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Seeing institutions in different ways
Seeing institutions in different ways

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2.1 Structure and action

Sociologists have long struggled with what it is that influences and determines the way people behave. To simplify matters enormously, I can say there are two basic approaches:

  • the ‘structural’ approach, which holds that social structures – such as the family we are born into, the schools we go to, the political parties available for us to join, the jobs market, the media – which are just ‘there’, determine people’s actions; and
  • the ‘action’ approach, which holds that people interpret the world, internalise it and endlessly remake it – making choices, acting on the structures, and thereby changing them.

The two views are not separate or oppositional (though, in the history of sociology, there has been fierce debate between them). Engberg-Pedersen argues that whilst institutions – which, as you will gather, can be seen as structures – give meaning to action they ‘should not be viewed as external constraints’ on social actors. They do not determine in any absolute sense how people behave. Actors are not ‘cultural dopes’: they have the capacity to reflect on the institutional context and act on the basis of their reflections.

This is a premise that informs our approach to institutional development. But we take it a step further. Not only do people – more specifically, development managers – have the capacity to reflect on the institutional context, they have an obligation to do so. This is a necessary contribution to institutional development.