It’s probably fair to say that few concepts in the social sciences are the focus of as much confusion, and unclear debates and writing, as the concept of an institution. Well, I often find such writing and debates confusing. Do you, too? Scholars often define “institutions” very differently, variably interpret their effects (e.g. some view them as constraints on actors’ available options, others suggest they’re resources creatively used to solve problems, and so on), and attempts at providing more integrating or synthesising interpretations of these ideas often seem to further complicate matters in an unhelpful manner.
I’m currently trying to navigate these murky waters in a research project and this prompted me to collate and review some definitions.
The following typically vague definition of an “institution” that I recently spotted provides a useful starting point: “institutions are both formal structures and informal rules that guide conduct”. It’s perhaps unsurprising that some political scientists recently warned that unless additional claims and underpinning theoretical positions are clearly specified “then institutions could be anything, and therefore nothing” (Blyth et al., 2016, p.147)!
Before I outline some additional perspectives we need to recognise a couple of things. Firstly, most proponents of institutional theories appear more strongly committed (than other scholars) to claims about ‘structural’ aspects of society: ‘social structures’ are viewed as having “an independent existence over and above individuals or groups that occupy positions in these structures at any point in time” (Scott, 2014). For instance, “neo-institutional” theorists argue that such ‘structures’ have a tendency to gradually acquire meaning and stability beyond any instrumental function (Suddaby, 2010). Similarly, others label as “institutions” those aspects of social life which are enduring or recurrent.
Secondly, I’ve found that it’s absolutely crucial to recognise that scholars advance vastly different claims about both the form and functions of “institutions” and have different related research objectives. Here are some illustrative examples:
- Many rational choice institutionalists emphasise rule systems related to action problems (e.g collective action dilemmas) and actors’ interests. Some contend that “rule systems” (i.e. institutions) are rationally constructed by intelligent actors who figure out ways to further their material self-interest.
- Historical institutionalism emphasises “temporal processes” (e.g. path dependency) and seeks to understand the influence of the past on the present (Fioretos et al. 2016). In contrast to rational choice theorists they emphasise and theorise “how configurations of institutions created in the past” can “structure politics in the present in ways that often run counter to the interests or preferences of individuals” (p.9). Related questions are asked about why institutions persist.
- Sociologically-informed “neo-institutionalism” (which I drew on in my PhD thesis) has emphasised understanding why actors (especially formal organisations) adopt behaviours that conflict with goal attainment and/or are ineffective in an narrow instrumental sense (Suddaby 2010), as well as explaining related processes of institutional homogenisation. They argue that actors exhibit such behaviour because they’re influenced by normative pressures and/or seek legitimacy. Some neo-institutionalists are also interested in how objects “become infused with meaning and significance far beyond their utility value” (Suddaby, 2010).
- Some sociologists also seek to understand what they call “social institutions”, with a focus on role-structures, norms, “scripts” and social patterns centred around specific functions of behaviour in society (Plummer, 2010; Roberts, 2009). Common examples include the family, property, marriage, national currencies, and so on.
Unsurprisingly, Hall and Taylor (1996, p.936) argue that the ‘new institutionalism’ “does not constitute a unified body of thought”.
As a step towards (hopefully) more clarity some additional views on “institutions” and their effects are presented below along with some thoughts on how we might interpret them. I’ve grouped them under the following broad themes/categories:
- Institutions as rules governing behaviour or constraining and enabling ‘structures’
- Institutions as culturally-specific norms, procedures and practices with rule-like qualities
- Institutions as special types of convention (e.g. self-policing social conventions)
- Cognitively-focussed notions of institution
- Other perspectives on institutions (and related unresolved debates)
Institutions as rules governing behaviour or constraining and enabling ‘structures’:
In Theory for the Working Sociologist Fabio Rojas suggests that an “institution” is simply “a rule that governs a specific kind of behavior” (p.101). He argues that related “institutional theory” seeks to explain the relationships “between these rules and observed patterns of behaviour” (p.101) and between institutions and social values.
Whilst this conceptualisation is straightforward my main concern is the vagueness: an institution could almost ‘be anything, and therefore nothing’ as Blyth et al warn.
Some scholars emphasise stable systems of social rules. For example, Geoffrey Hodgson – editor-in-chief of the Journal of Institutional Economics – defines institutions as “systems of established and prevalent social rules that structure social interactions” (link). “Institutional economists” like Hodgson are some of the main critics of neoclassical economics.
Peter Hall, an historical institutionalist, provides (in his book Governing the Economy) a widely-used definition: “institutions” are the “formal rules , compliance procedures, and standard operating practices that structure the relationship between individuals in various units of the polity and economy” which “have more formal status than cultural norms”, though not necessarily derived derived from legal standing.
