Basics to understand institutions & institutional change

Basic components of an institutional understanding (Evolving note)

Someone who has an interest in understanding the role of institutions in development, or institutional change will find it difficult to go about the task by ‘decoding’ the rules of the game and analysing them. The sheer mass of rules in any society will be overwhelming and will not be amenable to such analysis. Even that would be of limited help in understanding on how they operate. A more profitable approach would be to look at formative influences of institutions that are likely to have widespread influence. In this post, I look at some essential constitutive influences.

Nature of collective

Institutions are tools to regulate a collective towards collectively chosen ideals. Such a collective could be a caste, class, race, club, nation, economy, religion, etc. Many such groups will of course overlap across each other. Understanding the nature of the collective, their constituents, their goals, the nature of inequalities, and other sociological understandings will be crucial to understanding institutions and change. For example, a lot has been said about institutional change in the West, especially in England since 1600s (constitutional government, etc.). These institutional changes are best understood by looking at various groups within and the power struggle between them. Understanding English society at that point will help us understand how institutions broadly evolved during civil war with lasting impact over centuries.

Collective aspirations & goals

Plato famously suggested a city with a philosopher king, a community of wives and other institutions. His suggestions cannot be understood without looking at the goal that the collective was supposed to pursue – moral perfection. His institutions will make no sense seen from the current preoccupation of institutional economists with growth. Similarly, institutional prescriptions from the perspective of growth will not make perfect sense if ‘development’ were the preferred goal. The nature of goals and priorities will have a significant impact on how institutions are designed, and this of course is related to the nature of society and whose voices matter.

Understanding of human behaviour

Since institutions are supposed to regulate human behaviour towards attaining certain collective goals, there is always some understanding of human behaviour that goes into constituting institutions. These conceptions can be thin or thick, one-dimensional or multifaceted, etc. These are at times captured by ideas such as state of nature, homo economicus, Marxian conception of class struggle, etc. Understanding conceptions of human behaviour held by various groups at the time & place of our interest can yield rich insights into what institutions are valued and what changes are sought. Those of us interested in institutional change have to go beyond our preferred conceptions and make an effort to understand what went on in the societies that one is interested in.

Conceptions of justice

For an idea to become an institution, it is important that it is accepted widely. This is more likely to happen and is likely to sustain only when such institutions are widely accepted to be just. Notions of justice are constructed and are prone to change, especially when they are taken up widely by social movements. Understanding how justice is articulated and how it is challenged will help us relate to institutions and anticipate institutional change in a society.

Techniques of control

Not all institutions are sustained because they are widely accepted. Many are sustained by the use of force. Even if rules enjoying widespread legitimacy (e.g. rule stipulating that one should not steal) have to be enforced, it requires a system of control. These systems of control and who handles them can provide rich insights into what rules can be enforced. During my fieldwork, it was clear that the severity of social controls over people, especially from the lower castes, had gone down in Tamil Nadu over the last few decades. This has a remarkable impact on how caste rules can be enforced – and thus on the freedoms of these people. The techniques of control come in rich varieties including urban design, social practices, software, databases, military technology, etc. In her memorable book, Death and life of great American cities, Jane Jacobs writes about how a system of community surveillance happens when people sit in porches or when there’s traffic all the time – and how this was destroyed by “tower-and-park” design and single purpose neighbourhoods. There are many fascinating accounts on this subject by Michael Foucault, James Scott, Jane Jacobs and many others. Unfortunately, these remain outside the pale of institutional economics or other fields that relate institutions and development.

This post will be expanded in the future

About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.

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