Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Download this course

Share this free course

Seeing institutions in different ways
Seeing institutions in different ways

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

2 Institutions as shared meanings and values

I have chosen to make use of the concepts of ‘rules’ and ‘norms’ as my first way of seeing institutions, thus making it possible to see institutional development as a process that involves changing the rules, or even breaking them (and, I should say, going against established norms and creating new norms). The BancoSol story, as I’ve suggested, can certainly be seen in these terms.

It is, however, possible to read it in a different, though not contradictory, way. You may have noticed the attention Otero – and I – paid to the cultural dimension, where ‘cultural’ is taken to refer to all those things – values, meanings, norms, principles and practices – that give people a sense of identity and enable them to make sense of the world and their place within it. It is this dimension to which I’m turning for my second way of seeing institutions, as conveyors of meanings and values.

Early on in his first workshop talk, Pancho Otero makes an interesting comment that is both confession and affirmation:

... none of us had any idea of banking or finances or supervision of banking systems. We had no idea of this but what we did have, as a common characteristic, is that we were all aware of what the clients were like.

A couple of social workers, a couple of renegade communists, a couple of ex-priests – that was the group. No finance, no calculators, none of this but we all had a nice feel for the clients.

(Otero, 1997, pp. 52–3; my italics)

And you may recall that in his third workshop talk, having described the ‘fever’ brought about by his realisation of the scale of the ‘transformation’ he was envisaging, he says that ‘after the fever went down and after we thought about this for a few days we sat with the major staff and talked about this. Little by little it started to make sense’ (Otero, 1997, p. 61).

The idea of ‘making sense’ is fundamental to institutional development to enable wider developmental change to occur.. The change must make sense to those caught up in it, be they clients, development managers, sponsors, or whomsoever. Put in other words, the change must be meaningful and of value to those who experience it, whether as instigators or as ‘beneficiaries’. This in turn requires that it engages with the meanings through which they live and understand their lives. It also requires it to correspond with the values by which people live their lives, their sense of what is good and what is bad, what is right and what is wrong. Only then will the change be seen as legitimate.

This idea of institutions as conveyors of shared meanings and values takes us back to the initial definition of institutions in Box 1. In order to behave according to spoken or unspoken ‘rules’, their meaning has to be understood, individually and collectively.

The reality of institutional development, though, is typically that meanings and values are not shared by all those involved in it, as is emphasised in the following preface to another story of institutional development.

Activity 4 Seeing another side of institutions

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

Read the extract in Box 2 from an article by Lars Engberg-Pedersen (1997) entitled ‘Institutional contradictions in rural development’, part of the introduction that presents Engberg-Pedersen’s way of seeing institutions and institutional development.

As you read it, make notes of your answers to the following questions:

  • How does Engberg-Pedersen extend your understanding of institutions?
  • What insights does he offer into institutional development?

Box 2 Institutions as ways of ordering reality

Rural communities are often regarded as workable objects in need of development interventions by projects, NGOs and the state. With respect to natural resource management in particular, it is commonly argued that existing farming practices are inadequate, even destructive, and should be changed. There are, however, reasons for scepticism as to how workable rural communities are. Vested interests connected to the existing social and material organisation of the communities are likely to prevent drastic changes, and so are local institutions understood as rules and shared meanings.

There are two sides to institutions. They support the distribution of rights and duties, political authority and economic opportunities. Accordingly, institutions affect actors’ strategies and their ability to pursue them. But institutions also contribute to shaping people’s understanding of social meaning and order. Actions acquire meaning and legitimacy when they comply with specific institutions. If new procedures are introduced and profound changes which shatter people’s perceptions occur, these changes might be resisted or modified. ...

Institutions must be conceptualised ‘as simultaneously material and ideal, systems of signs and symbols, rational and trans-rational. Institutions are supra-organisational patterns of human activity by which individuals and organisations produce and reproduce their material subsistence and organise time and space. They are also symbolic systems, ways of ordering reality and thereby rendering experience of time and space meaningful’ (Friedland and Alford, 1991, p. 243).

Accordingly, institutions should not be viewed as external constraints to actors who conceive strategies to manoeuvre between institutional limitations. By organising social life, institutions give meaning to action. Activities in correspondence with institutions are understandable to others, locating the actor in a particular symbolic order and thereby contributing to the actor’s self-understanding as well.

However, institutions do not determine social processes; actors may consider institutional elements critically. When an actor chooses to engage in action which confronts or bypasses a specific institutional element, this can form part of self-understanding. So, in arguing that preferences and strategies are devised on the basis of existing sets of institutions, this does not imply that actors are cultural dopes incapable of reflecting on the institutional context. ...

We can now understand development interventions as more than attempts to correct institutions that supply ‘perverse’ incentives or arenas of social struggle where different actors manoeuvre to gain access to resources. Each intervention is also a more or less deliberate attempts to establish a particular symbolic order, and each interacts with people whose strategies sometimes reflect substantially different institutional logic. Interventions seeking to change prevalent practices, therefore, have a symbolic aspect in addition to their more immediate material objectives and context.

(Engberg-Pedersen, 1997, pp. 183–4, 188–9)


In this extract, Engberg-Pedersen emphasises that institutions, as well as constituting rules that govern rights and responsibilities, also ‘contribute to shaping people’s understanding of social meaning and order’. They are shared meanings and values, which help people make sense of their world, their lives and their relationships: put them all in good order.

He puts this more formally in the words of two other theorists, Friedland and Alford, who describe institutions as (amongst other things) ‘symbolic systems, ways of ordering reality and thereby rendering experience of time and space meaningful’ (1991, p. 243). I would add that the meaningfulness is for those who share the symbols, and not for those who don’t.

What do they mean? They are talking of the pictures we have in our minds through which we see the world. We have many such pictures. One particularly strong one is the picture of a world in which people fit into a hierarchy, with ‘more important’ people at the top. Another is the picture of a world made up of ‘us and them’, who might be ‘women and men’, or ‘my people and the rest’, or ‘my village and the next’.

These pictures show, or tell, us not only

  • this is how it is

but also

  • this is how it should be.

Drawing attention to this symbolic aspect of institutions offers a profoundly valuable contribution to our understanding of why institutional development is not easy to bring about. If change doesn’t make sense to the people caught up in it, if it isn’t meaningful, and, no less significantly, if it doesn’t seem right, the chances of its being carried through successfully – or in the way intended – are remote. Or, put another way, if the change contradicts the picture of the world that people have in mind – for example, by showing all people as equally important – it may well be seen as wrong.

This points to a particularly important lesson with respect to institutional development: ‘If new procedures are introduced and profound changes which shatter people’s perceptions occur, these changes might be resisted or modified ...’ (Engberg-Pedersen, 1997, p. 184). It is a lesson that ought to be obvious, but seems not to be, given the extent to which it is ignored. People still seek to bring in change that ‘doesn’t seem right’.

I might have drawn the extract to a close at that point. However, the subsequent three paragraphs introduce another line of thinking that has a bearing on my exploration of institutional development. Interested in change, Engberg-Pedersen finds his own way of resolving the tension – in academic, particularly sociological, circles – between ‘structure’ and ‘action’ as ways of explaining how change is brought about.