In a highly-cited paper entitled “Institutionalization and structuration” Barley and Tolbert (1997) provide a more detailed definition that has a sociological orientation (see bullet points above). They define an “institution as “shared rules and typifications that identify categories of social actors and their appropriate activities or relationships” (p.96). Related to this they contend that action “may vary in their particulars, but to be interpretable, their contours must conform to taken-for-granted assumptions about the activities and interactions appropriate for different classes of actors” (p.97) as per relevant “institutions”. They further suggests that institutions are:
- “historical accretions of past practices and understandings that set conditions on action”;
- internalised as principles of appropriate behaviour in specific settings; and
- enacted in day-to-day interactions through “scripts”, which are “observable, recurrent activities and patterns of interaction characteristic of a particular setting”. (They treat “scripts” as “pivots between an institution and action” and argue such behavioural regularities are a useful research focus of research e.g. on institutional change)
The above characterisation of an “institution” (in Barley and Tolbert ) is broadly consistent with the conceptualisation I used in my PhD thesis.
Institutions as culturally-specific norms, procedures and practices with rule-like qualities:
As Philip Nicholas usefully summarises, the approach that many “sociological institutionalists” adopt “explicitly blurs the distinction between culture and institutions; in fact, under such a definition, culture itself may be an institution” (link). Nicholas also usefully summarises the claimed characteristics of an “institution”: “A rule or pattern is only considered an institution by sociological institutionalists if there is an unspoken sense that the rule or pattern must be followed or adhered to” [emphasis added].
According to Hall and Taylor (1996) this view reflects a ‘cognitive turn’ in sociology in which ‘culture’ is understood to mean a set of socially constructed templates for action.
Thus, this perspective emphasises both cultural and cognitive aspects of such social phenomena. Hall and Taylor (1996) summarise: “institutions influence behaviour by providing the cognitive scripts, categories and models that are indispensable for action, not least because without them the world and the behaviour of others cannot be interpreted”.
Two other aspects need to be noted: 1) many sociological institutionalists points to pressures facing legitimacy-seeking and status-seeking actors and argue that the “institutional environment” imposes on them the need to comply with rules and requirements if they wish to receive legitimacy and/or support; and 2) social structures and systems of meaning (also termed ‘cultural structures’) are argued to be “mutually constitutive” (Mohr, 1998, p.350).
Institutions as a special type of social convention (e.g. those that are self-policing):
Frank Dobbin argues that sociologists use the “institution” to refer to “particular conventions, some defined by law and some by tradition” (link). He further suggests that these provide “behavioral scripts” that are “tied to social roles” (see definitions above) and that they also influence behaviour “by representing the relationships among things in the world”. These conventions and associated ‘cognitive schemas’ are argued to “make sense within a wider institutional framework, be it rational or religious or mystical” (p.4).
Another conceptualisation advanced by some social scientists proposes that institutions are those social conventions which are self-policing due to the high costs of nonconformity (real or perceived). Perhaps we could simply term such conventions social norms, or perhaps the idea of an “institution” conveys additional characteristics (though I’m not sure).
Mary Douglas in her book How Institutions Think also views institutions as a special kind of social convention but grounds her theory in what she terms a “sociological view of cognition” (p.ix). Douglas argues that institutions must contain “a parallel cognitive convention to sustain it” which provides answers to the question “Why do you do it like this?” (p.46-7). Moreover, she contends that a social convention only becomes truly institutionalised when the convention and its rationale are perceived to “fit with the nature of the universe” (p.46), i.e. they’re aligned with deeper ontological beliefs or assumptions.
Cognitively-focussed notions of “institution”:
Nelson Phillips and Namrata Malhotra offer a similar perspective to Mary Douglas’s definition. They view institutions as fundamentally cognitive constructions. They argue that “from a cognitive perspective institutions are taken-for-granted understandings” (Phillips & Malhotra, 2017, p.402) more so than social structures.
Early institutionalists such as Thorstein Veblen give us related conceptualisations such as Veblen’s view that institutions are “prevalent habits of thought with respect to particular relations and particular functions of the individual and the community”. Similar to the idea of social conventions that was noted above, Veblen suggests that such habits of thought become “axiomatic and indispensable by habituation and general acceptance”.
Other perspectives on institutions (and related unresolved debates):
As I’ve read more widely I’ve spotted many critiques of these variants institutional theory, particularly critiques of sociological institutionalism (the approach I emphasised above), historical institutionalism, and rational choice institutionalism.
For example, some scholars in the historical institutionalism tradition criticise sociological approaches, alleging that they view actors as “cultural dopes”and gives too little attention to strategic and calculated behaviour, power and political contestation. The so-called “calculus” approach of rational choice-oriented scholars has similarly been critiqued by sociological institutionalists.
Social constructivist scholars such as Gary Herrigel have also attacked many claims made by institutionalists, including the idea that institutions are structural constraints and stable. They tend to see much more openness, change, and contingency.
The perspectives don’t end there. Another interesting perspective emphasises connections between language, discourse and institutions. For example, as Derek Harmon notes, institutions have also been theorised “as systems of statements or words that cohere together — often referred to as vocabularies or discourses” (Harmon, 2018).
We can also note dictionary definitions which gives us additional meanings e.g. where an “institution” can be a “large and important organization” (e.g. a university or a bank) or a long-standing and accepted custom (source: Cambridge Dictionary).
