AFIT and Original Institutionalism—Forty years of AFIT

William Waller
Hobart and William Smith College

It does not seem like it has been ten years since I participated in the 30th anniversary panel of AFIT. Many of the observations I made then still remain true today. (xxx 2009)

Forty years ago, as a young graduate student I was largely, if not completely, unaware of the tensions within original institutional economics that contributed to the formation of AFIT. One gets a sense of those tensions from James Sturgeon’s account of the history of AFIT but his account is also circumspect on these matters. (Sturgeon 1981, 43-49) But those tensions have since dissipated, if not wholly disappeared, with time. And AFIT has transcended those origins to become one of the most important institutions of the institutionalist movement within economics.

Of greatest importance is its annual conference. The AEA’s continued efforts to diminish the access of the heterodox associations’ participation in ASSA leave institutionalists with the few panels allocated to AFEE for conference presentations. Conference participation and presentations are crucial to the development of new ideas and to the development of professional careers in two ways. First, all scholars need a venue to try out new ideas and present results prior to seeking publication. It is important to have an opportunity to try things out and get feedback. This cannot happen very effectively at ASSA because of our diminished access, but also because of the sheer size of the conference. AFIT’s annual conference creates many more opportunities for presentations of greater length and thus sophistication. Additionally, it does so in a warm, supportive, collegial atmosphere that encourages experimentation and novelty. In many ways AFIT’s annual conference is so important because nothing (but the ideas) is at stake.

Second in importance is the social dimension of the annual conference. It is a community building experience that welcomes new entrants to the institutionalist community. It is an opportunity to be with, meet and socialize with like-minded and sympathetic colleagues. Since many if not most heterodox economists find themselves in largely mainstream departments the AFIT conference is an opportunity to escape the intellectual isolation that can occur. I honestly believe my participation in AFIT is an essential ingredient in maintaining my intellectual vitality, and even my mental health. At this point it is important to recognize the support and generosity of all of the members of the Western Social Science Association that have provided a home for AFIT’s annual meetings. And we must also acknowledge the efforts of the founders of AFIT for their role in creating that home at WSSA for us, described in detail in Sturgeon’s 1981 account. Just as ICAPE does before ASSA, AFIT provides the opportunity to participate in panels which is the second most important and valuable real estate in academic life after space in professional journals.

AFIT also provides opportunities to the younger members of the institutionalist community to fully participate in the activities of the organization. Access to board membership and filling the role of officers provides experience in running a professional organization. And AFIT has traditionally been inclusive of all its members. This experience obtained in running the organization and organizing the annual conference is professionally invaluable. An illustration of the consequences of this is experience occurred when I had an interesting experience at an AFEE board meeting a few years back when a board member suggested that AFEE might consider the possibility of merging with AFIT. I had to contain myself and quietly mentioned to another member of the board that AFIT had, for all intents and purposes, taken over AFEE fifteen years earlier. You see all of the rest of the board members were AFIT members with many of them being former officers of that organization. The editorship of the Journal of Economic Issues has been occupied by AFIT members pretty regularly since the years of the Marc Tool editorship. A crucial function of AFIT has been effective mentoring and supporting of those wishing to participate in the institutionalist community. The two organizations now function in complementary fashion both providing crucial resources to the intellectual, cultural and professional development of the institutionalist movement and its members. Unlike some elements of the economics profession institutionalists respect those who came before us; we all know our individual intellectual genealogy and our collective intellectual genealogy is recounted in Sturgeon 1981. Even with this knowledge of our past, we always remain forward looking and endeavor to provide a path for those who will come after.

Having attended URPE’s 50th anniversary conference last fall it became apparent that this community building within the context of our professional organizations is another common feature of the heterodox community (as I am sure it is in some mainstream professional organizations).

With respect to the contribution to the content of institutional economic analysis the record and results are more diffuse. Many AFIT members have published extensively in the Journal of Economic Issues. This was certainly the goal and intent of the founders of AFIT. AFIT members have also placed articles in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology, The Review of Social Economy, the Forum for Social Economy, The Journal of Institutional Economics, the Cambridge Journal of Economics, the Journal of Post Keynesian Economics and a myriad of other professional journals thereby expanding the audience for institutionalist scholarship. Many of my early articles began as papers at AFIT conferences that received excellent feedback that led to their revision and eventual publication. I, as editor of the JEI, would like to see more of this happening and encourage all of you to revise and submit your papers, preferably to the JEI, but to also any other journal audience you would care to reach.

Substantively, I think AFIT encouraged two movements within institutional economics. The first is actually pretty obvious. AFIT (ironically) engaged in collective action (in control of individual action—a very Commons-like activity) that gave focus and voice to the so-called “cactus branch”—really the Veblen-Ayres variant of institutionalism. (Sturgeon 1981, 40-43) Whether lobbying by the AFIT leadership or just the evolution of AFEE contributed most to this opening to the Ayresians is hard to establish. But their access to AFEE panels and the JEI certainly increased and as a consequence their contributions became an established part of the institutionalist literature. Many early AFIT founders and members had personal experiences with, and well as intellectual roots in the work of, Clarence E. Ayres. This led to the development of these ideas as well as careful re-consideration of Ayres’s contributions to institutional economics. With time the Ayresian interlude in institutional economics is fading but its’ influence remains a part of our collective history.

