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Seeing institutions in different ways
Seeing institutions in different ways

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1 Institutions as rules and norms

Institutions frame our lives. From birth through to death, in the most private and the most public aspects of our lives, in our personal and professional histories, we are shaped by – and we in turn shape – institutions. They give structure and meaning to our lives. They make shared experience, and shared action, possible. In short, we live our lives – as social beings – through institutions.

I can put this in more formal, academic terms. Teddy Brett, who has contributed a great deal to the theory and practice of institutional development in various parts of the world over the past 50 years, talks of institutions in terms of ‘sets of rules’ (see Box 1).

Box 1 Institutions as sets of rules and norms

Institutions are sets of ‘rules that structure social interactions in particular ways’, based on knowledge ‘shared by members of the relevant community or society’ (Knight, 1992, p. 2). Compliance to those rules is enforced through known incentives or sanctions. In other words, institutions are the norms, rules, habits, customs and routines (both formal and written, or, more often, informal and internalised) which govern society at large. They influence the function, structure and behaviour of organisations – ‘groups of individuals bound by some purpose’ who come together to achieve joint objectives (North, 1990, p. 4) – as actors in society. Institutions, by producing stable, shared and commonly understood patterns of behaviour are crucial to solving the problems of collective action amongst individuals.

(Brett, 2000, p. 18)

This is a passage that I would invite you to spend some time thinking about. It brings together so many things worth saying about institutions, all of which serve to establish the significance of institutions. Before I turn to single out and discuss two terms, ‘rules’ and ‘norms’, let me highlight some of the other important points in this passage:

  • the shared knowledge that underpins institutions
  • the habits, customs and routines which are also expressions of institutions
  • the relationship between institutions and organisations
  • the way institutions make collective action possible.

All these are points worth exploring; the last is of particular significance. However, I want to identify and answer what I take to be the central question this passage raises:

What does it mean to describe institutions as ‘rules and norms’?