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Path Dependence and Creation.

Raghu Garud and Peter Karnoe, eds. Mahwah, NJ' LEA, 2001. 399 pp. $55.00.

Path Dependence and Creation is a thematic volume intended to remind us that even when path dependence seems to lock human or organizational actors into suboptimal technologies, practices, or structures, these paths are not thrust upon the actors by fate or fortune only to be understood retrospectively but are created by often forward-looking acts of human agency. Garud and Karnoe have brought together a collection of 14 chapters by an international and interdisciplinary group of authors with the explicit objective of introducing human agency into evolutionary models of economics and organizations via the invention of a new concept: path creation.

I have always found path dependence to be both an attractive and bothersome concept. Attractive, because of the emphasis placed on history and the importance of sequences of events. Bothersome, because history is known only in retrospect and hence must be interpreted, typically selectively, and the identification of critical events in sequences is post hoc and equally selective. The paths not taken are typically forgotten and so are unknowable. At the same time, I had never really noticed that path dependence denied human agency. Indeed, it struck me as the opposite, since, as the editors point out, human actors set off the sequences of events that create paths. Nor had I ever really accepted the link that the editors identify in their opening remarks between the irreversibility of path dependence and any sense of determinism: not when the cause of the irreversibility is itself human preferences or social structures. As such, I welcome a forward-looking approach to studying path dependencies that might lay to rest some of the red herrings that have arisen in the path-dependence debate.

The editors have organized the chapters under four headings: (1) "Path Dependence and Beyond," (2)"From Path Dependence to Path Creation," (3) "Path Creation as Co-evolution," and (4) "Path Creation as Mobilization." The chapters in part 1 are largely didactic essays on, in turn, issues surrounding the definition of path dependence, the use of history in various disciplines and what can be gained from using path-dependence as an interdisciplinary bridge, and a critical review of the role of path dependence in evolutionary theories of technological change. Taken together, these chapters introduce some new theory and provide a number of critical observations, but foremost, they provide a manifest for future research on path dependence.

Part 2 is intended to "depart from the epistemological and ontological positions implicit in path dependence" (p. 29). Here we find a collection of case studies, two that rely on qualitative evidence and a third that employs some of the quantitative tools of chaos theory. There is a noticeable gap, however, between the stage set by part 1 and the performance of the first act in part 2. The links from these stories of path creation back to the manifesto for path dependence consist, for the most part, of introductory and concluding remarks that are neither rhetorically nor scientifically compelling.

"Path Creation as Co-evolution," the third part, consists of three quite different yet complementary chapters. The first details the creation of a new niche in the automobile industry, while the second provides rich descriptions of institution building as a keystone in the formation of two new industries. The third chapter introduces a theoretical framework for understanding how to enact shifts in technological regimes through the strategic management of niches. In a number of respects, this set of chapters would have been better suited for the role of taking us from path dependence to path creation than they are at describing path creation as co-evolution, and the converse is true for the set of chapters in part 2. The elements of path dependence are clearer in the empirical chapters in part 3 than in those that appeared in part 2, whereas co-evolution was more apparent in the earlier chapters.

Part 4 consists of four chapters that the editors hoped would explore "how entrepreneurs might endogenize objects, relevance structures, and time in their efforts to create new paths" (p. 29). I'm not sure they succeed fully in doing all that, but I can say they make for good reading, and they do tell stories in which there is a clear focus on human agency. Whether readers will conclude that the agency involved is effectual will, I suspect, vary.

Individually, each chapter is informative and well worth reading, but at different times and for different purposes. Taken together, the collective contribution seems somehow to be less than the sum of its parts. There are three reasons for this. First, seminal examples of path dependence (such as QWERTY, Beta, and Post-It) are repeated in a number of chapters. Second, other chapters fall prey to the very criticisms of path dependence that the editors (and I) hoped to move beyond: they make use of idiosyncratic history in which there is no understanding of alternative paths not taken and questions about the true irreversibility of the paths taken. This problem is, regrettably, largest for the chapters that focus on stories of path creation. Third, the link from a number of chapters to the concept of path dependence seems thin. The sensitive dependence on initial conditions of nonlinear dynamics is not really the same thing as the "important influences ... by temporally remote events" (p. 4) of path dependence, for many reasons, but clearly because the latter include "happenings dominated by chance elements" (p. 4); determinism and irreversibility are likewise not equivalent concepts; and any path created by an idiosyncratic act of human agency is not the same as a sequence of economic changes involving large fixed costs, learning effects, coordination effects, and adaptive expectations in the sense used in path-dependence theory and research.

In the end, Garud and Karnoe deliver a set of papers that are each individually interesting and nicely crafted, rendering the volume as a whole both useful and provocative but lacking in a unified audience or clear collective contribution. For its part, Lawrence Erlbaum has offered the book at a bargain price. As such, the volume will make a nice addition to individual scholars' bookshelves and institutions' libraries but is unlikely to be useful as the text of a course or seminar.

Kenneth W. Koput

Department of Management and Policy

Eller College of Business University of Arizona Tucson, AZ 85721
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Author:Koput, Kenneth W.
Publication:Administrative Science Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 2003
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