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Seeing institutions in different ways
Seeing institutions in different ways

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1.5 Institutional development: changing the rules, the rules changing

As you undertook Activity 2, you might have noted that institutions last: they have a seeming permanence to them. Brett uses the term ‘stable’, others say that institutions ‘persist over time’ (Uphoff, 1986, p. 9). That is the nature of institutions: they are around for a long time – it is one of their defining qualities. Yet institutions are not ‘forever’. Or, to use one of the concepts I have set out with, the ‘rules’ do change.

However stable they might seem, institutions are constantly changing. They come into being, mature, change – and they usually, if not always, come to an end. Their historical rise, decline and fall can be traced – though in some cases the perspective has to be exceedingly long term.

The nation-state is one of the most obvious examples. Emerging in – let’s say for the sake of the argument – the 17th century in western Europe, the nation-state came to be the dominant institutional form for framing both societies and the relationships between societies. In the 21st century that period of unqualified dominance has ended: the rule no longer holds good.

A variety of other institutions, supra-national ones – such as the European Union, G8, the World Trade Organisation, transnational corporations, to name only some of the more obvious – are increasingly dominant. At the same time, intra-national institutions – often, though by no means exclusively, built around ethnic or national identity – have challenged the right of the state to govern all the people within a particular geographical territory.

Even in the cases of institutions which seem to go on forever – the family and faith are perhaps the most significant examples – the form of the institution, the relationships involved, the norms and values embedded, the rules, differ so markedly that they constitute different institutions at different times and in different places. Certainly there is continuity, no less certainly there is change.

It is clearly possible and useful, as suggested by the terms just used – ‘created’, etc. – to think of change as coming about as a result of deliberate action: the change is intended. It is equally possible and useful to think of change as emerging – in a way no one exactly intended – out of the complex of social interactions that make up history.

This distinction between the more and less intentional processes is of importance for our understanding of institutional development. So take, for example, the emergence of the labour movement in the UK as an illustration of institutional development in its more and less intentional aspects. It is clear that groups of women and men came together to establish specific bodies that together made up the labour movement: they intended to change their working lives for the better by this means.

But this does not tell the whole story. These actions were not taken in isolation. They connected with the actions of many more people, pursuing their own particular and different purposes. And all were caught up in a range of complex processes, not just that one leading to the emergence of the labour movement: the development of new technologies, the establishment of factories that the technologies made possible, the consequent rural–urban migration, the emergence of large urban settlements. These were certainly not intended to bring about the labour movement. Yet the deliberate actions that created the labour movement were made possible and shaped by those processes, which were, in turn, shaped by the deliberate actions that established the labour movement.

Much the same argument could be made about the emergence, say, of liberation movements in the colonised world, of the movement for women’s emancipation, of the anti-globalisation campaign, of the movement to secure human rights in the face of massive abuse. All have been created through the purposive, value-oriented action of individuals and groups, often in the face of great personal danger. Equally, all have involved interactions between a range of actors with differing values, interests and agendas. And all have arisen in the context of broader social and economic processes – most obviously to do with changes in labour markets – which certainly have not been intended to bring about these specific developments.

It would be wrong to think that these are two different and separate processes – the intentional and the unintentional. As I have tried to convey, they are intimately bound up with each other, in real life inseparable. Nonetheless, there is value – as in my discussion of institutions and organisations – in thinking of and using two different lenses: one lens as ‘institutional development as intervention’, where the focus is on intentional activity, and the other lens as ‘institutional development as history’, where the focus is on a long process of interactions between diverse actors, a process which at any given point provides the context that determines the scope and potential for interventions.

Note that both lenses enable us to examine and explain changes in Brett’s ‘rules that structure social interactions’.