Recycling the Garbage Can: An Assessment of the Research Program

Recycling the Garbage Can: An Assessment of the Research Program

By
Jonathan Bendor, Terry M. Moe, Ken Shotts
American Political Science Review. March
2001, Vol. 95, Issue 1, Pages 169-190

The garbage can theory of organizational choice is one of the best-known innovations in modern organization theory. It also has significantly shaped a major branch of the new institutionalism. Yet, the theory has not received the systematic assessment that it both deserves and needs. We evaluate the early verbal theory and argue that it fails to create an adequate foundation for scientific progress. We then analyze and rerun Cohen, March, and Olsen’s computer model and discover that its agents move in lockstep patterns that are strikingly different from the spirit of the theory. Indeed, the simulation and the theory are incompatible. Next, we examine how the authors have built upon these incompatible formulations in developing the theory further. We assess this larger program, which includes the March-Olsen version of the new institutionalism, and find that many of the problems that attended the original article have intensified over time. We conclude that a fundamental overhaul is required if the theory is to realize its early promise.

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