were capable of making a difference. Of these, none was more important than the state. Alexander Gerschenkron (1962), a Russian economic historian, is generally credited with a pioneering role in highlighting the importance of state intervention in the economy. Without it, private economic actors would refrain from risky infrastructural and other long-term investments, confining the economy to a low-level equilibrium. Only forceful state decisions would produce the massive investments required for industrial takeoff, leading private economic actors in their wake. The industrialization experiences of Russia and Japan provided empirical support for this argument.

Gerschenkron was reacting, in part, to the sway of classical economic liberalism, according to which the protagonist's role belonged to markets. Inspired by the powerful analysis of eighteenth-century Scottish economists, this school privileged the profit motive and the principle of the division of labor as the true motors of capitalist development, with the state confined to the role of guardian of property rights. Any further state intervention would simply distort the logic of markets and discourage private investments in industry and commerce. Only such capitalist investments in private enterprise would lead to long-term growth (Smith [1776] 1976; Swedberg 2005).

Paralleling Gerschenkron's analysis, Friedrich List ([1841] 2011), a member of the German historical school, also engaged with Smith, Ricardo, and other Scottish thinkers to stress the role of state policies in Britain in furthering the country's rise to global preeminence. The British Navy kept the seas open to “free trade,” and the terms of exchange were arranged so that they favored the export of British manufacturers over the import of raw commodities. List poked fun at the principle of self-sustaining capitalist equilibrium, noting that Britain had been quite protectionist before technological advancements during the Industrial Revolution gave it a decisive advantage. Only afterwards did the British government become an advocate of “free trade.”

For this reason, List defended protectionism for newly industrialized countries, of which Germany as well as the United States were examples. While free trade in commodities and food was to be permitted and even encouraged, nascent industries were to be nurtured and kept from premature global competition lest more experienced foreign rivals would force them into bankruptcy. List's analysis and policy recommendations were the inspiration for the import substitution policies adopted by a number of peripheral countries in the twentieth century and strongly defended by, among others, the UN Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLA) and its leader, Raúl Prebisch (1964, 1986).

The critique of markets as motors of economic development culminated in the trenchant analysis by the Hungarian economic anthropologist Karl Polanyi ([1944] 1957). His work is quite vast, but for our purposes the key notions emerging from it were those of embeddedness and of the “dual movement” between markets and society. For Polanyi, the road to markets was “opened and kept open” by deliberate state intervention without which no long-term capitalist enterprise could prosper. In that sense, the notion of self-regulatory markets was a fiction. The “Great Transformation” occurred when markets, formerly embedded in social regulation, sought to become independent and, in turn, to subordinate society. In this second phase of the “dual movement,” the social order itself became subordinate to the economy, which was left free to pursue its own course. For Polanyi (1947), this turn of events in modern times would lead not to development but to catastrophe. The repeated mass recessions and depressions suffered by global capitalism in the course of the twentieth century provide ample evidence in support of Polanyi's predictions.

The search for “what works,” independent of broad theoretical approaches, found its latest expression in the work of economic historian Albert O. Hirschman and sociologist Peter Evans. Hirschman's (1958) quest led him to conduct detailed studies of developmental policies in Colombia and other Latin American countries and to coin a number of midrange concepts, all designing policies or strategies that could effectively lead to sustained social and economic progress. These included “unbalanced growth,” “multiplier effects,” and “exit, voice, and loyalty,” among others. The titles of his books—Journeys toward Progress (1963); The Strategy of Economic Development(1958); A Bias for Hope (1971); Getting Ahead Collectively (1984)—reflect this resolute attempt to identify workable means for peripheral countries to escape the low-end equilibrium in which they were caught.

Hirschman's work and his proposed solutions became very influential among academics and politicians in Latin America. Generally, his approach to economic growth was congruent with the import substitution industrialization promoted by Prebisch and ECLA and consistently opposed to the free market solutions advocated by conservatives and USAID. Accordingly, his influence waned when country after country returned to open-market liberalism in the wake of the Mexican default and crisis of 1982.

