Ideas, Information and Structural Power

Professor Pepper D. Culpepper recently accepted a job in Oxford at the Blavatnik School of Government. This means he will leave the European University Institute, where he has been teaching since 2010. A group of his current and former PhD students decided to organize half-day event to celebrate Professor Culpepper’s time at the EUI. As part of that celebration, I offered to do a profile of Professor Culpepper’s research contribution. What follows is the text that I presented.


Each year I ask students in different classes to pick an author they like, admire, or find interesting, and to write a profile of what that author has contributed to the subject area. I got the idea from a book called Fifty Key Thinkers on Development. It is also an exercise familiar to anyone who has engaged in a promotion or tenure-review. The difference is that the goal of the profile is not so much to judge the work as to understand it. A second goal is to see how the publications fit together; more often than not, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

When Jan (Johannes Karremans) asked me to join this celebration of Pepper’s time at at the EUI, I figured that was a good opportunity for me to put myself in my students’ shoes. I volunteered to write about Pepper’s ‘contribution to the literature’. I probably should have looked at his CV first. Like most academics, I read tactically and I have a bad tendency to pigeonhole authors into the categories that are most convenient for my research. I knew about a number of Pepper’s different contributions to our wider understanding of in-work skills development, collective bargaining, and corporate governance. We first met at a seminar on his last book that was hosted by Elisabetta Gualmini at the University of Bologna. I had also bumped into his work on Italy, France, and Germany. For me, Pepper was the discordant voice in the Varieties of Capitalism chorus; he was the rational constructivist; and, most of all, he was a fresh perspective on private-sector governance.

Those categories still hold but what I discovered as I started to read systematically through Pepper’s work in intensive bursts of concentration was just how dense and coherent is his research program. The observations I have to offer today are only very preliminary. I base them on a clutch of journal articles published between 1999 and 2008. I also read his contribution to Varieties of Capitalism. I did not include the work Pepper has done with Aidan Regan and Raffael Reinke since I knew they would be at this meeting. I also did not read the two books he has written – although I did buy them and plan to do so over the summer. Obviously, I found all this work by looking at Pepper’s CV. There is much more that I could have read, including his edited collection on Germany, his many book chapters, and his public commentary.

So this is a very partial view of Pepper’s work that largely pre-dates his arrival in Fiesole. Nevertheless, I think it is indicative and I hope to flesh out my understanding of his contribution as time permits. His contribution is still a work in progress and so it is only fair that my interpretation is a work in progress as well.

These comments focus on three elements: method, theory, and substance.

Let’s start with method because that is easiest. Pepper’s work is comparative, and I mean that in the broadest sense, over time as well as across geographic space. Moreover, many of the comparisons are nested – countries within Europe, regions within countries, associations within regions, firms within associations. By implication, he has developed a knack for placing analytic brackets so that you can always keep track of what is being held constant and so that you can focus attention on what is changing (or should be changing). The article he has on public savings institutions in France and East Germany is a good illustration. The goal is to understand how firms can learn to coordinate in the provision of transferable skills training during a period of consolidation and intensifying competition. The East German savings banks do better than the French ones at developing new in-work training systems. The challenge is to explain why that is the case and to reveal what we can learn from that explanation. I think this is one of his best publications. I was surprised to learn at the end of this process that it is also among his least-cited. I strongly recommend it.

Pepper’s work is comparative but it is also problem driven. This is an important methodological qualification. Many scholars start from measurement and data and then look for questions. Pepper’s work takes the reverse tack. Here I suggest you look at his critique of standard indexes for vocational training. The problem, Pepper argues, is that these indexes do not reflect accurately what is happening at the tertiary level of education. Moreover, that omission is important because it obscures a cleavage between large and small firms. Large firms are happier with public provision of general skills training and they are also happier to see the gap narrow between vocational and non-vocational (or traditional university) education. Therefore, you should expect large firms to support more tertiary vocational training. Small firms are more jealously protective of their workers and would rather see firm-specific skills development than make it easier for workers to move from one firm to the next. Small firms are also reluctant to close the gap between vocational and general education because that increases labor mobility. Once we begin with that prior, we can appreciate the significance of how we measure vocational education and the need to distinguish between vocational provision at different levels of educational achievement. In this way, theory leads measurement, rather than the reverse.

