The new institutionalism

The new institutionalism in sociology is a particularly promising prism through which to understand a lot of social behavior and change. Victor Nee and Paul Ingram define the approach in these terms in “Embeddedness and Beyond” in The New Institutionalism in Sociology:

Specifying the mechanisms through which institutions shape the parameters of choice is important to an adequate sociological understanding of economic action. These social mechanisms, we argue, involve processes that are built into ongoing social relationships — the domain of network analysis in sociology. Yet, how institutions and networks combine to determine economic and organizational performance is inadequately theorized in the sociological study of economic life.

An institution is a web of interrelated norms — formal and informal — governing social relationships. It is by structuring social interactions that institutions produce group performance, in such primary groups as families and work units as well as in social units as large as organizations and even entire economies. (Nee and Ingram, p. 19)

The new institutional economics is essentially a marriage of the familiar assumptions of rational choice theory with the observation that “institutions matter”—that is, that the behavior of purposive individuals depends critically on the institutional constraints within which they act, and the institutional constraints themselves are under-determined by material and economic circumstances. So institutions evolve in response to the strategic actions of a field of actors. The paragraphs quoted above make it clear that the approach stipulates a very tight relationship between institutions and norms regulating behavior. The approach pays close attention to the importance of transaction costs in economic activity (the costs of supervision of a work force, for example, or the cost of collecting information on compliance with a contract). And it postulates that institutions emerge and persist as a solution to specific problems of social coordination.

Topics of central concern to the practitioners of the new institutionalism include principal-agent problems (the costs of assuring that one’s agents are performing their functions according to the interests of the principal); the design of alternative systems of property rights; collective action problems; and mechanisms of collective decision-making. In each instance the analysis is designed to illuminate the ways in which institutional arrangements have been selected (or have evolved) in such ways as to respond to an important element of transaction costs. It bears pointing out that this approach does not assume that “optimal” institutions emerge, since the actual institutions selected depend on the distribution of political power across groups and their antecedent interests. This point is richly born out in Robert Bates’s important arguments concerning government agricultural policies in other parts of Africa (Markets and States in Tropical Africa: The Political Basis of Agricultural Policies) and also in Jack Knight’s efforts to frame the conflictual elements of institutions (Institutions and Social Conflict).

Here is a striking example of a new-institutionalist analysis of a concrete sociological phenomenon: Jean Ensminger’s account of bridewealth in the cattle-herding culture of Kenya (Making a Market: The Institutional Transformation of an African Society). First, some background. The cattle-herding economic regime of the Orma pastoralists of Kenya underwent substantial changes in the 1970s and 1980s. Commons grazing practices began to give way to restricted pasturage; wage labor among herders came to replace familial and patron-client relations; and a whole series of changes in the property system surrounding the cattle economy transpired as well. This is an excellent example for empirical study from a new-institutionalist perspective. What explained the particular configuration of norms and institutions of the earlier period? And what social pressures led to the transition towards a more impersonal relationship between owners and herders?

Ensminger examines these questions from the perspective of the new institutionalism. Building on the theoretical frameworks of Douglass North and others, she undertakes to provide an analysis of the workings of traditional Orma cattle-management practices and an explanation of the process of change and dissolution that these practices underwent in the decades following 1960. The book puts forward a combination of close ethnographic detail and sophisticated use of theoretical ideas to explain complex local phenomena.

How does the new institutionalism approach help to explain the features of the traditional Orma cattle regime identified by Ensminger’s study? The key institutions in the earlier period are the terms of employment of cattle herders in mobile cattle camps. The traditional employment practice takes the pattern of an embroidered patron-client relation. The cattle owner provides a basic wage contract to the herder (food, clothing, and one head of cattle per year). The good herder is treated paternally, with additional “gifts” at the end of the season (additional clothing, an additional animal, and payment of the herder’s bridewealth after years of service). The relation between patron and client is multi-stranded, enduring, and paternal.