Evans, an American sociologist, deliberately pursued Gerschenkron's and Hirschman's ideas as he conducted studies of national development first in Brazil and then in Korea, Japan, and India. Writing during a period when the dependency perspective was dominant, he titled his first book Dependent Development (1979). The title embodied a contradiction, as the dependency approach was precisely an analysis of why development could not prosper in dependent countries. On the contrary, Evans's study made clear that the “triple alliance” of domestic capital, foreign capital, and the state was capable, under certain conditions, of implementing major developmental initiatives.

His second book went further as it attempted to find the key formula that had allowed certain Asian countries, such as Japan and South Korea, and certain Brazilian and Indian states to move ahead economically while others remained stagnant (Evans 1995). The key factor, he argued, was the policies and actions of the state and the character of the agencies assigned responsibility for the economy. It was not enough for these agencies to fulfill the ideal type of a “Weberian” bureaucracy that was meritocratic and immune to corruption by private interests. Such agencies corresponded to the “guardian state” image dear to liberal market advocates, insofar as they did not intervene in the private economy except in a regulatory capacity. Echoing Gerschenkron, Evans asserted that only when state agencies started to engage with strategic economic actors, sometimes creating them when none existed, did they have a chance at promoting autonomous growth.

Borrowing a page from Polanyi, Evans (1995) titled his book Embedded Autonomy, implying that the winning combination required two apparently contradictory elements: state agencies must be autonomous (i.e., “Weberian”), able to avoid capture by private economic interests, but also simultaneously capable of engaging with civil society and “embedding” key actors in the private economy, orienting them toward long-term developmental goals. This required a delicate balance, since state agencies that actively relate to and support private interests are always at risk of being captured by them. Evans offered as examples the legendary MITI, the Japanese economic development ministry, as well as selected agencies of the South Korean state bureaucracy. Evans's theory was ahead of its time and also fraught with dangers. On the one hand, the image of a proactive developmental state went well beyond what institutional economists had in mind when they finally recaptured the field of development from neoliberal market advocates. That stage in the economic literature will be described next. On the other hand, in the absence of prior, independent indicators of “embeddedness,” Evans's theory risked tautology: the presence of autonomous embeddedness was retroactively inferred from successful developmental experiences and its absence from failed ones. Limited to such accounts, the theory lacked predictive power to identify just what agencies possessed the necessary capabilities for implementing successful developmental policies (Evans 2004; Portes 1997).

THE INSTITUTIONAL TURN

Recent years have brought about a revolutionary turn in economic thinking about development, which was dominated for decades by the neoclassical paradigms.2 This revolution is associated with the concept of “institution,” quite familiar in anthropology and sociology but abandoned in economics after Joseph Schumpeter ([1941] 1991) and Thorstein Veblen ([1899] 1998). It took the influence of two recent Nobel prizes in economics, Douglass North (1990), first, and then Joseph Stiglitz, to sway disciplinary thinking away from its stubborn faith in markets. When North declared that “institutions matter,” they actually started to be taken into account; Hoff and Stiglitz (2001:389) chimed in by declaring that “development is no longer seen as a process of capital accumulation, but as a process of organizational change.”

Sociologists generally welcomed this “institutional turn” (Evans 2004) as a vindication of their own ideas and as an opportunity for fruitful interdisciplinary dialogue. However, they overlooked the fact that economics, as a discipline, is not well equipped to deal with the complexity of different elements of social life, tending to conflate them. North (1990:3) himself defined institutions as “any form of constraint that human beings devise to shape human interactions,” a vague definition that encompasses everything from norms learned during the process of socialization to physical coercion (Portes 2006; Hodgson 2002). Not surprisingly, the subsequent empirical literature defined “institution” as some set of enforceable rules, and the resulting empirical literature eventually settled on “reputational scores” compiled by international organizations, such as the World Bank, or “country risk” private agencies. For these agencies, the entire institutional framework of a particular country could be summarized in a single number.

