What is an institution?

The idea for this entry actually comes from an entry from a philosophy teacher (I will not link to it so he can be spared the embarassment). I found an error in this argument:

An example that usually trips my logic students up on tests is the following:

1) Each member of the Supreme Court is conservative.
2) Therefore, the Supreme Court itself is conservative

This argument is not fallacious…

I can well understand that the argument “trips” his students “up,” because his answer is incorrect. The argument is most definitely fallacious (his subsequent whining that logic textbooks agree with him notwithstanding). I hope the reason is obvious: the “Supreme Court” is not simply a group of nine individuals. It is part of a hierarchical institution (the justice system, which is itself part of the larger concept of enforcing the law), with all that this implies.

I suppose I should be a little more specific on what “this implies.” Here is a brief overview of what an institution is composed of:

1. Individuals having varying degrees of self-determination within the hierarchy.

2. Intellectual resources, either from those individuals or in codified form (know-how, expertise, creativity, technology, relevant scientific knowledge, etc).

3. Physical resources (buildings or use of buildings, and whatever physical objects are needed to continue the operations of the institution at a concrete level, means to communicate between members and to the public, etc).

Most importantly, an institution is a hierarchy and a structure, therefore it also has the following properties:

* It has a decision-making structure.
* It has sets of official rules and regulations, which are written down and (more or less) enforced.
* It has incentive systems, from the simplest reward/punishment system to sophisticated and subtle mores.
* It has a theoretical purpose, which is used for propaganda purposes and to ground the internal logic.
* It has an internal logic, grounded in the theoretical purpose, by which actions and beliefs are justified.
* It has an actual purpose, which generally concerns only the people at the top of the hierarchy.

There are so many institutions one can use as examples, such as capitalism, organized religion, schooling, the Patriarchy, parenting, the city, law enforcement, the scientific and medical establishments, the mass media and so on. I will go through the points using these as examples.

Decision-making structure. All major institutions in our societies function through semi-independent units of action (corporations, churches, schools, individual men, families, police forces) which are coordinated through the impetus of class warfare or a straightforward hierarchy (the power elite, religious activist organizations, departments of education, the mass media, growth coalitions, departments of justice). There is a balance of decision-making which depends on the relative power of the units and the coordinators (e.g. in capitalism, the power elite is mostly emergent from relations between property owners, while government departments can have quite a bit of power relative to a school or a police force- think of it as the difference in independence between provinces and the Canadian government versus states and the American government).

Rules and regulations. I think this one is pretty obvious. Institutions function in accordance with their own internal rules and regulations, and also impose rules and regulations on other people. Both sets of rules and regulations may be consistent, but they usually are not.

Incentive systems. In general, it is in the interest of an agent within the institution to follow the rules and regulations of that institution. This is pretty straightforward reward/punishment. But an institution also has traditions, habits, mores, a group culture and a group logic which are just as powerful as explicit, written rules (think of the police omertà or the Christian churches’ hiding of rampant child abuse and rape, for example).

Incentives are what moves people. In a sense, the identity of the people involved are interchangeable: whether angels or demons, they will still, on the whole, follow the incentives of the institutions they work under (or have to contend with as citizens). Part of these incentives are the goals of the units themselves, which the rules are usually meant to facilitate (the profit motive or political funding, political or social influence, personal pleasure, control over one’s children).

Theoretical purpose. What the institution tells the public, and people lower in its hierarchy, about its purpose and aims. Here are the theoretical purposes of the institutions I’ve listed:

Capitalism- to ensure an efficient allocation of resources, efficient production, and preserve individual economic freedom.
Organized religion- to provide salvation and enforce morality.
Schooling- to educate children and prepare them for the “real world.”
The patriarchy- to glorify women and enable them to fulfill their “true purpose.”
Parenting- to raise children so they are successful/adapted to society.
The city- to provide employment and good living conditions.
Law enforcement- to prevent crime and keep order.

These theoretical purposes are the foundation on which propaganda grows. We are told that capitalism is an efficient method to allocate resources and to produce (backed by fake versions of “personal responsibility” and the worship of competition). More importantly, people come to believe that capitalism is the only way we have to fulfill that purpose. Based on this, corporations can demand mind-boggling amounts of public money because they are assumed to be necessary, we put up with corporations putting out tremendous amounts of pollution, negligent homicides, conspiracies to deceive, and even hiring private juntas and killing people because we believe they are necessary.

