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Seeing institutions in different ways
Seeing institutions in different ways

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1.1 Rules, norms and institutions

One way of getting at what Brett is saying is to think of the expression, ‘as a rule’. It’s a term that indicates the way in which life is expected to be conducted in particular contexts. Thus, for example, in contemporary liberal democratic societies, ‘as a rule’:

  • children between particular ages go to school (the institution of education or schooling)
  • leaders are elected by popular vote (the institution of democracy)
  • people with insufficient income receive benefits in cash or kind (the institution of welfare)
  • people have a choice as to how and from whom they obtain goods and services (the institution of the market)
  • although not only characteristic of liberal democracies, wealth is distributed unequally (the institution of inequality).

Note, incidentally, that I have specified a context in which these ‘rules’ can be identified: ‘in contemporary liberal democratic societies’. Like any other social phenomena, institutions need to be seen in their particular place and time to understand the reasons for the form they take: educational institutions, for example, may be centralised or decentralised; the market may be more or less regulated.

You might want to challenge my identification of these rules, suggest that I have in one way or another got them wrong. For example, a colleague has suggested that the last institution on my list – the institution of inequality – is rather different from the preceding four:

I am not sure this is right in terms of how Brett has defined institutions. Are you saying that inequality is a norm or a rule or a set of agreed patterns of behaviour? Isn’t it an outcome of those? There are institutions that help create inequality, e.g. capitalism, taxation, ownership of property etc. Inequality is institutionalised though, which is rather different.

This is a useful challenge. It raises two important points. One is that institutions should not be seen in isolation, but rather as connected with one another, with the connections themselves making a difference. I would in this case stick with calling the ‘difference’ – the inequality – an institution, but perhaps a ‘higher-level’, overarching institution. The other – signalled by the term ‘institutionalised’ – draws attention to the fact that when we are talking about institutions and institutional development what we are talking about is ‘built-in’, part of the fabric of society: there – more or less – permanently.

The process of challenge is an important part of our exploration of institutions and institutional development. I hope you will follow my colleague’s example and question what I have to say and offer your own interpretation.

Whether or not you accept ‘my’ rules, I hope you can see that institutions in this sense – as rules – provide guidance as to what people should do, how they should behave, the paths their lives should follow. I hope you can also see that, behind the rules, there are sanctions for not complying with them.

I’ve looked at the first of the two terms, rules. What of norms? There is in fact a lot of overlap between the two terms, certainly in the sense that both rules and norms provide guidance as to how people should behave in society. Norms, though, are often seen more as beliefs about what is acceptable behaviour, views as to the qualities people should display in their social lives. So, for example, honesty, loyalty and reciprocity may be norms.

Don’t, though, be misled into thinking that norms are expressions of what constitutes ‘good’ behaviour by the list I have just presented. Corruption may be a norm, in the sense, for example, that it is expected and acceptable that bribes be offered to public servants in return for favours. Rules and norms are not in any straightforward way to be seen in terms of ‘good’ and ‘bad’.