North's pronouncements were followed by a surge of studies, historical and contemporary, on the role of various social forces, collectively grouped under the same umbrella term. Among the most influential was the study by Acemoglu, Johnson, and Robinson (2001) that focused on the path dependence of legal frameworks created by European colonists in their areas of concentration. Colonies where Europeans formed permanent settlements developed solid institutional frameworks copied from the mother countries that, in turn, created the basis for sustained economic development. Aware of the perennial endogeneity problem between institutions and development, Acemoglu et al. (2001) instrumented their main determinant—European settler concentration—on prior reported death rates among early colonists, soldiers, and even bishops. They reasoned that areas where high death rates were reported among early settlers because of malaria and yellow fever were left to play an exclusively extractive role and that only healthier ones were conducive to concentrated settlement by Europeans.

Like almost all studies in this field, Acemoglu et al. depended for their measure of institutional quality on reputational indices that assign a single score per country. In their case, they drew on Political Risk Services Inc. for a measure of “average protection against expropriation,” supplemented by a measure of “constraints on the executive” taken from the Polity III data by Gurr. The industry standard in this field appears be the International Country Risk Guide (ICRG) compiled by Knack and Keefer (1995). Another important measure is the Rule of Law Index employed, among others, in Dollar and Kraay's (2003) influential study. As Jütting (2003:19) notes in his review of this literature: “Nearly all the studies use as a proxy for ‘institutions’ variables that measure the quality and performance of institutions rather than the institution itself.” These reputational measures risk tautology because the assembled opinions on “institutional quality” can be influenced by the level of economic development already achieved by different countries.

A more nuanced, sociological account of the role of institutions in development was produced by Nee and Opper (2009). After carefully building a Weberian ideal type of bureaucracy, they went on to argue that it was the quality of this apparatus, not legal formal protections of shareholders, that fostered long-term capitalist development: “The lower the bureaucratic quality, the higher the level of uncertainty faced by economic actors and the less the calculability in both short and long-term planning” (299). To buttress their argument, these authors also relied on an index of “government effectiveness” compiled by the World Bank that, because of its numerous indicators and inclusion of objective measures, was believed to provide “the least noisy signal of the underlying notion of bureaucratic quality” (301). Unsurprisingly, African countries, such as Nigeria, ranked at the very bottom of this scale, while the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries ranked at the top. Predictably, the index had a strong positive “effect” on capitalistic development.

Reviewing this literature, a strong sense emerges that studies at closer range are needed to develop nuance and bar tautology. It is possible that not all governmental agencies and other institutions in Nigeria are hopeless and that not all Dutch and Scandinavian ones are necessarily paragons of virtue. At the same time, however, the “institutional turn” opens new vistas for an empirically grounded sociology of development able to provide not only accurate diagnoses of the present but serious predictions for the future. This new paradigm combines the efforts of many scholars from Gerschenkron onwards in search of what “works” for less developed countries, with the emerging consensus in economics and sociology being that the key role belongs to institutions. To actualize the scientific potential of this paradigm several steps are required.

DEFINITION AND UNIT OF ANALYSIS

The first key question is what institutions are. As seen previously, answers that have so far been provided are unsatisfactory because they encompass a wide variety of disparate elements of social life. When a concept is general enough to cover everything, it simultaneously covers nothing. Hence, the definition must be tightened to make it distinct from other related but different concepts, as well as empirically measurable. Seeking to accomplish this task, we draw on several prior efforts grounded in sociological theory to arrive at such a definition (Portes 2006; Portes and Smith 2012). That prior theoretical analysis separated central elements of culture and social structure and arranged them in a hierarchy from “deep” causal forces, such as power in the social structure and values in the culture, to those at the surface of social life. The analysis led to the summary conceptual scheme reproduced in figure 1. According to it, institutions are the symbolic blueprints for existing organizations: they are the set of rules, written or unwritten, that govern relationships among occupants of roles in social organizations like the family, schools, corporations, and all other major areas of social life: the economy, the polity, religion, communications and information, and leisure.

FIGURE 1.

The Elements of Social Life and the Placement of Institutions.