So the theoretical purpose provides the beliefs that propaganda can use as a hook to generate agreement. Many ads are in some fashion based on this: when corporations want you to believe they care about the environment, or care about their workers, or care about their country, and so on, they hope that you already believe corporations are necessary and that you don’t believe in alternatives that actually do respect the environment or are respectful of workers.

This becomes an anti-radical statement. Even people who do believe in alternatives will eventually adopt the “reasonable” position that “maybe some alternative would be better but that’s never going to happen so help to reform what we do have.”

The theoretical purpose also grounds the reframing of issues that institutions perform in order to counter opposition. The patriarchy constantly redefines woman-hatred as “feminism” or “freeing women.” Organized religion has redefined atheism and homosexuality as failures of morality. By its very nature, the mass media is most effective at silencing or strawmaning opponents of the status quo.

Internal logic. The theoretical purpose also grounds the internal logic used within those institutions. Constraints put on employees, violence used by corporations, negligent homicides, are all explained by corporations as necessary for efficient production. Everything that managers do in a corporation is ultimately justified by the demands of production. Every way in which corporations cheat people is ultimately justified by a “just” allocation of resources.

The internal logic is also based on the decision-making structure of the hierarchy. For the powerful, power is its own justification: one must obey those with power because they have power.

Actual purpose. This is the actual purpose of the institution vis-à-vis other institutions and society in general. We can tell what it is by looking at what the institution actually does, not what it claims or what other people in society claim. Here are the same examples as before:

Capitalism- to keep control over the resources of society in the hands of a small power elite.
Organized religion- to impose social order (by instilling contentment with authority).
Schooling- to indoctrinate children to become compliant citizens ready to take jobs.
The patriarchy- to maintain men as a superior class to women.
Parenting- to transmit religious, patriarchal, class-based and competitive indoctrination (and to keep children in school).
The city- to exploit land in a way that is most conducive to capitalist profits.
Law enforcement- to enforce the laws made by the power elite.

How do we know these are the real purposes of these institutions, and not what the propaganda tells us? Well, one way to do that is to look at how they function, take these various features and look at whether they are conducive to the theoretical purpose or to what I claim is the actual purpose.

Look at schooling, for example. We observe a number of defining features which are completely contrary to its theoretical purpose of educating children:

1. The constant use of testing.
2. Competitive or independent learning.
3. Authoritarian class structure.
4. Strong disrespect of students’ rights.
5. [Generally] fixed curriculum.
6. Choice of textbooks made by bureaucrats.

All these features point to the actual purpose, not the theoretical purpose.

Another, more intuitive method is to think about what it might look like if it was meant to actually fulfill its stated purpose, instead of having these features I’ve listed above. How could a school be made to actually educate children? It would be drastically different. Such a school would promote cooperative learning, which has been proven to yield the best result. It would let children choose what they want to study and let them do so at their own pace (so gifted children would not be held back, and slower children would not be forced to follow). Children’s rights and natural values would be at the core of learning.

What would such a school look like? It would probably be a lot more open, put less emphasis on chalkboard and more on talking, be a lot louder, and children would be a lot more responsible towards their personal education. Of course there would still be standards (all children should learn to read, write and count, as well as receive general knowledge about the world), but how those standards would be achieved would be mostly up to the student.

We can also look at the origins of these institutions. Modern schooling in the US was built on the same structure as factory work, and was created by industrialists at the turn of the 20th century to create a docile workforce (see The Underground History of American Education, by John Taylor Gatto). The connection between industrial expansion and public education is true all over the Western world.

Institutions are mutually supportive, because they co-evolve and adapt to each other. We can metaphorically speak of cooperation between institutions: schooling feeds the job demand and sometimes discriminates by gender, organized religion supports other institutions as part of the social order, capitalism helps maintain the patriarchy by discriminating between men and women and helps enforce laws through its own regulations, parenting leads to the indoctrination in a local religion, a fixed idea of gender, and schooling, and so on. Very little of this is made of conscious actions, except for the people at the top, but was developed over generations.

An institution is defined as a well-established, structured pattern of behavior and/or relationships that is fundamental to culture (this also includes abstract institutions such as private ownership, which I did not add here). As such, an institution is necessarily a creator of social roles, since a social role aims to impose stable, structured patterns of behavior and relationships. To continue the example, schooling creates social roles of “student” and “teacher” (as well as more minor ones which involves one in the school such as “parent of student”) which are a binary where each is defined in opposition to the other. In its intersection with capitalism, it also helps determine economic roles and classes. Its its intersection with the mass media, it creates expert roles. It also has a gatekeeper role for the scientific and medical establishments.

