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Seeing institutions in different ways
Seeing institutions in different ways

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1.4 Institutions as rules and norms in your life and in development

In this section you will explore the ideas of rules and norms so far discussed in relation to your own experience and in relation to development. Activity 1 gives you an opportunity to connect your own experience and understanding with this first way of seeing institutions, as rules and norms.

Activity 1 Institutions as rules and norms in your life

Timing: You should spend no more than 1 hour on this activity

Using Brett’s definition of institutions in Box 1 and my subsequent commentary on it, identify and make a few notes on some of the institutions that have ‘framed’ your life. As you do so, think about how Brett suggests that institutions ‘structure social interactions’, ‘govern society at large’ and contribute to ‘solving the problems of collective action’; and about the ‘stable, shared and commonly understood patterns of behaviour’ that he says institutions produce. Think also about the differences between institutions and organisations, and how you would define and illustrate those differences.

Think in particular about the ‘rules’ you are expected to observe, and about the norms that set expectations as to how you should behave.

Make these notes before you read the discussion below, and then compare your notes with that discussion.


Whilst there is a long list to choose from, you may possibly have thought of the family, schooling, faith, university, the state, law, democracy (or some other political system), or the market. Whatever you have chosen, though, it is likely that you will have chosen them because – using different means to enforce the ‘compliance’ that Brett speaks of – they will have governed your relations with other people in particular contexts and in society at large. They will have set the rules you were expected to follow.

You may well also have chosen them because you are aware they have given you a sense of who you are, have enabled you to understand the world you live in and your place in that world. That is important, too, and anticipates a second way of seeing institutions that we will shortly be exploring: institutions as conveyors of meaning and meaningfulness, and as expressing values. The point to make now is that it is a good thing to be seeing different qualities of institutions, seeing that they contribute in many more ways than one to our social life. They are not just rules.

You may have found distinguishing between institutions and organisations problematic – in which case it may be useful to reinforce the three points I made in introducing the distinction:

  1. Brett’s key concern is to identify organisations as ‘actors in society’. (He is not, incidentally, dismissing the idea that individuals also are actors.) Institutions provide the framework within which organisations (and individuals) act and the rules which guide their actions. Note, though, that – to follow the acting metaphor – institutions do not write or provide the script for the actors.
  2. It is entirely appropriate to talk of particular social entities as both institutions and organisations. But more generally, there will be an institutional dimension to any organisation, simply because in the nature of social life it will embody and express certain rules that have an existence and significance beyond its own boundaries.
  3. Perhaps most importantly, you can use both an organisational lens and an institutional lens to investigate any social entity. I will focus on the latter, but that is not to dismiss the value of the former.

You can use these points as you turn now to look at the world of development through an institutional lens.

Activity 2 Institutions as rules and norms in development

Timing: You should spend no more than 1 hour on this activity

Identify some of the institutions that frame development, and then make notes on how their ‘rules and norms’ have an impact on development.

You might for the purposes of this activity use your own understanding of development, or perhaps an understanding of development derived from the economist, Amartya Sen (1999), who sees development as the expansion of human freedoms. In either case, this can be seen both as:

  • a long-term, uneven and contradictory, historical process involving the expansion of these freedoms, and as
  • deliberate interventions intended to bring about the expansion of particular human freedoms.

Draw on your own experience. Remember that whether you are professionally involved in development or not, you are caught up in development of some kind.


Development, too, is framed by a variety of institutions. You might have thought of some of the large institutions, such as the World Bank and the United Nations, which are ‘big players’ on the world stage. You might have thought of micro-finance, of workers’ associations, of NGOs (Non Government Organisations), of development ‘partnerships’, of free trade, of civil society. You might have thought of smaller, more local, institutions where you live and/or work – for example, a forum which provides a framework for agencies working on educational issues. In all cases, these institutions will in some way or another set the rules which govern joint action for development, and express the norms which indicate behaviour that is acceptable and behaviour that is not.

The institutions that you identify will almost certainly be different from institutions that other students identify. The specific institutions that contribute, say, to the improvement of health services in the UK are different from the institutions that contribute to the reduction of poverty in the Indian sub-continent, which in turn are different from the institutions designed to create liberal capitalism in eastern Europe, or those set up to address problems related to HIV/AIDS in southern Africa, and so on.

It is worth noting, though, that such is the sway of ‘globalisation’ that similarities can be identified between institutional development in very different contexts: so, for example, one finds similar institutions of partnership, social enterprise, participation and governance being developed for urban regeneration in the UK as for rural development in Uganda. The rules have to do with the same issues – accountability, transparency, for example – though they are expressed in different ways in different contexts.

It is possible that your choice reflected an institution’s significance not only in shaping how development takes place, but also in framing how development is conceptualised. It is particularly important to recognise that there are institutions which govern how development is seen. Perhaps the most obvious example is one to which I have already made passing reference. Current development discourse expects development – ‘as a rule’ – to take the form of ‘partnership’ between agencies.

Whatever your choices, whether or not you are a ‘development manager’, you should by now be aware that you have a wealth of experience of institutions – as rules and rule setters, and indeed much else.