Source: Portes (2006); Portes and Smith (2010).

FIGURE 1.

The Elements of Social Life and the Placement of Institutions.

Source: Portes (2006); Portes and Smith (2010).

This definition of institutions is in agreement with everyday use of the term, as when one speaks of “institutional blueprints.” However, its validity does not depend on this overlap but on its analytic utility to distinguish and measure different social dimensions. For example, the distinction between “organization” and “institution” in figure 1 provides the necessary leverage for analyzing how things happen in reality, for it is not the case that once institutional rules are established role occupants blindly follow them. On the contrary, they frequently modify these rules, substitute them, or even subvert them, giving rise to a dynamic interplay whose outcome is anything but certain. This is why attempts to promote development by transplanting institutional blueprints from the advanced countries to the global South seldom yield the hoped-for results (Evans 2005).

A second problem with the existing empirical literature is the use of nations as units of analysis. This practice necessarily reduces the complexity of a country's institutional apparatus to a single number, which is then subjected to cross-national quantitative analysis. This is the style of research that easily leads to truisms and tautologies, as seen previously. Serious studies of institutions should take into account subnational variations, both in the extent to which real organizations fulfill their institutional blueprints and the extent to which they contribute to development in their respective spheres of action. While not all private and public organizations can be studied exhaustively, a judicious selection of those deemed strategic for economic or social development can cast a great deal of light on the future chances for progress of specific nations. Such studies also offer the possibility of more nuanced cross-country comparisons than those afforded by reputational scores.

After a number of false starts and dead ends associated with the three general theories described previously, the sociology of development may find in the “institutional turn” a chance for moving ahead, by providing informed diagnoses of both the problem of underdevelopment and opportunities in specific countries to overcome it. Along the lines pioneered by Gerschenkron and List, national development is not an impossible task; nor does it require a populist revolution. It demands instead close attention to the changing opportunities offered by the global economy and identification of those institutional mechanisms that “work” in taking advantage of them.

A COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS OF LATIN AMERICAN INSTITUTIONS

A first attempt at meeting this research program was completed recently by a comparative study of Latin American institutions.3 The project was conducted in five Latin American countries—Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic. In each country, teams of experienced investigators were assembled to conduct yearlong studies of a sample of selected institutions. These included institutions of national scope that were strategic for implementation of development plans, both economic and social. These institutions are (1) the national tax authority, (2) the national health service, (3) the postal system, (4) the stock exchange, and (5) the national civil aeronautics authority. Justification for their inclusion has been presented in prior publications (Portes and Smith 2012:26–29). Individual researchers were assigned to conduct independent studies of each organization on the basis of a common methodology that included (1) interviews with top executives and administrators; (2) interviews with middle managers and executives; (3) interviews with line clerks and subordinate personnel; (4) interviews with expert informants and strategic users of services; (5) compilation of legal codes defining the institutional goals and rules for each organization; and (6) compilation of all available academic and press reports and studies bearing on the organization. Through these steps, investigators were able to arrive at detailed knowledge of the character and operations of each organization and the extent to which it fulfilled the two key outcomes listed previously: institutional adequacy, or the degree to which the organization fulfilled its original institutional blueprints, and contribution to development in its respective sphere of activity. In addition to extensive reports, each investigator was asked to rank the respective institution along binary and continuous scales on these two outcomes and on six hypothesized determinants.

