Ideas are not as stable as political scientists want them to be: A theory of incremental ideational change

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Most theories about ideas in politics implicitly conceptualise ideas as relatively stable entities that act as a catalyst for political change in times of crisis. In these theories political change is usually brought on by the full and sudden replacement of old ideas with new ones. This article's main charge against the mainstream view of ideas is that it is based on a simplified conception of ideas which in turn creates a bias within the theories that leads them to focus on how ideas trigger change in times of crisis. In effect, the theories overlook incremental yet significant ideational change in times of stability. With inspiration from discourse theory and ‘the interpretive approach’, the article develops a more dynamic understanding of ideas as being composed of several related elements of meaning that typically do not reach a final stage of stability or equilibrium. Furthermore, it is argued that this theory of the micro structure of ideas can account for both incremental and paradigmatic ideational change. Two types of incremental ideational change are discussed and exemplified with empirical examples from British politics: first, a change in the relation between the existing elements of an idea and, second, a change of one or more (but not all) elements of an idea.
TidsskriftPolitical Studies
Udgave nummer3
Sider (fra-til)596-615
Antal sider20
StatusUdgivet - 2011
Udgivet eksterntJa


  • ideas
  • discourse
  • paradigms
  • incrementalism
  • ideational change

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