Ensminger understands this traditional practice as a solution to an obvious principal-agent problem associated with mobile cattle camps. Supervision costs are very high, since the owner does not travel with the camp. The owner must depend on the herder to use his skill and diligence in a variety of difficult circumstances—rescuing stranded cattle, searching out lost animals, and maintaining control of the herd during harsh conditions. There are obvious short-term incentives and opportunities for the herder to cheat the employer—e.g. allowing stranded animals to perish, giving up on searches for lost animals, or even selling animals during times of distress. The patron-client relation gives the herder a long-term incentive to provide high-quality labor, for the quality of work can be assessed at the end of the season by assessment of the health and size of the herd. The patron has an incentive to cheat the client—e.g. by refusing to pay the herder’s bridewealth after years of service. But here the patron’s interest in reputation comes into play: a cattle owner with a reputation for cheating his clients will find it difficult to recruit high-quality herders.

This account serves to explain the evolution and persistence of the patron-client relation in cattle-camps on the basis of transaction costs (costs of supervision). Arrangements will be selected that serve to minimize transaction costs. In the circumstances of traditional cattle-rearing among the Orma the transaction costs of a straight wage-labor system are substantially greater than those associated with a patron-client system. Therefore the patron-client system is selected.

This framework would also suggest that if transaction costs change substantially (through improved transportation, for example, or through the creation of fixed grazing areas), that the terms of employment would change as well (in the direction of less costly pure wage-labor contracts). And in fact this is what Ensminger finds among the Orma. When villages begin to establish “restricted grazing areas” in the environs of the village, it is feasible for cattle owners to directly supervise the management of their herds; and in these circumstances Ensminger finds an increase in pure wage labor contracts.

New institutionalism is a particularly appealing sociological framework from the point of view of the philosophy of society involved here because it asks the right sorts of questions at the right level. The level of analysis is fairly close to the ground — fairly proximate to the actions of socially embedded agents. And the questions that are posed are key: what social problems is a given set of institutions solving? How do these institutions relate to the purposive actions of individuals? And what are the social mechanisms that stabilize or destabilize a given institutional configuration at a certain point in time?

What is "methodological localism"?

Quite a few of the posts in the blog are grounded in a theory of social ontology that I refer to as methodological localism. This theory of social entities affirms that there are large social structures and facts that influence social outcomes. But it insists that these structures are only possible insofar as they are embodied in the actions and states of socially constructed individuals. The “molecule” of all social life is the socially constructed and socially situated individual, who lives, acts, and develops within a set of local social relationships, institutions, norms, and rules.

With methodological individualism, this position embraces the point that individuals are the bearers of social structures and causes. There is no such thing as an autonomous social force; rather, all social properties and effects are conveyed through the individuals who constitute a population at a time. Against individualism, however, methodological localism affirms the “social-ness” of social actors. Methodological localism denies the possibility or desirability of characterizing the individual extra-socially. Instead, the individual is understood as a socially constituted actor, affected by large current social facts such as value systems, social structures, extended social networks, and the like. In other words, ML denies the possibility of reductionism from the level of the social to the level of a population of non-social individuals. Rather, the individual is formed by locally embodied social facts, and the social facts are in turn constituted by the current characteristics of the persons who make them up.

This account begins with the socially constituted person. Human beings are subjective, intentional, and relational agents. They interact with other persons in ways that involve competition and cooperation. They form relationships, enmities, alliances, and networks; they compose institutions and organizations. They create material embodiments that reflect and affect human intentionality. They acquire beliefs, norms, practices, and worldviews, and they socialize their children, their friends, and others with whom they interact. Some of the products of human social interaction are short-lived and local (indigenous fishing practices); others are long-duration but local (oral traditions, stories, and jokes); and yet others are built up into social organizations of great geographical scope and extended duration (states, trade routes, knowledge systems). But always we have individual agents interacting with other agents, making use of resources (material and social), and pursuing their goals, desires, and impulses.