The first three of these determinants correspond to conventional definitions of a “Weberian” institution in both the economic and the sociological literatures: (1) meritocracy, (2) immunity to corruption, and (3) absence of internal cliques of “islands of power.” The three criteria are related, but they are not the same: an initial meritocratic institution may be subsequently corrupted by external interests; self-serving cliques may be indifferent to external enticements to the extent that they can channel internal organizational resources to their own advantage (Helpman 2004: chap. 7). These criteria, internal to each organization, were supplemented with three others drawn from the more recent sociological literature: (4) proactivity toward strategic external actors and users; (5) openness to technological innovation; and (6) external powerful allies. Proactivity is synonymous with Evans's “embeddedness,” referring to the capacity of an organization to engage with relevant actors in the private economy and civil society in order to further its institutional goals. Self-enclosed, defensive organizations, no matter how meritocratic or immune to corruption, do not fulfill this criterion. Similarly agencies set in their ways and resistant to technological innovation and change fail to fulfill the fifth criterion. Finally, drawing on the experiences of many failed agrarian reforms and other change-oriented policies in the Third World, an institution, no matter how meritocratic and proactive, that lacks strong allies either at the top of the state bureaucracy or among private elites is likely to confront insurmountable barriers to the fulfillment of its mission. Such barriers stem primarily from resistance by entrenched interests invested in the status quo (MacLeod 2004; Evans 2004).

Each organization studied was ranked on each of these criteria on binary and continuous scales. The latter ranged from 1, indicating total absence from the dimension of interest, to 5, meaning full presence. These rankings can be arranged in truth tables, in turn analyzable through Boolean or fuzzy-set algebraic methods (Ragin 1987, 2008). Results of this analysis will be presented later on. First, it is worth examining the principal trends uncovered by the study. Table 1 presents the relevant scores in the continuous scale.

TABLE 1.
Truth Table of Continuous Scores Assigned to Institutions in Hypothesized Predictors and Outcomes
DETERMINANTS1RESULTS
Country/InstitutionA. MeritocracyB. Immunity to CorruptionC. No “Islands of Power”D. ProactivityE. Technological FlexibilityF. External Allies01 Institutional Adequacy02 Contribution to Development
Chile:         
Postal service 
Civil aviation 3.5 
Stock exchange 3.5 
Health care system 3.5 3.5 2.5 3.5 3.5 
Tax agency 2.5 3.5 
Colombia:         
Postal service 2.5 
Civil aviation 3.5 2.5 
Stock exchange 3.5 3.5 3.5 
Health care system 
Tax agency 
Mexico:         
Postal service 3.5 3.5 3.5 
Civil aviation 3.5 1.5 3.5 1.5 2.5 
Stock exchange 3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5 
Health care system 
Tax agency 
Argentina:         
Postal service 
Civil aviation 
Stock exchange 
Tax agency 
Dominican Republic:         
Postal service 
Civil aviation 3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5 
Health care system 2.5 
Tax agency 
DETERMINANTS1RESULTS
Country/InstitutionA. MeritocracyB. Immunity to CorruptionC. No “Islands of Power”D. ProactivityE. Technological FlexibilityF. External Allies01 Institutional Adequacy02 Contribution to Development
Chile:         
Postal service 
Civil aviation 3.5 
Stock exchange 3.5 
Health care system 3.5 3.5 2.5 3.5 3.5 
Tax agency 2.5 3.5 
Colombia:         
Postal service 2.5 
Civil aviation 3.5 2.5 
Stock exchange 3.5 3.5 3.5 
Health care system 
Tax agency 
Mexico:         
Postal service 3.5 3.5 3.5 
Civil aviation 3.5 1.5 3.5 1.5 2.5 
Stock exchange 3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5 
Health care system 
Tax agency 
Argentina:         
Postal service 
Civil aviation 
Stock exchange 
Tax agency 
Dominican Republic:         
Postal service 
Civil aviation 3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5 
Health care system 2.5 
Tax agency 

1 = Entirely outside the conceptual set defined by the variable; 2 = More outside than inside; 3 = Neither; 4 = More inside than outside; 5 = Entirely inside.

Economic versus Social Institutions

A look at scores in table 1 shows a marked disparity between primarily economic institutions, such as stock exchanges and tax authorities, and primarily “social” ones, such as public health services and postal systems. The disparity becomes even clearer in table 2, which presents parallel scores assigned to each organization in a binary scale, where 1 stands for presence” and 0 for absence. In the six listed criteria, zeros are far more commonly assigned to social than to economic institutions. There are two reasons for this marked disparity. This section focuses on the first one. The second will be discussed below.

