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Law & Politics as Meaning-making Activity

“[T]he new institutionalism may challenge the basic assumptions that drive the instrumental model of political science by offering a broader conception of politics. Without denying the importance of decisional outcomes, it suggests that politics ‘creates and confirms interpretations of life.’ Individuals are understood to be rooted in and affected by community. Politics creates or locates meaning, which in turn affects the shape of the community and the individual. March and Olsen argue that ‘through politics, individuals develop themselves, their communities, and the public good. Politics is a place for discovering, elaborating, and expressing meanings, establishing shared (or opposing) conceptions of experience, values, and the nature of existence.’ In this framework, law and legal rhetoric are understood not simply as ‘devices of the powerful for confusing the weak, but [also as] instruments of interpretive order.’

[P]erhaps most importantly, institutional arrangements affect the elaboration of meaning. Thus, March and Olsen conclude that ‘theoretical development reflective of an institutional perspective would include an examination of the ways in which symbolic behavior transforms mere instrumental behavior and is transformed by it.’ Smith suggests that independent variables should be located from amongst ‘relatively enduring structures’ or institutional arrangements. He contends that, ‘in political life, many economic currents and even political actors' own purposeful commitments are affected by relatively enduring legacies of past political choices.’ Thus, he concludes that political science should ‘explore how relatively enduring structures of human conduct have shaped the existing array of resources, rules, and values instead of simply taking that array as given.’”

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