The pattern of theory leading measurement makes for an easy transition from method to theory. We know Pepper’s work is comparative and problem driven, hence it is necessary to reflect a bit on the assumptions on which it rests. Here I would isolate three elements for attention: Pepper pretends to be an institutionalist, but in fact he focuses on observable patterns of behavior; he has a healthy respect for ideas but he is or at least appears to be more interested in the process of their social acceptance; and he has a broad appreciation for motivation – which includes a host of factors ranging from self-interest, to reasonableness, to imagination.

Let me explain. The point about institutions is something I suspected from the start of my reading. It is hard to be skeptical of the Varieties of Capitalism literature if you are a deep structuralist. In fact, most of the stories that Pepper tells are stories about how individuals and groups overcome the limitations imposed on them by structure. It was not until his World Politics piece, however, that he fully opens the curtain. He explains that you can change laws without changing institutions because institutions should be understood in terms of the observable patterns of behavior they create. I translate this to mean that we should observe patterns of behavior, full stop. The patterns are not institutions, although they can be institutionalized. The patterns are behavior. That means the focus for research should be on human agency.

That said Pepper is not a methodological individualist. Instead he is a Searlean collectivist. Because the behavior that interests him is group behavior. Such behavior is inherently social – meaning it rests on inter-subjective understanding. Everyone knows both that they are participating (or not) and also that everyone else is also aware of the state of play. This explains why ideas matter less than their social acceptance. At times, this social acceptance is a matter of agreement. Pepper refers to such agreements as common knowledge events. Sometimes, the social acceptance is a matter of shared experience. Some group of people either experiences or shares the experience of a particularly important event and later comes to imbue that event with specific meaning in terms of how the world works. Pepper refers to these significant events as a different kind of conventional wisdom that can only be acknowledged after the fact. In either case, however, what matters is that individuals share meaning and the shared meaning gives those individuals a kind of group agency that is different from the aggregation of individual efforts.

So at this point it is reasonable to ask how individuals come to agree on what they know or how they come to share an interpretation of past events. The answer here is complicated insofar as humans are motivated by so many different things. At times, Pepper suggests we should look at the distributive implications. That is the story about tertiary vocational training I mentioned. Other times, individuals accept whatever turns out to be most useful politically – meaning whatever they can sell back to their constituents. Still other times, they accept a claim because they cannot imagine any alternative. This tends to happen when you coop the best ideas of an existing group and so effectively demobilize any potential opposition.

This is where I can move from theory to substance. What Pepper has been able to show in substantive terms is the important role that private associations play in public policy, including both innovation and institutional reform. They play this role by organizing deliberation and channeling information. These are structural features – artifacts of the reality that associations are places where people meet and interact. Associations also have agency. They can come up with policy ideas, engage in experimentation, and facilitate cooperation by targeting those members who are somehow on the fence between acting as individuals or embracing some kind of shared understanding. We can witness this taking place in terms of vocational training. But it also has an impact on collective bargaining, corporate governance, pension reform, and a host of other, related activities.

In this way we see the role of ideas mix with distributive coalitions. This is my biggest take-away from Pepper’s work. Associations are part of the collective agency engaged in both puzzling and powering. This is a new route to private-sector governance. Moreover, it is one that brings together key intellectual traditions stretching back to E.H. Carr and Karl Polanyi but, for scholars of our generation, which I can say because Pepper and I went to school at roughly the same time, is captured most obviously in the writings of the four Peters – Hall, Katzenstein, Gourevitch and Lange – with a little Geoff Garret and a lot of David Soskice thrown into the mix. I suppose Jeff Frieden is a ghost at the feast, because while I have not seen his work in the reference lists I have sensed his influence. When I realized this, it was one of those important events that you only recognize long after the fact. What occurred to me is that I have been trying to create much the same kind of synthesis, but less successfully. Now I can stand on Pepper’s shoulders and see a bit further. His contribution makes my own contribution more meaningful. And in the inter-subjective sharing of information and meaning, we create an agency greater than the sum of our individual efforts. I am sure that is true for everyone here today.