TABLE 2.
Truth Table of Binary Scores Assigned to Institutions on Hypothesized Predictors and Outcomes
DETERMINANTS1RESULTS
Country/InstitutionA. MeritocracyB. Immunity to CorruptionC. No “Islands of Power”D. ProactivityE. Technological FlexibilityF. External AlliesI. Institutional AdequacyII. Contribution to Development
Chile:         
Postal service 
Civil aviation 
Stock exchange 
Health care system 
Tax agency 
Colombia:         
Postal service 
Civil aviation 
Stock exchange 
Health care system 
Tax agency 
Mexico:         
Postal service 
Civil aviation 
Stock exchange 
Health care system 
Tax agency 
Argentina:         
Postal service 
Civil aviation 
Stock exchange 
Tax agency 
Dominican Republic:         
Postal service 
Civil aviation 
Health care system 
Tax agency 
DETERMINANTS1RESULTS
Country/InstitutionA. MeritocracyB. Immunity to CorruptionC. No “Islands of Power”D. ProactivityE. Technological FlexibilityF. External AlliesI. Institutional AdequacyII. Contribution to Development
Chile:         
Postal service 
Civil aviation 
Stock exchange 
Health care system 
Tax agency 
Colombia:         
Postal service 
Civil aviation 
Stock exchange 
Health care system 
Tax agency 
Mexico:         
Postal service 
Civil aviation 
Stock exchange 
Health care system 
Tax agency 
Argentina:         
Postal service 
Civil aviation 
Stock exchange 
Tax agency 
Dominican Republic:         
Postal service 
Civil aviation 
Health care system 
Tax agency 

1 = Presence; 0 = Absence.

Tax authorities have been traditionally dormant and corrupt institutions in Latin America. In the past, governments financed themselves through customs receipts from foreign trade, external indebtedness, and inflation. The Mexican debt crisis of 1982 brought this system to an end, forcing governments to look for alternatives. The crisis compelled one Latin American country after another to open itself up to foreign markets as a precondition for financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund and the US Treasury. This did away with most customs income. Neither external indebtedness nor inflation could be relied upon, since foreign loans were made conditional precisely on bringing governments accounts into balance, thereby eliminating inflation (Guzman 2008; Roig 2008).

The situation left governments with little recourse but to extract resources from a most reluctant population. Tax authorities were drastically reorganized and put directly under the authority of the president of the republic; new strong and competent administrators were appointed and new technologies introduced. Fiscal inspectors were placed on a salary scale above the rest of the official bureaucracy to bar corruption, and a directorate of large contributors was created to address the imbalance in the income distribution among the tax-paying public (Velasco 2012; Wormald and Cardenas 2008).

In a country like Chile, the tax authority (Servicio de Impuestos Internos) achieved enough technological prowess to prepare tax returns for individual and corporate contributors and send them by Internet. All that taxpayers had to do was review the accuracy of figures, sign the returns, and send them back (Wormald and Cardenas 2008). Even in less developed countries, such as the Dominican Republic, the tax authority became an “island of excellence” in an otherwise inefficient and corrupt government bureaucracy (Guzman 2008).

These consistent experiences demonstrate that, when the survival of the state was at stake, decisive and effective measures were taken to improve the quality of relevant institutions. As scores in tables 1 and 2 demonstrate, no such luck accompanied the evolution of agencies providing services to the general population, in particular the public health system.

External Imperatives

The second reason for the observed institutional disparities has to do with the presence of foreign interests. Another institution receiving consistently favorable ratings was the stock exchange. This result was unexpected. In Latin America, stock exchanges were traditionally “gentlemen's clubs” that served as much a function of social networking among economic elites as a function of rent-seeking. Opportunities for profit in these exchanges were neither universal nor transparent, since they were restricted by particularistic ties (Rodríguez Garavito and Rodríguez Franco 2008).

