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The concept of path-dependency in water governance

By Farhad Mukhtarov. Path-dependency is a frequently evoked term in the discussions of policy change and stability in water governance. This term came to mean different things, from inertia to change to change which is conditioned by earlier choices of actors. Often it is used in an intuitive manner by policy scientists who basically want to say that history matters.  Piersen (2000) responds to this by arguing that path-dependency is essentially about 2 things: first it is about timing and second it is about increasing returns. By timing he means that choices that are made early on in a policy, however small they may be, can have tremendous impact on choices that come later and on the outcomes of a policy eventually. This is against the traditional accounts of political science which argue that big impact is caused by big events, and that essentially the scale of events is important and not so much their sequence. By increasing returns, Piersen means that once a policy is decided, continuing the path results in increasing returns as opposed to switching to another paths, which can be very costly. There are very diverse views on path-dependency, and I bring examples from a few scholars below.

Jennifer Sehring, in her work on studying institutional change in the water sector in Tajikistan and Kyrgizstan, came to the conclusion that path-dependency and democratization are linked. She writes: “…even a context in transformation does not present a situation where institutions are completely in flux and easily changed, but where pathdependent continuities play a role, though there is some space for actors to modify them. The size of this space depends on the degree of democratisation in the country.”

Path-dependence is  seen by some authors as an integral part of any functioning regime. As Pahl-Worst and colleagues (2008) write in their account of emerging regimes for global governance of water “co-evolutionary development and path-dependence has generated an interdependence of regime elements which is important to guarantee the functioning of a regime, and the convergence of expectations of actors. The downside of such interdependence is that it prevents change, that it generates what one may refer to as lock-in-situations”.

Helen Ingram and Leah Fraser (no date) in their work on change in California’s water policy have indicated that path-dependence should be viewed together with other concepts to explain change, such as ‘policy image’, ‘punctuated equilibrium’, and ‘policy entrepreneurs’. It is in the unison that these concepts provide an explanation of how policies change.

It is difficult to come to any conclusive statement about the importance of path-dependency as a theory of policy change and stability and certainly a review of studies which employ this theory in approaching  policy change in the water sector would be very beneficial. The problem which I can however observe with the use of path-dependence is that it may seem to be an easy way to justify inertia and institutional faltering. Path-dependency lends itself to being ‘hijacked’ as to explain stability and the status-quo.

There is a fine line between deliberate inertia and inevitable path-dependence. To distinguish between the two is key. Two questions are central here: a) does ‘path-dependency’ help in explaining policy change and stability, and if so, then how? and b) has ‘path-dependency’ become a ‘hijacked’ term, so that it is being used for easy explanations of complex issues of institutional change? I provide no answers, but invite more discussion and thought on the subject.



Permanent link to this article: https://www.watergovernance.eu/about/the-concept-of-path-dependency-in-water-governance/

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