Seeing institutions in different ways
Seeing institutions in different ways

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Seeing institutions in different ways

1.3 ‘Institutions’ and ‘organisations’

Brett sees institutions in terms of rules and norms. But his central concern is not to define institutions, but rather to establish their significance. To do this, amongst other things, he distinguishes between institutions and organisations.

Brett describes organisations as ‘actors in society’. Organisations get things done or, to follow the metaphor, they act, they perform. By contrast, institutions provide the framework in which the performance occurs. Thus, for example:

  • schools teach children, within the framework of the institution of education
  • political parties seek votes, within the framework of the institution of democracy
  • public and voluntary agencies provide benefits, within the framework of the institution of welfare
  • supermarkets and other shops compete to provide goods, within the framework of the institution of the market
  • companies give different financial rewards to different employees, within the framework of the institution of inequality.

And, of course, some organisations will perform better than others, and, as with people, some will act outside the institutional framework – and will sometimes break the rules.

Is the difference clear-cut?

In an everyday sense, the short answer is, ‘no’. As you will probably already appreciate, there is a considerable overlap between institutions and organisations. Organisations can become institutions as they become established and recognised as standing for something more than themselves; they come to embody and express important social norms and values.

This can perhaps be seen most obviously in a global context, with organisations such as the World Bank or the United Nations. But it is no less true at a local level where, for example, a school can come to be recognised as having a significance far beyond its own gates, or a shop can come to be seen as a place not just where buying and selling take place but also where key neighbourhood concerns are identified and expressed.

But the question can be answered in a rather different, and no less important, way: with an answer perhaps closer to a ‘yes’. We can look at precisely the same social entity – the school you attended, for example, the agency you work for – though two different lenses: an organisational lens and an institutional lens.

With the organisational lens, in the case of your school, you might be looking at, say, the range of classes in the school, the different ways in which teaching takes place in different classes. With the institutional lens, you might be looking at the wider ‘rules’ which, for example, require schools to arrange classes by age or by ability.

With the organisational lens, in the case of your agency, you might be looking at, say, your work on a poverty reduction programme. With the institutional lens, you might be looking at, the wider ‘rules’ which, for example, require that your agency works in ‘partnership’ with other agencies.

In the latter case, note that what I am calling the ‘rules’ might be set down in the tendering procedures, setting the terms on which your agency can participate in the programme. They might, equally, take the form of a less formal – but no less binding – understanding that ‘this is how we do development’.

My particular interest in this course is in the institutional lens, because that is the one that is focused on the rules and norms, formal and informal, that guide our behaviour and the behaviour of our organisations. This is not, though, to deny the value of the organisational lens – which, amongst other things, focuses on how the rules are interpreted and put into practice.


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