You tell me it’s the institution
— FDR (1938)
Lyman Stone is a wonderful writer I have only recently discovered. (Thanks Will Wilkinson!) You should read everything he writes. This, unfortunately, is not his best work. But it presents a useful occasion to say some things about “institutions”.
“Institution” is one of those words much more frequently used than understood. It has multiple, quite different meanings, both in common usage and as a term-of-art in social affairs. Let’s go through a few of them. (I’m sure there are more. The word itself is an institution.)
In its most common usage, “institution” most just means formal organization. We might say “Bluegrass Community and Technical College is an educational institution”. The pompous president of a corporation might regale assembled shareholders with an account of how things are proceeding “in this institution”.
A second meaning in common usage is simply something unusually prominent or important to some community. “That crazy hot-dog vendor is an institution in this town.” Or, um, “The word itself is an institution.”
In discussions of social affairs, the word “institution” does not mean either of those things, exactly. Because language, even technical language, is beautiful, and because language, in order to form itself, feeds upon associations and connections in the minds of those who affect to wield it, you will find echoes and overlaps between the word’s common-use meanings and its meanings in social theory. But they are not the same.
A narrow definition of “institution” in social theory is something like “a pattern of social behavior in which participants occupy stereotyped roles which are independent of the identities of the individuals who perform them”. Motherhood is an institution, while your habit of babysitting your friend’s nephew is not. The former is a general social pattern independent of the people who, multiply and at different times, perform the roles of mother and child. The latter is just something you happen to do. If you become famous and “friendnephewsitting” becomes a widely adopted practice then, yes, then it would become an institution. But, for now, no. On the bright side, babysitting itself is most certainly an institution. You’ll always have that.
Finally, there is a broader use of “institution” in social affairs. Economists, God help us, frequently refer to things like “the quality of a nation’s institutions” in spinning just-so stories about why some countries thrive and other falter. They don’t mean to say that one country does patterns-of-social-behavior-with-stereotyped-roles better than any other. All human agglomerations form institutions in that sense just fine. Motherhood, for example, is close to universal. Bribery is most certainly an institution, prominent to various degrees in many polities. Most economists (but not always or all, this is interestingly contested) would deem prominence of bribery as an institution in society to be reflective of “low quality institutions”, however fervently and frequently the practice is enacted. All societies have “strong institutions”, in the sense of having entrenched patterns of social behavior. However, different societies enact different institutions. When an economist makes comparisons between the quality of a country’s institutions, she is not referring to their resilience or ubiquity. She is making judgments about the adaptiveness of the bundle of patterns-of-social-behavior-with-stereotyped-roles prominent in one country relative to the mix of institutions found elsewhere.
This agglomerative usage of institutions is the most common one in policy discussions. When we talk about some entity’s “institutions”, we are using that as a shorthand for the patterns of social behavior we observe within it. I have quietly dropped the qualification -with-stereotyped-roles, which we so emphasized in the first, technical definition. That is on purpose. In practice, outside of specific technical contexts, the word institution has come to mean simply any pattern of social behavior that might form part of a portfolio of such patterns which together constitute the je ne sais quoi of a group. Institutions become the stuff that gives different collections of humans distinct character even under identical circumstances. You might think of them as atoms of “culture”, another vague and grandly abused term. But then you might object — you should object! — that purely individual propensities, when aggregated, also contribute to “culture”. True, true! Fortunately, the agglomerative usage of “institutions” is so teleological and imprecise that it amoebically comes to encompass even purely individual propensities, to the degree that they are claimed to affect the quality of the aggregated whole. Individual thrift, for example, becomes an “institution”, because people claim that such thriftiness is material to the character and adaptedness of the whole. This usage creep can be misleading, sometimes dangerously so. For example, it’s not particularly plausible to suggest that elaborate patterns-of-social-behavior-with-stereotyped-roles, like representative democracy, are heritable genetic traits. But it may be plausible that individual propensities are heritable. Once we let individual propensities sneak into our definition of “institution”, then it becomes plausible that at least some institutions are genetic. But if “institutions” can be genetic, so can representative democracy, right? Things go downhill very quickly from there.
