American Political Development

American political development (also known as APD) is a subfield of political science that is committed to the historical analysis of politics. Its founders, Karen Orren and Stephen Skowronek, contend that APD is more than political history because it has to do with “the historical construction of politics, and with political arrangements of different origins in time operating together” ( 2004, x ). Whereas historians are particularly inclined to focus on events, political scientists committed to an APD approach seek to explain the course of American politics. They are particularly interested in the relationship of institutions. Thus APD scholars and adherents ask questions such as: To what extent are Supreme Court decisions independent of developments in other branches of government? To what extent does the Supreme Court follow the election returns? Orren and Skowronek start their approach from this point: “The historical precept is this: because a polity in all its different parts is constructed historically, over time, the nature and prospects of any single part will be best understood within the long course of political formation” ( 2004, 1 ). In this regard APD follows the instructions of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, who wrote, “If, accordingly, we begin at the beginning, and consider things in the process of their growth, we shall best be able, in this as in other fields, to attain scientific conclusions by the methods we employ” ( Aristotle, 1968, 1252a, 3 ).

“Authority relations in governance” are at the center of this inquiry as are the political institutions engaged in those relationships ( Orren and Skowronek 2004, xi ). In this respect, APD is an effort along with neo-institutionalism to reclaim and modernize the traditional historicalinstitutional approach to political science that fell out of favor during the behavioral revolution that began in the 1960s. During that revolution, historians abandoned the study of government for social history, and political scientists turned from the historical-institutional approach to the use of social science methods. Along with the behavioral revolution came a critical revolution in the 1960s and 1970s in which scholars joined a more general population in questioning the legitimacy of political institutions. Thus APD is partly about critically examining anew the founding and development of American political institutions in terms of their legitimization and delegitimization.

Founded in the 1980s, APD was part of an intellectual generation that challenged the pluralist and liberal assumptions of a post–World War II generation that legitimized American political institutions. Among those assumptions was the belief that American politics reflected a broad consensus over the values of a society based on a plurality of interests equally represented by a variety of contending groups and by governments responsive to group pressure. APD neither accepts nor rejects this liberal tradition at face value, but rather investigates its manifestations in the historical unfolding of American political institutions. In one of the earliest APD studies, titled Building a New American State ( 1982 ), Skowronek, intrigued by the anti-statist idea of the liberal tradition, examined the late-nineteenthcentury emergence of an American state out of a stateless past. APD investigates the development of the American state and public administration, the durability and dynamics of political institutions, race and the process of democratization, changes in the political party system, and the evolving relationship between business and government.

SEE ALSO Institutionalism and Neo-Institutionalism ; Behavioralism ; Pluralism and Elitism .


Aristotle. Politics. Edited and translated By Ernest Barker. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.

Orren, Karen, and Stephen Skowronek. The Search for Political Development. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Skowronek, Stephen. Building a New American State: The Expansion of National Administrative Capacities, 1877–1920. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Studies in American Political Development. Journal, published biannually, 1986–.

Stephen Schechter
Russell Sage College

(MLA 8th Edition)