Social action takes place within spaces that are themselves socially structured by the actions and purposes of others—by property, by prejudice, by law and custom, and by systems of knowledge. So our account needs to identify the local social environments through which action is structured and projected: the inter-personal networks, the systems of rules, the social institutions. The social thus has to do with the behaviorally, cognitively, and materially embodied reality of social institutions.

An institution, we might say, is an embodied set of rules, incentives, and opportunities that have the potential of influencing agents’ choices and behavior. An institution is a complex of socially embodied powers, limitations, and opportunities within which individuals pursue their lives and goals. A property system, a legal system, and a professional baseball league all represent examples of institutions. Institutions have effects that are in varying degrees independent from the individual or “larger” than the individual. Each of these social entities is embodied in the social states of a number of actors—their beliefs, intentions, reasoning, dispositions, and histories. Actors perform their actions within the context of social frameworks represented as rules, institutions, and organizations, and their actions and dispositions embody the causal effectiveness of those frameworks. And institutions influence individuals by offering incentives and constraints on their actions, by framing the knowledge and information on the basis of which they choose, and by conveying sets of normative commitments (ethical, religious, interpersonal) that influence individual action.

It is important to emphasize that ML affirms the existence of social constructs beyond the purview of the individual actor or group. Political institutions exist—and they are embodied in the actions and states of officials, citizens, criminals, and opportunistic others. These institutions have real effects on individual behavior and on social processes and outcomes—but always mediated through the structured circumstances of agency of the myriad participants in these institutions and the affected society. This perspective emphasizes the contingency of social processes, the mutability of social structures over space and time, and the variability of human social systems (norms, urban arrangements, social practices, and so on).

Power as influence

We’ve looked at power as the socially embodied ability of some people to compel the behavior of other people. But this isn’t the whole of what we would want to include within the scope of the uses of power. Other important aspects of power are more impersonal, having to do with influencing outcomes rather than controlling behavior. Powerful agents have the ability to set the agenda; to influence the rules of the game (whatever game one is involved in, including the state); to influence the flow of resources; and to make decisions that will have important consequences for other people.

Consider a few examples.

  • A large employer is concerned about rising health care costs. The compensation team lays out several choices: eliminate higher-cost insurance plans; eliminate subsidy for dependents; or shift more costs to employees through a higher premium copay formula. The CEO has the ability to choose one option over others; he/she exercises this authority in favor of option 3. This is an exercise of power.
  • The vice president of the United States wants to see a reduction in the rate of the capital gains tax. He quietly lobbies with legislators to incorporate this provision into upcoming tax legislation. He prevails. This too is an exercise of power — an ability to bend outcomes to the VP’s will. And it proceeds through the ability to influence other decision-makers.
  • The mayor of a small city is in a position to influence which development projects will be permitted. He/she exercises this power to give the nod to A and to deny B. A receives a substantial business benefit and B is left out.
  • A faculty reappointment committee considers the case of Assistant Professor X. It considers his/her dossier of research and teaching in relation to the standards. The case is not clear-cut. The committee has the power to end X’s career at the university. It chooses not to support reappointment. It thereby exercises its power with respect to X’s continuing employment. It emerges that one member had an animus against X and spoke persuasively against X. This member used a private form of power and influence against X and in furtherance of his own wishes.

These examples illustrate much of what C. Wright Mills hoped to capture in his theory of the “power elite” — a relatively compact group of people who are in a position to shape social outcomes to their liking by influencing the agenda, the rules, or the decisions (The Power Elite).

And it goes with this social empowerment of small groups, that the possibilities of self-serving and self-interest arise. When individuals are in a position to determine the way social outcomes will occur, we have to consider the likelihood that they will have favored outcomes that serve their own interests best. So power in this circumstance has a lot to do with distributive outcomes — who wins and who loses. And it had a lot to do with setting the rules of the game in ways that favor some people and disfavor others.

These aspects of power are tremendously important in a complex society. People in positions to influence important decisions — private, corporate, or governmental — have a greatly amplified ability to shape outcomes to their own will. And this in turn permits elites to shape the social environment in ways that best serve their private interests. (Stephen Lukes’s book, Power: A Radical View, is particularly useful.)

