Ideas in action: The politics of Prussian child labor reform, 1817-1839

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This article explains the political origins of an 1839 law regulating the factory employment of children in Prussia. The article has two aims. First, it seeks to explain why Prussia adopted the particular law that it did. Existing historical explanations of this particular policy change are not correct, largely because they fail to take into account the actual motivations and intentions of key reformers. Second, the article contributes to theories of the role of ideas in public policymaking. Ideas interact with institutional and political factors to serve as motivators and as resources for policy change. As motivators, they drive political action and shape the content of policy programs; as resources, they enable political actors to recruit supporters and forge alliances. I offer a theory of the relationship between ideas, motivation, and political action, and I develop a methodological framework for assessing the reliability of political actors' expressed motivations. Further, I explain how political actors use ideas as resources by deploying three specific ideational strategies: framing, borrowing, and citing. By tracing how different understandings of the child labor problem motivated and were embodied in two competing child labor policy proposals, I show how the ideas underlying reform had significant consequences for policy outcomes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)81-119
Number of pages39
JournalTheory and Society
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2013


  • Framing
  • Ideas
  • Ideational strategy
  • Institutions
  • Motivation
  • Policy change
  • Political action

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science


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