Evaluating punctuated equilibrium dynamics within a crisis context

Saahir Shafi, Daniel J. Mallinson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The theoretical evolution of punctuated equilibrium theory (PET) and empirical expansion of its research agenda to non-democratic countries, demonstrate that democratic nations feature less punctuated policymaking than autocracies, owing to informational advantages. However, can these differences be identified cross-sectionally across numerous political systems facing a common policy problem? To assess this, we present a broad and robust empirical analysis of PET dynamics across 166 countries over three years for a single policy issue that affected all nations: the COVID-19 pandemic. First, we theoretically link PET with the concepts of policy learning and bounded emulation and propose the emergence of mini cycles of punctuated equilibrium during a crisis. Then, using weekly data, we examine univariate distributions of COVID-19-related policy changes to better understand how punctuated policy dynamics have differed between political systems. Using multiple approaches, we demonstrate (1) the emergence of PET mini cycles during crises and (2) an absence of macro-level differences in PET dynamics across democratic, partially democratic and autocratic countries. Our evaluation of policy change distributions across a wide range of political systems in a crisis context offers notable insights into the generalisability of PET dynamics. Thus, our article offers novel advancements to PET scholarship both theoretically and empirically.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)647-672
Number of pages26
JournalPolicy and Politics
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Public Administration
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law

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