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Punctuated equilibrium in social theory

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Title: Punctuated equilibrium in social theory  
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Subject: Social policy, Social change, Social theories, Punctuated equilibrium
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Punctuated equilibrium in social theory

Punctuated equilibrium in social theory is a method of understanding change in complex social systems. The method studies the evolution of policy change,[1] including the evolution of conflicts.[2] The theory suggests that most social systems exist in an extended period of stasis, which are later punctuated by sudden shifts in radical change. The theory was largely inspired from the biological theory of punctuated equilibrium developed by paleontologists Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould.

The punctuated equilibrium model of policy change was first presented by Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Jones in 1993,[1] and has increasingly received attention in historical institutionalism.[3] The model states that policy generally changes only incrementally due to several restraints, namely the "stickiness" of institutional cultures, vested interests, and the bounded rationality of individual decision-makers. Policy change will thus be punctuated by changes in these conditions, especially in party control of government, or changes in public opinion. Thus policy is characterized by long periods of stability, punctuated by large—though less frequent—changes due to large shifts in society or government. This has been particularly evident in current trends of environmental and energy policy. Gun control and U.S. federal tobacco policy have also been found to follow punctuated changes. A recent study by Michael Givel found that despite a significant mobilization to change state tobacco policy, U.S. state tobacco policymaking from 1990 to 2003 was not characterized by punctuated policy change, which also favored the pro-tobacco policy agenda.[4]

Connie Gersick, visiting scholar at the [6] in the study of small work groups,[7] in research on geographic communities and corporate behavior,[8] and in the study of technological change.[9]

As some researchers have noted, the biological applications of punctuated equilibrium have rejuvenated a new "theory about change within entities."[10] At the same time, social scientific applications of the punctuated equilibrium concept have been criticized for losing sight of a core idea in the original biological theory of punctuated equilibrium: the notion that geographic location plays a significant role in determining which populations are subject to abrupt changes at a given time.[8]


  1. ^ a b Baumgartner, Frank and Bryan D. Jones (1993). Agendas and Instability in American Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  2. ^ Cioffi-Revilla, Claudio (1998). "The political uncertainty of interstate rivalries: A punctuated equilibrium model." In Paul Diehl The Dynamics of Enduring Rivalries. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, pp. 64-97.
  3. ^ Pierson, Paul. (2004). Politics in Time: History, Institutions, and Social Analysis. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  4. ^ Givel, Michael (2006). "Punctuated Equilibrium in Limbo: The Tobacco Lobby and U.S. State Policy Making From 1990 to 2003." Policy Studies Journal 43 (3): 405-418.
  5. ^ Gersick, Connie (1991). "Revolutionary Change Theories: A Multilevel Exploration of the Punctuated Equilibrium Paradigm". The Academy of Management Review 16(1): 10-36
  6. ^ Tushman, M. L. and E. Romanelli (1985). "Organizational evolution: Ametamorphosis model of convergence and reorientation." In B. M. Staw & L. L. Cummings (Eds.), Research in organizational behavior. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, pp. 171-222.
  7. ^ Gersick, Connie (1988). "Time and transition in work teams: Toward a new model of group development." Academy of Management Journal 31 (Oct.): 9-41.
  8. ^ a b , 58(1): 111-148.Administrative Science QuarterlyTilcsik, A. & Marquis, C. (2013). "Punctuated Generosity: How Mega-events and Natural Disasters Affect Corporate Philanthropy in U.S. Communities."
  9. ^ Levinthal, D.A. (1998). "The slow pace of rapid technological change: gradualism and punctuation in technological change." Industrial and Corporate Change 7(2): 217-247.
  10. ^ Arrow, H., M. S. Poole, K. B. Henry, S. Wheelan, and R. Moreland (2004). "Time, change, and development: The temporal perspective on groups." Small Group Research 35 (1): 73-105.
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