The so-called “radical institutionalist’ movement led by William Dugger grew out of AFIT meetings. The reality is there have always been radical institutionalists as part of the institutionalist movement (starting with Veblen of course). Dugger’s initiative, through instigating a series of conference panels, actual conferences, and edited volumes, developed a body of work investigating the fluid parameters of radical institutionalism that emerged from 1989-1998. (See References) This experiment expanded institutionalism and I would argue that the participants, among the most active institutionalists of the 1990s and 2000s, and all members of AFIT , have continued to influence institutional economics today. Included were a number of contributions that explicitly analyzed the role of class in institutional analysis, the role of gender in institutional analysis, expanded the discussions of methodology, and explored the contemporary relevance of inequality within institutional economics. Indeed, it is fair to say that, Dugger’s edited volume on Inequality (1996) and his coauthored book with Jim Peach, Economic Abundance (2009), introduced institutionalists to the notion of intersectionality—that race, gender, class and nationality all needed to be considered simultaneously as interacting phenomena in institutional analysis. While this movement had many of the characteristics of an insurgency its members became stalwarts of the institutionalist movement. Geoffrey Schneider has in recent years reintroduced this movement at AFIT (2018) and URPE (2018) conferences.

The strategy of this group was to meet and present papers to one another (sometimes at AFIT other times at self-organized workshops). We encouraged each other to write papers on a selected topic that would incorporate any elements of analysis we thought appropriate to the topic, realizing we would sometime be pushing the boundaries of what would be acceptable and publishable in even institutionalist friendly venues. We would select members of the group to be editors of a volume containing the revised and edited papers. Gratefully, we found that M.E. Sharpe, Greenwood Press, and Edward Elgar Publishing were willing to publish these volumes. This strategy for focusing on a particular topic and working on it from a variety of perspectives within institutional thought broadly conceived, with an eye towards social transformation, is itself a procedural strategy of value exploited by the radical institutionalist participants. I was gladdened to overhear two young heterodox scholars planning just such an activity two years ago at the ASSA meetings in Chicago.

To my mind the major contributions of radical institutional thought was that it enhanced and led to the further development of institutional economics proper. The topics that were addressed, prior to their treatment in the radical institutionalist volumes, were issues that required reconsideration (the state) and others that were, up until that time, peripheral at best (gender, race, and class). Interestingly all of these issues were taken up by Veblen but had, except for the role of the state, drifted (blindly) to the periphery or out of institutional analysis. I would not argue, nor would a perusal of the topics covered in the pages of the Journal of Economic Issues support, that these topics are now central; but they are legitimate topics of frequent inquiry. It is interesting that they still find their way into edited volumes with many of the early participants in RI recruiting other scholars to participate. (See especially Champlin and Knoedler 2004, Knoedler, Prasch and Champlin 2007)

AFIT’s impact on Institutionalists is both substantive and institutional. The substantive contributions are those (listed above) that have added to, elaborated, and to some degree altered the direction of institutional economics as an area of study. I look forward to more such activity in the future. The institutional impact is equally important. The annual conference, the intellectual support and mentoring, the openness of the conference to new ideas, different formats, and new topic areas are all crucially important. There is the collegial atmosphere from the informal conversations to the annual banquet that is important in sustaining our community. There is also the student paper award—now jointly supported and given by AFIT and AFEE. And now there is the obligatory internet presence involving the web site. AFIT has always operated on a shoe string. Historically, we actually lowered dues when a surplus occurred. Now with the infrastructure that must be supported to continue to function as an association it will be necessary to raise dues to regularly fund this infrastructure. This challenge must be faced because AFIT as an institution is so important to the health and growth of institutional economics.


Brown, Doug. (1998) Thorstein Veblen in the Twenty-First Century. Aldershot: Edward Elgar Publishing.

Champlin, Dell. and Janet T. Knoedler. (2004) The Institutionalist Tradition in Labor Economics. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Dugger, William. (1989) Radical Institutionalism: Contemporary Voices. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

¬¬¬¬___________. (1996) Inequality: Radical Institutionalist Views on Race, Gender, Class, and Nation. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

¬¬¬Dugger, William, and James Peach. (2009) Economic Abundance: An Introduction. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Dugger, William, and William Waller. (1992) The Stratified State: Radical Institutionalist Theories of Participation and Duality. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Knoedler, Janet, Robert E. Prasch and Dell P. Champlin. (2007). Thorstein Veblen and the Revival of Free Market Capitalism. Aldershot: Edward Elgar Publishing.

Peterson, Janice and Doug Brown. (1994) The Economic Status of Women Under Capitalism: Institutional Economics and Feminist Theory. Aldershot: Edward Elgar Publishing.

Sturgeon James. (1981) “The History of the Association for Institutional Thought.” The Review of Institutional Thought. Volume 1, December, Pp. 40-53.

xxx. (2009) “Reflections on the 30th Anniversary of the Founding of the Association for Institutional Thought.” A paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Association for Institutional Thought at the Western Social Science Association Meetings, April 15, 2009.

__________ (2017) “Radical Institutionalism Reconsidered.” A paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Association for Institutional Thought at the Western Social Science Association Meetings. San Francisco, California, April 2017.