And this in turn makes the strongest possible case for democratic transparency. We want the decisions that affect us to be made fairly, with full consideration of the impact they have on everyone affected by them. The decisions that influence everyone’s well-being need to be made within a culture of openness and transparency. But all too often, this expectation is frustrated.

Rawls’s schematic sociology

John Rawls offers an interesting thought along the way in his development of the theory of justice, on the question of the stability of a well-ordered society.  Basically, the idea is that a set of principles of justice need to satisfy a condition of publicity and social stability: the principles need to be such that, when everyone knows that these are the principles that regulate their social interactions and know that all others have the same knowledge, the society remains stable.

Rawls puts the point this way:

Now a well-ordered society is also regulated by its public conception of justice.  This fact implies that its members have a strong and normally effective desire to act as the principles of justice require.  Since a well-ordered society endures over time, its conception of justice is presumably stable: that is, when institutions are just (as defined by this conception), those taking part in these arrangements acquire the corresponding sense of justice and desire to do their part in maintaining them.  One conception of justice is more stable than another if the sense of justice that it tends to generate is stronger and more likely to override disruptive inclinations and if the institutions it allows foster weaker impulses and temptations to act unjustly.  The stability of a conception depends upon a balance of motives: the sense of justice that it cultivates and the aims that it encourages must normally win out against propensities toward injustice.  (A Theory of Justice, pp. 454-455)

What is interesting here is that Rawls is engaging in a bit of sociological theorizing in this passage — not simply apriori moral philosophy.  He is offering an analysis of the social psychology and motivations of people living within various frameworks of justice — the principles governing the basic institutions and laws of a society — and he hypothesizes that the social psychology of citizens is influenced by the features of justice that are embodied in their society.  The resulting social psychology in turn produces behavior that is more or less compatible with the continued stability of the institutions and laws.  A given set of institutions, generated by a certain theory of justice, gives rise to motivations on the part of citizens in ordinary life; and these motivations can be either stabilizing or destabilizing to the postulated institutions and framework of justice.  There is a feedback loop from institutions to social psychology to behavior to basic institutions.

This raises an interesting question: how much of a role does a shared sense of justice play in sustaining a peaceful and stable society?

One piece of the answer is straightforward: injustice is a common cause of societal conflict and violence. Basic social relations that are perceived to involve unfair exploitation of one group by another are an obvious source of motivation towards resistance and group violence. Contrastively, institutions that are publicly recognized to treat all citizens fairly may promote a social psychology and a set of behaviors that are affirming of the institutions — leading to harmonious social life and stable institutions.

So Rawls’s argument here does suggest an interesting conjunction of sociological reality and normative reasoning about justice.  Rawls returns to this topic in Political Liberalism, where he questions the strong assumptions associated with the idea of a well-ordered society. He offers instead the somewhat less demanding idea of an “overlapping consensus” as sufficient for a stable democracy.
But a sense of being treated unfairly is only one out of numerous causes of social conflict. Conflict can arise over numerous other types of issues as well: ethnic or religious identities, racism, neighborhood boundaries, and state policy, to name several.  And these areas of potential conflict are not addressed by Rawls’s sketch of the sociology of a just society.

Public versus hidden faces of organizations

Think of a range of complex organizations and institutions — police departments, zoning boards, corporations, security agencies, and so on indefinitely. These organizations all have missions, personnel, constituencies, and policies and practices. They all do various things — they affect individuals in society and they bring about significant social effects. And, in each case there are at least three aspects of their realities — the ways they publicly present themselves, the ways their behaviors and effects are perceived by the public, and the usually unobservable reality of how they actually behave. Usually the public persona of the institution is benign, fair, and public- spirited. But how close is this public persona to the truth? In many of our basic institutions, the answer seems to be, not very. We are daily confronted with cases of official corruption, corporations that abuse their power, legislators who take advantage of insider status, and the like. So how can we conceptualize the task of getting a reasonably accurate perception of the hidden workings of our major institutions and organizations?

