Crafting an Analytic Framework: Defining Institutions

Let us begin with the following omnibus conception of institutions:

Institutions comprise regulative, normative, and cultural-cognitive ele- ments that, together with associated activities and resources, provide stability and meaning to social life.

This is a dense definition containing a number of ideas that we will unpack, describe, and elaborate in this chapter and the next. In this conception, institutions are multifaceted, durable social structures, made up of symbolic elements, social activities, and material resources. Institutions exhibit distinctive properties: They are relatively resistant to change (Jepperson 1991). As Giddens (1984: 24) states, “Institutions by definition are the more enduring features of social life . . . giving ‘solidity’ [to social systems] across time and space.” They can be trans- mitted across generations, maintained and reproduced (Zucker 1977). Institutions also undergo change over time.

Institutions exhibit stabilizing and meaning-making properties because of the processes set in motion by regulative, normative, and cultural-cognitive elements. These elements are the central building blocks of institutional structures, providing the elastic fibers that guide behavior and resist change. We examine the distinctive nature and contribution of each element in a subsequent section of this chapter.

Although symbolic systems—rules, norms, and cultural-cognitive beliefs—are central ingredients of institutions, the concept must also encompass associated behaviors and material resources. Although an institutional perspective gives heightened attention to the symbolic aspects of social life, we must also attend to the activities that produce, reproduce, and change them and to the resources that sustain them. Institutions are, in Hallett and Ventresca’s (2006) useful metaphor, inhabited by people and their interactions. Rules, norms, and mean- ings arise in interaction, and they are preserved and modified by human behavior. To isolate meaning systems from their related behav- iors is, as Geertz (1973) cautions, to commit the error of

locking cultural analysis away from its proper object, the infor-mal logic of actual life… Behavior must be attended to, and with some exactness, because it is through the flow of behavior— or, more precisely, social action—that cultural forms find articulation.        Whatever, or wherever, symbol systems ‘in their own terms’ may be, we gain empirical access to them by inspect- ing events, not by arranging abstracted entities into unified patterns. (p. 17)

Similarly, for Berger and Luckmann (1967) institutions are “dead” if they are only represented in verbal designations and in physical objects. All such representations are bereft of subjective reality “unless they are ongoingly ‘brought to life’ in actual human conduct” (p. 75).

Sociological theorists Giddens (1979; 1984) and Sewell (1992) underline the importance of including resources—both material and human—in any conception of social structure so as to take into account asymmetries of power. Rules and norms, if they are to be effective, must be backed with sanctioning power, and cultural beliefs, or schemas in Sewell’s terminology, to be viable, must relate to and are often embodied in resources. Conversely, those possessing power in the form of excess resources seek authorization and legitimation for its use. As Sewell observes, “Schemas not empowered or regenerated by resources would eventually be abandoned and forgotten, just as resources without cultural schemas to direct their use would eventually dissipate and decay” (p. 13) The Giddens/Sewell formulation usefully stresses the duality of social structure, encompassing both idealist and material features of social life and highlighting their interdependence, an argument I elabo-rate in Chapter 4.

Most treatments of institutions emphasize their capacity to control and constrain behavior. Institutions impose restrictions by defining legal, moral, and cultural boundaries, distinguishing between accept- able and unacceptable behavior. But it is equally important to recog- nize that institutions also support and empower activities and actors. Institutions provide stimulus, guidelines, and resources for acting as well as prohibitions and constraints on action.

Although institutions function to provide stability and order, they themselves undergo change, both incremental and revolutionary. Thus, our subject must include not only institutions as a property or state of an existing social order, but also institutions as process, including the processes of institutionalization and deinstitutionalization (see Tolbert and Zucker, 1996). Scholars increasingly attend not only to how institu- tions arise and are maintained, but to how they undergo change. As we will see, much of the impetus for change occurs through endogenous processes, involving conflicts and contradictions between institutional elements, but institutions can also be destabilized by exogenous shocks, such as wars and financial crises.

Institutions ride on various conveyances and are instantiated in multiple media. These institutional carriers vary in the processes employed to transmit their messages. In addition, institutions operate at multiple levels—from the world system to interpersonal interaction. We examine these diverse carriers and levels in Chapter 4.

Important differences exist among the various schools of institu- tional scholars, as is apparent from our review of previous work in Chapters 1 and 2. In my view, the most consequential dispute centers on which institutional elements are accorded primacy.

Source: Scott Richard (2013), Institutions and Organizations: Ideas, Interests, and Identities, SAGE Publications, Inc; Fourth edition.

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