Institution Essay

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An institution is a set of behaviours patterned according to one or more variously codified and differentially enforced rules whose development can be evolved or constructed or both. Durability and modes of justification allow for comparability between social systems. A society can range on a theoretical spectrum from full institutionalization to anomie.

Mauss and Faconnet took institution to be those acts and ideas that individuals encounter and find somewhat impressed upon them. They declared that ”the science of society is the science of institutions” (Sociology 1901: 11). Durkheim later concurred and suggested that since institutions exhibit more or less ”crystallization” they are apt as a focus for sociology.

Institutions refer not to brute physical facts but to what Searle calls ”institutional facts.” They take the form ”X counts as Y in context C’ where X stands for some physical object or event and Y assigns a special status to the X in question (status function) implying certain obligations (deontic power). This is sustained due to the nature of human action as rule-following. Rules are necessarily intersubjective since a community of rule-followers is required to establish ”rightness and provide perpetual verification. Hence, institutions are never static and exist only through the continual interaction of a plurality, as noted in Bloor s (1997) Wittgenstein, Rules and Institutions.

This inherent rule-based fluidity, even in spite of apparent stability, brings to the fore the question of legitimacy for institutions. Social change can be viewed according to the predominance of particular forms of institutional justification over time. One can consider the main modes of institutional justification varying according to Weber s rationality types: practical, theoretical, substantive, and formal. The pre-modern era is thought of as emphasizing legitimacy of institutions according to tradition (substantive rationality). However, arguably, with the onset of industrialization institutions increasingly derive their authority from principles of efficiency and calculability (formal rationality). Post-World War II justification of institutions, especially at the macro-level, progressively require satisfaction of contested conditions of justice including fairness, non-interference and discourse compatibility. Alternatively, micro-level research of institutions, especially by symbolic interactionists, have found that symbolically loaded micro-level interactions legitimate various institutional types. An important example is Goff-man s (1961) Asylums which characterized the ”total institution as a large number of people who live and work together in a shared, enclosed and formally administered space. These total institutions, for instance convents, prisons and residential hospitals, are legitimated by a coerced or compliant but always heavily symbolic undermining of the remnants of the pre-total institution self.

Institutions are potentially enabling as well as restricting. While institutions employ various prohibitive sanctions, they also provide the solutions to collective decision problems. Parsons (The Social System, 1951: 39) saw institutions as ”a complex of institutionalized role integrates which is of strategic structural significance in the social system in question. The roles adopted can fall into five typical broad categories of institution: economic (good and service production and distribution), political (power designation), cultural (symbolic and scientific action), kinship (reproduction control and socialization of the young), stratificational (social status attribution).

The genesis of any institution is key to understanding it. Evolutionary game theoretical models have been used to show how the emergence of an institution can be endogenous to spontaneous and repetitive interactions. However, many institutions, particularly at the macro-level, are consciously designed and constructed in response to perceived needs and often according to normative ideals. How both these processes of institution formation interrelate is uncertain, as is what mixture is most desirable in what circumstances.

Much of today s research focusing on institutions revolves around extraordinarily influential work in the sociology of organizations and economic sociology. In the former, a distinct sociological new in-stitutionalism has emerged following notable work by Meyer & Rowan and Di Maggio & Powell in which it became apparent that organizations were operating in a complex institutional environment of normative, regulative and cultural cognitive features. Meanwhile, Granovetter, particularly in his (1985) ”Economic action and social structure: the problem of embeddedness, has critiqued how both over-socialized and under-socialized representations of actors fail to understand that economic institutions are embedded in networks of interpersonal relations.


  1. Durkheim, E. (1982) [1901] The Rules of Sociological Method. Free Press, Cambridge.
  2. Goffman, E. (1991) [1961] Asylums: Essays on the Conditions of the Social Situations of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. Penguin, London.
  3. Mauss, M. & Faconnet, P. (1901) Sociologie: objet et methode. Annee Sociologique 30: 165-76.
  4. Parsons,    (1951)   The  Social System. Routledge, London.
  5. Powell,    &  Di  Maggio,   P.   (1991)   The New Institutionalism ofOrganizational Analysis. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.
  6. Searle, J. (1995) The Construction of Social Reality. Free Press, New York.

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