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Exploring authority migration in multilevel architectures: A historical-institutionalist framework


This article develops a framework for analyzing the dynamics of multilevel politics inspired by historical institutionalism. It suggests that this approach has much potential to re-focus an increasingly diversified scholarly landscape, comprising fields like European integration, comparative federalism and regionalization, by promoting a more nuanced understanding of the varieties of institutional dynamics in multilevel architectures. The article seeks to make a threefold contribution. First, it conceptualizes multilevel architectures as an institutional outcome of political restructuring which are subject to different patterns of authority migration over time. Second, it proposes typological criteria to systematically compare such patterns of institutional change by distinguishing their direction, pace and depth. Third, it speculates on the mechanisms that can explain divergent patterns of authority migration. Overall, it is argued that the historical ordering of institutional linkages between territorial authorities leads to differently composed multilevel architectures, which in turn shape the patterns and pathways of authority migration at later points in time. Case studies from North America and Europe illustrate the value of this analytical framework for the comparative investigation of continuity and change in and of multilevel systems.

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Figure 1


  1. 1.

    For important exceptions see in particular Hooghe and Marks (2003), Hooghe et al (2010), Piattoni (2009), Skelcher (2005).

  2. 2.

    Unsurprisingly, it were often British scholars like Jim Bulpitt (2008), R.A.W. Rhodes (1988) or, more recently, Jonathan Bradbury (2006) and James Mitchell (2009) who pointed to this problem, suggesting alternative types such as the ‘union state’ or the ‘differentiated polity’. Similarly, German scholars have highlighted the limits of characterizing German federalism as centralized. The usurpation of most competences through the federal level has not necessarily led to more hierarchy as the Lander were able to simultaneously extent their influence in federal decision making. German federalism is, therefore, unitary (‘unitarisch’) rather than centralized (Hesse, 1962). More generally, as Rokkan (1999, p. 219) has observed, there is no direct fit between the center-periphery structure, the degree of ethnic or linguistic unification and the institutional outlook of political systems in Western Europe.

  3. 3.

    Ideas that mediate between material and rather exogenous social structures on the one, and institutions on the other hand might be considered as another key layer for the interpretative construction of territorial regimes.

  4. 4.

    The distinction between shared-rule and self-rule is borrowed from Daniel Elazar (1987).

  5. 5.

    For a related but not identical attempt to boil down the varieties of institutional configurations see Gerring et al (2011), who distinguish between direct and indirect rule.

  6. 6.

    Here, de-institutionalization will not be treated as a third mode of institutional change. De-institutionalization refers to the deconstruction of authority relationships, like in the case of secession.

  7. 7.

    I consider governments, political parties and bureaucracies as most important collective actors that either seek to shift authority from one level to another (as entrepreneurial agents) or to repel such efforts (as status quo defending actors).

  8. 8.

    In practice, the vertical redistribution of authority does not necessarily imply a zero-sum game. Often both levels of authority retain certain powers in a field despite the transfer of authority, which leads to concurrency or overlapping jurisdictions.

  9. 9.

    It is also important to note that authority shifts are not necessarily unidirectional. While there might be an overall trend for either direction under changing historical context conditions (upwards in the Westphalian context and downwards in the post-Westphalian context), there are often developments working in the opposite direction in individual cases. In Canada, for example, dynamics have been unfolding in a cyclical rather than unidirectional pattern. Moreover, despite the current decentralist turn, we also observe significant processes of centralization like in the EU or, as Dietmar Braun (2011) has shown, in some consolidated federal systems that tend to evolve towards ‘over-centralization’.

  10. 10.

    It should be noted that especially displacement and layering are not necessarily limited to capture patterns of gradual institutional change. They can also abruptly occur as part of a critical juncture.

  11. 11.

    As Capoccia and Kelemen (2007, p. 352) point out, change is not an inevitable outcome of a critical juncture: ‘If an institution enters a critical juncture, in which several options are possible, the outcome may involve the restoration of the pre–critical juncture status quo’.


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Earlier versions of this article were presented at the 3rd International Conference on Democracy as Idea and Practice, Workshop Regionalization and Federalization: Implications for Democracy, University of Oslo (2012), and the 63rd Annual International Conference of the Political Studies Association, Cardiff, Wales (2013). I would like to thank the participants for very helpful comments, in particular Øivind Bratberg, André Kaiser, Wilfried Swenden, Alan Trench and Richard Wyn Jones. Also, this article has benefited greatly from comments and suggestions by Jared Sonnicksen and the anonymous reviewers.

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Broschek, J. Exploring authority migration in multilevel architectures: A historical-institutionalist framework. Comp Eur Polit 13, 656–681 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1057/cep.2014.17

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  • historical institutionalism
  • multilevel governance
  • European integration
  • comparative federalism
  • regionalization
  • authority migration