Because they create social roles, institutions are also generators of artificial meaning. They all have something to say about the individual’s place in society (especially religion, obviously).

Now, to come back to the main issue, I think I can conclusively answer that no, an institution is not strictly or even mainly shaped by individual actions at any specific time. In fact, everyone who works within these institutions is subject to narrow limiting factors, so that even if, for whatever reason, a substantial number of people wanted to deviate from the norm (and no, being a conservative judge doesn’t count), they could only go so far. Usually, egalitarian institutions can only exist within egalitarian societies: the only exceptions either exist under the radar (such as Anarchist free schools) or are the result of troubled times and a divided body politic (such as the recuperated factories in Argentina).

The example of the Supreme Court is perhaps more ambiguous because any given Supreme Court justice probably has more influence over the justice system as a whole, relatively speaking, than anyone else has over any institution. But there is a far cry from that to “every Supreme Court justice is X, therefore the Supreme Court is X.” As I’ve described here, there is much more to any organization or institution than its individuals’ actions at any given time.

At this point, I suppose a methodological individualist might read all this and say that, while it’s all well and true that there’s a lot more in an institution than individuals and their actions, and that there’s no necessary link between the two, it is still the case that institutions change and that this change proceeds from individual action.

I am not going to debate methodological individualism because that’s a whole other issue (see my entry “Taking socio-political critique as a personal attack” for an indirect take on that). Suffice it to say that I find the proposition that individual actions are primary and systems are secondary to be extremely dubious. Being opposed to methodological individualism does not mean to omit the existence of individual actions (any more than methodological individualism itself omits the existence of society), but rather means that the impact of systems on actions (or in sociological terms, the impact of structure on agency) is far greater than the reverse, and that therefore we need to start with systems, not actions, as primary.

Anyway, once we admit that there’s more than individual actions, the fallacy of institutions=individuals disappears, and as I said this is not the place to debate the rest. Besides, the idea that institutions are made of individual actions is used more often than not to promote those institutions: when individuals act in evil ways, we argue that they’re just “bad apples” and that their behavior does not impact the institution itself. If we’re talking about facts and not about prejudice, then we can’t label all positive actions as creative and label all negative actions as irrelevant.

15 thoughts on “What is an institution?

  1. David Gendron March 15, 2013 at 13:02

    Great post. I have a comment for the education part, though.

    “We observe a number of defining features which are completely contrary to its theoretical purpose of educating children:

    1. The constant use of testing.”

    Testing can be a good tool to survey the learning progression. But this testing should not be competitive. So non-competitive testing can be an interesting tool.

    “2. Competitive or independent learning.”

    Competitive learning is not a good idea, I agree. Independent learning, coupled with co-teaching with others after a preliminary learning state, can be better for some students (like me), but for the majority of students, cooperative learning is best.

    “3. Authoritarian class structure.
    4. Strong disrespect of students’ rights.
    5. [Generally] fixed curriculum.
    6. Choice of textbooks made by bureaucrats.”

    There should no place for them in education, I agree. I would be a better “teacher” without all this crap.

    • Francois Tremblay March 15, 2013 at 13:10

      Yea, that’s fair enough. I’m not saying we never need any testing (I imagine that informal testing would be used to evaluate whether a child has attained some core competency), just that using testing as a measure of success, and using it constantly, shows that the purpose is not to make children learn.

      My point on independent learning is that again it doesn’t reflect the best methods we have in education for children to learn. It’s been proven again and again that cooperative education, when applied correctly and not just as another method to shut children up or go through rote lessons, beats all other methods hands down.

      • David Gendron March 15, 2013 at 13:31

        “just that using testing as a measure of success, and using it constantly, shows that the purpose is not to make children learn.”

        Absolutely! In fact, I’m sure that if we use informal tests that are more difficult and more “progressive” than the current formal tests, students would be better with informal tests.

        • Francois Tremblay March 15, 2013 at 13:35

          What do you mean?

          • David Gendron March 15, 2013 at 14:57

            If we remove the stress of formal tests, students will perform better in informal more challenging tests.

        • Francois Tremblay March 15, 2013 at 14:59

          But why do the tests have to be more or less challenging?

          • David Gendron March 18, 2013 at 07:35

            I don’t they do “have to”, they just could be more challenging.

          • David Gendron March 18, 2013 at 07:36

            I don’t think they do “have to”, they just could be more challenging.

        • Francois Tremblay March 18, 2013 at 12:39

          Oh ok.

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