The opening up of the region's markets following the Mexican debt crisis meant the entry of powerful foreign players in the stock markets, pushing for greater transparency and more impartial regulation. Not surprisingly, entrenched elites resisted. To the extent that global financial markets operate under norms of universalism and transparency, this resistance necessarily slowed down the integration of the national economy into global financial circles. Threatened with this kind of obsolescence, governments acted decisively. Gradually, old elites were pushed aside and new mechanisms of regulation and control were put into place. By 2004, for example, dominant players in the Argentine, Chilean, and Colombian exchanges were either foreign banks or modern domestic firms allied with them (Grimson, Castellani, and Roig 2012; Rodríguez Garavito 2009; Wormald and Brieba 2006).

This evolution led Latin American exchanges to improve their probity and openness, turning them into organizations capable of fulfilling their original institutional blueprints. Under the vigilant eye of foreign financial regulators, Latin American stock markets started to copy Wall Street and to monitor each other in search of the latest technological innovations.

National Differences

A look at scores in tables 1 and 2 brings forth a final important point: despite historical and cultural similarities, Latin American countries differ significantly in the caliber of their institutions. Differences do not stem in this case from aggregate reputational scores but emerge from the detailed studies undertaken as part of this project. Overall, Chile appears to be in the best situation: all the organizations examined in that country were ranked as both institutionally adequate and developmental. This result confirms past descriptions of Chile as the “success story” in the continent. A detailed reading of the Chilean institutional ethnographies balances this overall positive assessment with a nuanced account of past limitations and failures. The transition leading to the present outcomes was not smooth; instead it was punctuated by a number of crises and barriers, often overcome at the last minute (Wormald and Brieba 2012).

If Chilean institutions are comparatively the strongest in the region, Colombian ones are the weakest. Two of them actually ceased to exist in the course of the study, and even those evaluated as the best overall—the stock exchange and the tax authority—were scored lower on average than their peer organizations in other countries. The precarious state of Colombian institutions compounds the effects of the civil war and the powerful drug industry that has challenged this nation for many years. It remains an open question whether present efforts by the Colombian state at achieving internal peace will be able to overcome the multiple problems uncovered by this set of institutional studies. As the leader of the Colombian team for the project remarked: “The dominant institutional form in Colombia is clientelism: a combination of proactivity and a lack of bureaucratic rationality that, if not always leading to failed institutions, has certainly contributed to the modest performance of the Colombian economy” (Rodríguez Garavito 2012:107).

Although less consistently than Chile, Mexico also approaches the institutionally adequate/developmental pole, while the remaining two countries lean in the opposite direction. Though Argentina adjoins Chile and is often regarded as one of the most developed countries in Latin America, the quality of its institutions is surprisingly poor. With the exception of the Argentine Internal Revenue Service (AFIP), which has been thoroughly reorganized and modernized, the condition of the other institutions leaves much to be desired because of either internal organizational weaknesses or lack of proactivity. The Correo Argentino (the post office) has an uncertain future, having bounced back and forth from private to public management. The civil aviation agency (Comando de Regiones Aereas), an island of excellence in the state apparatus elsewhere, was actually disbanded in the course of the study. After a series of corruption scandals and near accidents, this agency, run by the Argentine air force, was closed by the president of the republic in 2008. As seen in table 2, the Comando scored 0s in all predictors of intuitional quality, as well as in developmental capacity. Just prior to its closure, the investigator in charge concluded: “There are solid indicators of technological obsolescence in civil aviation in Argentina. The lack of training and retraining of the technical personnel reveals a complete absence of flexibility and openness to innovation” (Grimson 2008:22).

Qualitative Comparative Analysis

As noted before, the data in tables 1 and 2 are amenable to systematic analysis using QCA methods. This analysis has already been completed. The important point, for our purposes, is how results bear on existing theories about the role of institutions on national development. The binary scores in table 2 were analyzed using Boolean methods. Boolean minimization yielded the following solution (Portes and Smith 2012:171):

Developmental Institutions (DI) = (Meritocracy and Proactivity) OR (Proactivity and Lack of “Islands of Power”)

With one exception (the Mexican postal system), this solution covers 100 percent of the cases with perfect consistency. It implies that proactivity is a necessary condition to bring about the effect and that, in combination with at least one criterion of internal quality, it is sufficient to produce it. This solution is in agreement with the Gerschenkron/Evans line of argument according to which it is not sufficient for an institution to be immune to corruption or otherwise “Weberian” in order to be, in addition, developmental. Consistent engagement with relevant publics in its sphere of activity is necessary to produce that outcome.