First, let’s consider whether it is possible to specify a minimum charter of good organizational behavior in a democratic society. This would be a partial answer to a part of our question: what defines the conditions of a socially acceptable and publicly defensible organization? Consider these aspirations —

  • The organization should have goals that are compatible with enhancing the public good.
  • The organization should have appropriate policies about behavior towards employees and the public.
  • The organization should genuinely incorporate a commitment of compliance to law and regulation.
  • The corporation should embody a faithful commitment to exerting its efforts on behalf of its stated mission and stakeholders.
  • The organization should be committed to transparency and accountability.

Bad business practices and corruption can often be traced to a violation of one or more of these principles. The most offensive practices by powerful organizations — predatory behavior, asset stripping, the use of coercion and threat to achieve organizational goals, fraud, deception, illegal behavior, toxic waste dumping, evasion of regulations, and bribery — all fall within the categories identified here.

So how are we to determine whether our existing organizations and institutions satisfy these minimal conditions? We might imagine a routine “scan” of major institutions and organizations that asks a small set of questions along these lines:

  • What are the real operational goals and priorities of the organization?
  • What are the operational policies that govern corporate action?
  • How do agents of the organization actually treat members of the public in carrying out their tasks?
  • To what extent are there discrepancies between policy and practice?
  • To what extent do powerful leaders and managers use their positions to favor their own private interests? (conflict of interest)
  • To what extent do business crimes occur — accounting fraud, investor deception, evasion of regulations for health and safety?
  • And, most generally, to what extent is there a discrepancy between the official story about the organization and its actual practices?

It is very easy to think of examples of bad organizational behavior illustrating each of these questions — waste management companies fronting for organized crime groups, pharmaceutical companies producing defective generic drugs, police officers accepting bribes from speeding drivers, mining companies hiring “security workers” to evict “squatters.” And it would be a very interesting exercise to try to provide brief but accurate answers to each of these questions for a number of organizations. Based on the answers to questions like these that we are able to establish, we could then make an effort to answer the question of how great a discrepancy there is between the benign public persona of major institutions and their actual workings.

In theory we might say that answering these questions is no more difficult than putting a man on the moon — costly but straightforward. However, as was said twenty years ago in the context of anti-ballistic missile technology, the difference is that the moon doesn’t fight back. Organizations — particularly large governmental and corporate organizations — are very adept at covering their tracks, concealing bad behavior, and re-telling the story in their own interests. So the investigative challenge is a huge one — we might speculate that corruption multiplies geometrically, while investigative capacity multiplies arithmetically (a sort of Malthusian theory of misbehavior). Any given abuse can be uncovered in the New Yorker or on the 6 o’clock news — but bad behavior outstrips investigative resources.

So the task of understanding this aspect of modern society amounts to finding effective ways of shining a light on the real practices and priorities of important organizations and institutions. And the practical interest we have in controlling bad organizations — controlling corruption, ensuring good environmental and labor practices, eliminating coercion and violence — comes down to the challenge of enhancing the ability of democracies to investigate, regulate, and publicize the standards and outcomes of behavior that are required.

(Earlier posts have addressed aspects of this issue, including comments on corruption and publicity.)

Institutions, functions, purposes

An institution is a specific ensemble of interlocked organizations and rules that serve to coordinate and constrain the behavior of a number of individuals; and the specific features of the organization have often been refined to bring about specific effects: enforcement of laws, maximization of tax collections, minimization of corrupt behavior, efficient delivery of services, … The reformers, in this case, are not usually master designers or architects standing at the top of the institution; instead, they are an army of players and stakeholders who have the capacity to proliferate or modify various aspects of the institution. So an institution is generally a collective product, created, sustained, and modified by an army of participants, from CEOs to supervisors and directors to front-line workers.

The ideas of “purpose” or “function” are hard to disassociate from the idea of an institution. Purposes have to do with the intentions of the creators or reformers of a thing; and functions have to do with the relationship between the thing’s effects and the broader needs of the system within which it sits. We are often led to ask questions like these: What is the mission or purpose of the institution? What social functions does it fulfill? What are the intentions of the actors that are expressed in the various sub-components of the institution?

