I just read an article by Allen and Leeson on their theory of institutionally constrained technology adoption, which they develop in trying to explain why the English longbow was never adopted by nations other than England. The authors point out that the longbow, which was the obvious superior missile technology in Europe for no small amount of time, should have been adopted by every ruler that could have done so. Yet, this was not the case. The authors’ conclusion, reached partially through a game theoretic approach, revolves around a key choice for medieval rulers: “Medieval rulers choosing between missile technologies thus confronted a trade-off with respect to internal and external security.”
Essentially, the authors’ argue that the longbow presented too much of a threat to central rulers from other nobility, so those rulers living in unstable political environments rationally chose to lessen their domestic political risk at the expense of military effectiveness against external actors.
When I first started reading the article and the authors began to talk about “institutional context” I initially thought that they were advancing a culture-focused theory similar to those proposed by scholars such as van Creveld and Keegan. Both of those writers have written about how, over the course of human history, military forces have not always adopted the most advanced or effective technologies, sometimes choosing to retain older technologies and platforms because of issues like a perceived threat to the extant social order. Allen and Leeson, however, are suggesting a slightly different decision calculus on the part of elites – though not entirely dissimilar from the culture-focused approach, I think.
“Institutionally Constrained Technology Adoption: Resolving the Longbow Puzzle.” By Douglas W. Allen and Peter T. Leeson.