This usage of “institutions” becomes infuriatingly vague, but that may be why it is so prevalent. We need labels for all the things that we can’t quite pin down, because we know there are things we can’t pin down that are important in their effects. Social scientists frequently try to identify or operationalize “institutions”, to come up with comparative datasets of institutional character or quality. But these empirical exercises necessarily impose very contestable models of which particular institutions are relevant to the outcomes they measure — “An independent judiciary!”, “Fast business formation!”. Measurement is a huge problem. Societies may have the formal trappings of institutions (reminiscent of our first common usage) without the behavioral substance researchers intend to measure. The formal constitution of an autocracy might be idealistic and democratic, for example, but that obscures rather than reveals the actual institutions of the state. Characterizing institutions is hard. Casual attempts often reveal more about the prejudices of the attempter than they do about the society ostensibly described.
The way I like to think of “institutions” is this: Institutions are to groups what habits are to individuals. Attributing social differences to institutions is similar to attributing individual differences to varations of habit. It’s not wrong or entirely meaningless, but it’s also unsatisfying, incomplete, a bit tautological. How and why did the different habits, individual or collective, emerge? What sustains or might undo them? Changing social institutions is a process similar and similarly fraught to changing habits. Just as it is not enough to simply resolve to stop smoking, if you mean to break the habit of smoking, the mere passage of a law or enactment of a policy may not succeed at changing social conditions embedded in our collective habits. But that does not mean we are helpless, that (in Stone’s mistaken assertion) “the point of institutions is that they are not usually malleable to directed change”. If we wish to stop smoking, we do resolve to stop smoking, but we also work to change our circumstances and incentives in ways that support the desired change. We might avoid smoky bars (or we might have, back when there were still smoky bars). We might wear a nicotine patch, or take drugs that block the effect of inhaled nicotine. That is, to change habits, we do not merely resolve, but we act strategically upon ourselves as though we were an object as well as a subject. We change institutions all the time, and in precisely the same way. There is nothing magical or mysterious or necessarily even hard about creating, modifying, or undoing social institutions. In my other life, I do a lot of work related to blockchains, which interest me precisely because they are a technology for reifying the kinds of circumstances and incentives that contribute to institution formation, and they are amenable to intentional construction and directed change.
It is a trick of conservatives — who, when they live up to their name, wish by definition to prevent some kind of change — to claim that the status quo is immutable, change is impossible, unnatural. Attempts would be destructive. Conservatives try to ground the way things are in mysteries of culture, in ancient hatreds or deep currents of history, in arcana of genetics or race, or, now that they are vague and fashionable, in “institutions”[*]. But institutional change happens every day, all the time, at a micro level within families and businesses, at a political level sometimes quite abruptly, often though not always in directions that were explicitly conceived and intended. As individuals we sometimes find we have fallen into unintended habits. At a social level we sometimes find ourselves in institutions that are harmful or dysfunctional. In either case, we try to change. If we are serious and strategic, sometimes we can.
Meaningful social change occurs at three different levels, at a policy level, an ideological level, and an institutional level. The art of politics is to engender resonance between all three, between the technocratic formalities of policy, and the worldview we take for granted, and the interactions we find ourselves performing. No one says that it is easy. When you think about all the moving parts involved, it is a miracle that any one of us even breathes. But we do breathe. And societies do change, frequently, often as a result of intentional work on the part of people within them.
[*] “Conservative” doesn’t mean good or bad. We are all sometimes “conservatives”. I suspect many readers of this blog are conservative with respect to some changes that we fear a Trump administration might make. We speak frequently of hopes that “American institutions” will resist those changes. By “American institutions” we mean both formal organizations like the court system, but also the habits and tendencies of Americans. It’s not ridiculous to hope that changing longstanding expectations and behaviors will prove difficult. But it would be a mistake to imagine our institutions so mysterious and refractory that they could not be altered, so we are surely safe. If our circumstances and incentives change, we will change. Preventing that, or shaping it, is a live challenge.