Here, however, we have to be very cautious. Social institutions and organizations do not have “essences” or “natures”, and they do not have inherent functions. This functionalist interpretation may once have been appealing but is no longer credible. There is no basis for imagining that social institutions are optimized for bringing about important social effects. And there is no mechanism of “social selection” that serves as a general equivalent to “natural selection” and that would lead to a process of improvement of fitness for social institutions. (This isn’t to say that any variant is equally good; smart social engineers will plainly avoid institutional arrangements that are påatently unworkable. But there is usually a range of alternative arrangements that would be “good enough”, so that the existing arrangement is only one out of several that could have been implemented.) So the concept of an institution’s function isn’t a particularly useful one. (See an earlier post on questionable analogies between social science and evolutionary biology.)

It is fair enough to say that purposes come into the design of an institution. After all, institutions are semi-deliberate social artifacts, and their creators have purposes. But generally these are the local and parochial purposes of participants at a variety of levels, not the purposes of some grand designer for the institution as a whole. The conventions of double-entry accounting express the purpose of an enterprise owner to assure the honest performance of money-handlers in the organization; featherbedding work rules on nineteenth-century railroads expressed the purpose of resistant workers within the railroad business organization. Each of these features reflects the interests of one or another group of participants within the organization.

Universities provide a good illustration of an organization embodying multiple purposes. We might say that the purposes of a university are to educate young people and to conduct useful research. But immediately we need to ask: whose purposes are these? The university president? The board of trustees? The alumni? The employees? The tax payers and private donors? Society at large? The answer appears to be, all and none of the above. Instead of a single overarching purpose to the university, it seems more accurate to say that multiple stakeholders have multiple goals and expectations of the university, and use their various powers to shape its characteristics in ways favorable to the various stakeholders’ interests.

Moreover, even if we grant that universities have the function of disseminating and extending knowledge, the subsidiary organizations of the university have only a loose relationship to this macro-function. The processes of tenure and promotion, purchasing, selection of department chairs, governance rules, or student disciplinary procedures — that is, the academic and business functions of the university — are themselves the expression of past struggles between agents advocating for their interests. So we shouldn’t expect that these subordinate arrangements somehow fit together in a way that is optimal for delivering the primary function of the university. Rather, we might say that a university is a complex of procedures and activities that bear some relationship to education, but that reflect differing and sometimes antagonistic histories of composition.

This discussion underlines several important ideas about social entities: plasticity (institutions are adjusted and shaped by stakeholders), contingency and path-dependence (the particular features of the institution today are the result of choices made in a prior generation), heterogeneity (institutions should be expected to proliferate and differentiate over time; different universities are likely to have significantly different internal procedures); and agent-centered explanations (institutions take shape through the deliberate actions of the agents who populate them).

The heterogeneous social: institutions

Populations and groups are inherently diverse; virtually any property that might be attached to an individual shows variance across the group. So we have to pay special attention to specifying what we mean when we ask for a “measurement” of a property of a group. This is the basic ontological fact that undergirds a critical approach to quantitative social and behavioral science. And it means that we need always to be considering the variance within the group with respect to the property, the shape of the distribution, as well as the mean value of the property.

It turns out that social phenomena are heterogeneous at the level of institutions, mentalities, practices, and causes as well. Later posts will consider other forms of social heterogeneity. The topic here is institutional heterogeneity. An institution is a system of rules through which a set of social behaviors are mediated. Rules may be enforced through clear third-party enforcement powers (formal institutions) or diffuse participant enforcement practices (informal institutions). Examples of institutions include contract law (formal), cooperative labor-sharing (informal), marriage systems (formal and informal), and tenure systems (formal). Institutions are embodied in the beliefs, values, attitudes, and motivations of socially constructed individuals at various levels of action; they act to constrain and incentivize individual behavior in ways that are to some extent independent of the actions and preferences of those individuals. (That is, the individual is rarely in a position to directly change the rules of the institution so as to serve his/her goals better.) So institutions are both caused by (embodied in) the social consciousness of an extended set of social actors, and are causal in shaping the future behavior of an extended set of social actors.

