The Department of Government
The Department of Government

Diffusion and The Impact of Organizational Development

Mon, October 1, 2012

Kurt Weyland, the Lozano Long Professor of Latin American Politics, has published his latest research on diffusion and political regime contention in the October issue of Comparative Politics. “Diffusion Waves in European Democratization: The Impact of Organizational Development,” answers a central empirical puzzle at the heart of the project —the slowing down of diffusion over time and the inverse relationship between the speed of diffusion and the success of contention. Importantly, the article demonstrates how organizational structures mediate the impact of psychological limits to human decision making.

Waves of political regime contention which diffused quickly, historically, have not been successful at triggering advances toward democracy. On the other hand, as waves of contention have slowed down, they have been more successful at instigating transitions toward democracy. In previous research, Weyland has drawn from cognitive psychology and the concept of bounded rationality to explain why early waves of contention spread quickly and failed: dealing with a flood of uncertain information, mass publics relied on cognitive shortcuts, rather than on cautious assessments of the prospects and risks of emulating a foreign precedent in a variety of different settings, and therefore these precipitous, ill-considered efforts at democratic contention spread quickly but failed.

To explain why contention slowed down but became more successful over time, Weyland complements cognitive psychological microfoundations by emphasizing macrostructural developments, especially the formation of mass organizations from the late nineteenth century onward. Broad-based political parties and unions responded less rashly to external stimuli; they waited for a good opportunity to push for regime change, so when they did push, they had good chances of success. The emergence of broad-based parties and unions with clear track records and publicized programs made politics more predictable and reduced uncertainty. Moreover, large numbers of ordinary citizens came to follow the guidance of party and union leaders, who due to their organizational position had better information and a greater processing capacity than the inexperienced masses. Also, the leaders of these heterogeneous, internally pluralistic organizations faced debate and criticism and had to account for their decisions, which helped to weed out distortions and biases. Therefore, these leaders were less bounded in their political rationality and less likely to jump to conclusions about the likelihood of replicating a foreign precedent of regime change.

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