So… what are we to make of this? Are there potential sources of clarity?
An initial key point: I’ve come to realise that institutional theory not only covers a broad range of perspectives but these diverse perspectives are grounded in diverse ontologies. This makes it quite challenging to read widely across the literature.
For instance, some institutionalists want us to fundamentally reconsider human actors, the sources of action, and social processes. For instance, Wooten and Hoffman (2017) contend that “at its core, the literature looks at the source of action as existing exogenous to the actor” and they point to “an underlying skepticism towards atomistic accounts of social processes”. They claim that the existence of an ‘institutional environment’ means that actors have a “narrowly defined set of legitimate options” to choose from. The concept of an “organisational field” was developed to theorise such local social orders.
This is also clear in the Barley and Tolbert paper. They assert that “institutional theory … holds that organizations, and the individuals who populate them, are suspended in a web of values, norms, rules, beliefs, and taken-for-granted assumptions”.
John Mohr and Harrison White provide a related, very useful perspective:
Every attempt to account for or specify such a phenomenon [institutions] is immediately implicated in a much broader system of sociological theorizing. To speak with any specificity of the nature of institutions one must invoke a theory of actions, persons, social organization, cultural systems and the like and these issues are still very much in flux in contemporary sociological theory” (Mohr & White, 2008)
This is spot on. Moreover, it would be helpful if scholars theorising and researching “institutions” more clearly specified the “broader system of theorising” in which they’re working or seeking to contribute to. This is far too uncommon.
Additionally, if we seriously consider Colin Hay’s argument that each variant of institutional theory is grounded in a distinct social ontology, then one option is identify the variant that aligns best with your theoretical and/or philosophical position(s).
My own personal inclination is towards eclecticism, though I also have an orientation towards sociological perspectives as per their emphasis in this post. I found that neo-institutionalism’s emphasis on cultural rules, “scripts”, and conformity (e.g. by actors who seek legitimacy, support or greater influence) to be quite insightful in my PhD research. However, my increased awareness of critiques – like the allegation that such theories turn human agents into “cultural dopes” – means I’m now more hesitant and ‘critical’ when using these ideas (compared with when I conducted my doctoral research).
Analytical eclecticism of the sort I’m currently pondering might combine, for example, sociological institutionalism with the ideas of social constructivists like Gary Herrigel to try to avoid (or at least minimise) the “cultural dopes” issue. Moreover it seems to me that in some circumstances, and for some cases, the ideas of historical institutionalists may also have significant explanatory utility such as regarding temporal processes (like path dependency) and ‘critical junctures’ and their downstream effects.
No doubt there are other possibilities as well if we don’t stick rigidly to particular doctrines.
Barley, S.R. & Tolbert, P.S. (1997), ‘Institutionalization and Structuration: Studying the Links between Action and Institution’, Organization Studies, 18(1), pp.93-117.
Blyth, M., Helgadottir, O. & Kring, W. (2016), ‘Ideas and Historical Institutionalism’, in The Oxford Handbook of Historical Institutionalism, Oxford University Press.
Douglas, M. (1986), How Institutions Think, Syracuse University Press
Fioretos, O., Falleti, T.G. & Sheingate, A. (2016), ‘Historical Institutionalism in Political Science’, in The Oxford Handbook of Historical Institutionalism, Oxford University Press.
Hall, P. (1986), Governing the Economy: The Politics of State Intervention in Britain and France, Oxford University Press.
Hall, P. & Taylor, R. (1996), ‘Political Science and the Three New Institutionalisms’, Political Studies, 44(5), pp.936-957.
Harmon, D. J. (2018), When the Fed Speaks: Arguments, Emotions, and the Microfoundations of Institutions”, Administrative Science Quarterly, published online (not yet assigned to an issue)
Mohr, J.W. (1998), ‘Measuring Meaning Structures’, Annual Review of Sociology, 24, pp.345-70.
Mohr, J.W. & White, H.C. (2008), ‘How to Model an Institution’, Theory and Society, 37(5) (Special Issue on Theorizing Institutions: Current Approaches and Debates), pp. 485-512.
Nichols, P. M. (1998), ‘Historical Institutionalism and Sociological Institutionalism and Analysis of the World Trade Organization’, University of Pennsylvania Journal of International Economic Law, pp.461-511.
Phillips, N. & Malhotra, N. (2017), ‘Language, Cognition and Institutions: Studying Institutionalization Using Linguistic Methods’, in The SAGE Handbook of Organizational Institutionalism, SAGE.
Plummer, K. (2016), Sociology: The Basics (Second edition), Routledge.
Roberts, K. (2009), Key Concepts in Sociology, Palgrave Macmillan
Rojas, F. (2017), Theory for the Working Sociologist, Columbia University Press.
Suddaby, R. (2010), ‘Challenges for Institutional Theory’, Journal of Management Inquiry, 19(1), pp.14-20.
Wooten, M. & Hoffman, A. J. (2017), ‘Organizational Fields: Past, Present and Future’, in The SAGE Handbook of Organizational Institutionalism, SAGE.