Institutions have origins — they come into being at a time and place. So we can ask the question, “what explains the fact of the emergence of the institution and the particular characteristics it possesses at that point?” And institutions undergo processes of development over time — they undergo change in some characteristics, incorporate new scope and function, and gain new coalitions of supporters and opponents. So we can ask the question, “what factors explain the processes of change that the institution undergoes?” (Kathleen Thelen’s How Institutions Evolve: The Political Economy of Skills in Germany, Britain, the United States, and Japan provides a very good account of the ways in which we need to investigate the origins and development of various important social institutions.)

Institutions are sometimes grouped together into broad categories or classes in terms of social function (what does the institution do?), observable characteristics (what does the institution look like?), and social functioning (how does the institution work?). So, for example, we might want to study institutions of marriage-partner selection, irrigation management, or institutions that regulate common property resources such as forests or wetlands; Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. In each case the group of institutions is defined in terms of the common social problem that they solve.

Now we can frame the task of one important area of sociology and political science research: to undertake careful comparative research concerning the instances of institutions included within a category. In what ways are different examples similar and different from each other? How have parallel or divergent institutional complexes emerged to solve broadly similar social problems? What causal processes can be observed in the workings of these several examples? How do these institutional matrices influence and constrain the forms of behavior that flow through them? (So, in the book by Kathleen Thelen mentioned above, the author considers the national-level institutions of skilled-labor training that have evolved in Germany, UK, USA, and Japan; she considers the effects that these different regimes have on the flow of skilled workers; and she analyzes the political coalitions that were relevant in establishing a particular configuration of the institution.)

Here, finally, we can address the issue of institutional heterogeneity. Given the ways that institutions are formed, changed, and embodied, we should expect that there will be two forms of diversity among institutions. First, it is clear that there are normally multiple ways of solving a particular social problem (training workers for industry, managing prisoners, administering social welfare subsidies). So we should expect that there will be a range of institutional matrices that have emerged across societies to handle these challenges, and we can learn quite a bit about social causation by examining these differences and how they work. And second, given that institutions are “malleable” and dynamic, we should expect that institutions will show diversity within their own life courses. As powerful agents and coalitions shift in their powers and needs, as other constituents acquire more or less influence in setting the agenda for the institution, we should expect an ongoing process of modification of the institution over time.

Plasticity of social entities

I maintain that virtually all social entities are “plastic”: their properties change significantly over time, as a result of the purposive and unintentional behavior of the socially constructed individuals who make up a society.

The view that I prefer is one that emphasizes a deep plasticity and heterogeneity in social entities. Organizations and institutions change over time and place. Agents within these organizations change their characteristics through their own behavior, through their intentional efforts to modify them, and through the cumulative effect of agents and behavior over time and place. So at the level of the individual social formation, I maintain that institutions are not fully homeostatic, preserving their own structure in the face of disturbances. This is not to say that institutions lack such homeostatic mechanisms altogether; only that we cannot presuppose that a given institution or organization will persist in its fundamental characteristics over extended time and space.

This plasticity applies to “subjective” constructs like social identities as well as to “objective” entities like organizations and structures. Features of social consciousness and social identity are variable across time, place, and group. The mechanisms through which social identities and mentalities are transmitted, transmuted, and maintained are varied; inculcation, imitation, and common circumstances are central among these. But the transmission of an identity is a bit like the transmission of a message through a telephone chain. Because of “noise” in the system, because of individual differences among the transmitters, and because of multiple other influences on micro-identities, we should expect great variation within and across groups with regard to the particulars of their social identities. (See “Mentalities, Practices and Identities” for more on this subject.)

So it is important for social scientists to avoid the fallacy of “naturalism”–the idea that social science should resemble natural science, and the idea that social entities have a similar constitution and ontology to natural entities.

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