University as a causal structure

An earlier post laid out a case for a modest social holism, in the form of a set of arguments for the idea that there are social forces and causal powers that are relatively autonomous from the features of the individuals who constitute them (link). These ideas parallel some of those offered by Dave Elder-Vass that were discussed in a recent post. I hold that this modest holism is compatible with the ideas of methodological localism (link) and the requirement that social causes require microfoundations (linklink). At the same time, it helps make sense of the fairly obvious point that social institutions, norms, and linguistic communities exercise powerful influence over the thoughts and behaviors of individuals.

The causal processes linking institution and individuals appear to be fully two-directional, with reinforcing feedback loops. The institution consists of a set of rules, processes, and role-players. The rules are both formal (laws, standard practice guides, by-laws) and informal (long-standing and widely recognized practices and norms governing specific kinds of activity). Some of the role players have the role of enforcing the rules and incentivizing the desired behaviors. These “enforcers” may act on the basis of a range of levels of understanding and commitment; so enforcement itself is variable. Ordinary participants within the institution are subject to the incentives and sanctions created by the rules and the enforcers; so their behavior is to some extent responsive to the rules. And ordinary participants in turn have internalized some understanding of the core processes and regulations of the institution — and are (in varying degrees of involvement) prepared to encourage or sanction the behavior of their peers based on their understanding of the rules.

This description raises a number of theoretical issues. (1) What social processes establish the relative degree of continuity of the rules and practices of the institution? What prevents “drift” away from the rules of a given moment? (2) What social and agentic processes lead individuals to conform to the rules, and under what circumstances do individuals subvert or evade the rules? (3) What social processes ensure a reasonable degree of commitment by “agents” (officers, managers, directors) of the institution to its foundational rules and practices? How is an alignment between rules, agents, and participants established and maintained?

We might imagine that there are “tipping points” when it comes to adherence to the institution’s norms, rules, and practices. When a sufficient number of agents or participants sincerely endorse the rules and adhere to them, this leads other agents to do so as well. When rule evasion is perceived to be common, this probably leads to a precipitous decline in rule adherence. So widespread conformance is itself a causal factor in the persistence of the rules into the next time period.

But how do we go beyond these general statements about structural causation? It may be helpful to think through a familiar example — the ways in which a specific institution like a university both shapes and influences the behavior of many individuals, and the ways in which its own internal functions and culture are themselves constituted by the behaviors, beliefs, attitudes, and morés of the individuals who fall within its ambit. Here is a sketch of the functional organization of a fictitious university:

The diagram has place-holders for formal, explicit rules and procedures (by-laws and operating regulations) and informal norms and practices; it has a sketch of some typical processes and transactions within which actors need to make various performances (tenure evaluation processes, research account oversight, purchasing decisions); and it identifies core “enforcer and incentivizer” roles — CFO, provost, dean, auditors … The actions that take place within the university generally fall within the scope of one or more of these regulations and norms.  Actors (faculty members, front-line staff, administrators) are generally aware of the procedures that regulate their actions, and they either conform or deviate from the procedures.  If they conform, generally things go well for them; if they deviate (submit false receipts for travel reimbursement) they are often detected and punished.  So behavior of actors within the institution shows a measurable level of conformance with regulations and norms.  And there are direct forms of oversight, reward, and punishment that serve to reinforce compliance.  Finally, to close the circle — the enforcers and incentivizers themselves fall within a circle of appraisal and accountability; so if their behavior deviates from what the standards and norms of the institution require, there is a likelihood of discovery and remedial action by others.

Outside the scope of the formal and informal norms of the institution, there are a variety of strands of institutional culture.  Faculty, for example, find themselves in specific social settings within the university — department meetings, faculty clubs, research seminars, etc. — in which they gain exposure to local attitudes and values.  And, as anyone who has spent much time in a university knows, these experiences often lead up to a fairly stable institutional culture among faculty — in a department or division, or in the university as a whole (link).  The faculty in a liberal arts college have a rather different culture from that of the faculty at a large research university.  And liberal arts college faculties differ among themselves as well in this respect.

There is another kind of causal influence that is indicated in the first diagram above — the fact that universities also have relations of influence with other universities.  So if University A is looking to refine or modify its employee benefits policies, it is likely to examine the best practices of University B and C as well; and it is likely to adopt a few of those best practices.  So the network of learning and emulation that exists across institutions is another form of causal influence at the level of the social structure.  Here again, it is not difficult to disaggregate this causal mechanism into specific individual-level actions — attendance at an ACE conference, a site visit to University B by several representatives of University A, the drafting of a new policy by those individuals when they return home for consideration by a deliberative body, and the ultimate selection of the new policy by the president of the university.

So it isn’t difficult to specify the ways in which the institution and its components exercise “macro” causal impact on the behavior of individuals within a university.  An organization develops specific arrangements to solve problems of coordination, incentives, and rule enforcement; and these social arrangements have a strong influence on the behavior of the individuals who live within the institution.  But likewise, it is not difficult to specify how these rules, norms, and enforcement mechanisms are embodied in the actions and mental states of a set of individuals.  The people who occupy positions of influence within this organization have been “trained” by the organization to do their jobs; the skills learned through this training (and through their experience in the position over time) are embodied in their cognitive systems as “managerial skills”; and their motivations and behaviors themselves are subject to a degree of institutional control.  (A dean who refuses to accept the responsibility of maintaining fiscal balance in his or her unit will soon be removed.) This causal system is indeed cyclical: both the organizational components and the participants have history and skills developed by past experience that allow them to function adeptly within the system.  The participants have learned their university “habitus” from prior experience of the university; and the university’s rules, norms, and procedures are in turn embodied in the present in the habitus of the current members of the university, and the embodied traces of its norms and rules in the form of written regulations.


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