Reconceptualizing layering—From mode of institutional change to mode of institutional design: Types and outputs

Date01 September 2019
Published date01 September 2019
AuthorGiliberto Capano
Reconceptualizing layeringFrom mode of
institutional change to mode of institutional
design: Types and outputs
Giliberto Capano
Department of Political and Social Sciences,
University of Bologna, Bologna, Italy
Giliberto Capano, Department of Political and
Social Sciences, University of Bologna, Strada
Maggiore 45, Bologna 40125, Italy.
Due to its popularity, the term layering is often used generically,
and it risks being transformed into a catch-all concept. Layering has
become synonymous with incremental change, thus making it a
synonym for change without any specification in terms of the
change and its effects. To make the term more conceptually coher-
ent and empirically useful, this article problematizes the historical
neo-institutionalist definition of layering as a mode of change and,
above all, its use in the literature. It argues that layering should be
conceptualized in terms of modes of institutional design through
which different types of additions to the actual institutional
arrangement can be activated to pursue not only institutional and
eventually policy change but also stability. As an approach to insti-
tutional design, layering can be distinguished according to that
which is layered and the results that layering can achieve in terms
of institutional and policy effects.
Layering is a popular concept among social scientists who focus their research on institutional and policy change. This
concept was introduced by historical neo-institutionalism, which has defined layering as a specific mode of institu-
tional change. However, against the initial conceptualization (or partially because of it, as I show below), layering has
become a catch-all word through which the borders between the actions used to enact different types of institu-
tional/policy dynamics risks have become blurred. This generic use of the concept of layering is not unexpected
because its original definition is, paradoxically, too ambiguous. In fact, by defining layering as a mode/process of
gradual change, Streeck and Thelendespite the fact that their theoretical effort was clearly stated because it also
included processes of radical changesunderestimated how incremental additions to the actual institutional arrange-
ments (i.e., layering) are the most common way that policy-makers intervene in reality. Thus, due to the prevalent
incremental nature of institutional and policy change, layering has become synonymous with incremental changes
and covers quite different elements. Furthermore, against Streeck and Thelens theorization, the possibility has been
forgotten by most scholars using the concept of layering that a gradualchange (through layering) of an actual
Received: 13 September 2017 Revised: 28 November 2018 Accepted: 18 December 2018
DOI: 10.1111/padm.12583
590 © 2018 John Wiley & Sons Ltd Public Administration. 2019;97:590604.

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