Scores in the continuous 1–5 scale in table 2 are analyzable on the basis of fuzzy-set algebra (Ragin 2008). This method also allows for specific determination of necessary and sufficient conditions. The analysis, in this case, yielded the following solutions (Portes and Smith 2012:176):

DI = Proactivity (Necessary)

DI = Proactivity and Meritocracy and No “Islands of Power” (Sufficient)

The fact that the same investigators assigned binary and continuous scores to each organization may partially account for the near-identical Boolean and fuzzy-set solutions. However, the convergence of scores assigned independently to twenty-three different institutions in five countries provides prima facie evidence of their reliability. It was not anticipated that scores in both tables would converge, nor that they would yield such a straightforward solution. Indeed, the number of investigators working independently of each other and the cultural differences among national teams would have easily led to the opposite expectation. The final solutions not only highlight the central role of an active institutional stance but also indicate that it is not necessary for an organization to be perfectly “Weberian” in order to fulfill a significant developmental mission. The notable absence of the immunity to corruption variable from both the Boolean and the fuzzy-set solutions brings forth this point with clarity.

CONCLUSION

Commenting on the “institutional turn,” development economist Gerard Roland (2004:110) remarked that “we're all institutionalists now.” That may be the case, but such consensus can hardly advance knowledge when the definition of institutions remains vague and when measurement attempts are limited to indices with nations as units of analysis. By including countries at widely different levels of economic development, such as those of northern Europe and Africa, a number of studies arrive at the interesting conclusion that the most institutionally developed nations are indeed the most developed. Moving beyond such statements requires both a more rigorous definition of what institutions are and studies at closer range. Such studies can advance knowledge by showing variation within nations and between those at similar levels of development.

The comparative study summarized previously attempts to move things in this direction. It shows that such differences exist within Latin America, whose institutional landscape is neither uniform nor random. Instead, clear patterns emerge according to identifiable combinations of factors and to the variable effectiveness of states and external actors impinging upon specific institutions. More generally, the method of studying real organizations and comparing them within and between countries provides a lead to move the sociology of development beyond its past limitations. If a central consideration for this field is answering the question “What works?,” the institutional turn offers promise to leave behind impractical solutions, such as increasing the “need achievement” content of school textbooks, and cataclysmic ones, such as revolutionary uprisings. It also transcends the despair prompted by pronouncements that national development is impossible since the only thing that “develops” is the world-system.

The experiences of countries that did transcend the plight of underdevelopment furnished the intellectual motivation for Gerschenkron and List first, and Hirschman and Evans more recently, to explore possible answers to the above central question. The powerful impulse given to institutionalism by Nobel-winning economists has consolidated this approach, while offering hope that vast global South populations trapped in poverty and disease can have a better future. However, the academic path for contributing to this goal cannot continue to be cross-national studies with entire nations as units of analysis.

Sociologists have proven their worth in the past in detailed studies of organizations. This is the expertise needed to actualize the intellectual potential of the “institutional turn.” The comparative study of Latin American institutions summarized in this paper represents a first attempt in this direction. The solutions that it has produced, highlighting specific causal combinations, provide a first step toward defining developmental institutions and orienting future policy efforts to strengthen them and increase their number.

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NOTES

1.

The list of examples from both camps is too long to cite. From the consensual/functionalist camp, see, for instance, Eisenstadt (1964) and Smelser and Lipset (1966); from the Marxist-influenced camp, Zeitlin (1968); Horowitz (1966); Illich (1969).

2.

The material in this section is condensed from two prior publications: Portes (2006) and Portes and Smith (2010).

3.

The results in this section have been published previously. The section presents a summary from these publications. See Portes (2009) and Portes and Smith (2010, 2012).