Monday, January 18, 2010

What is an institution?

Many on the Left (e.g. Marxists, feminists, and so on) have typically wanted to claim that the configuration of power in any particular society is not simply a matter of individual choices and actions. If you want to understand oppression, they'll tell you, it won't do to simply focus on what individual agents choose to do of their own accord. Oppression is not merely a matter of individual choices: oppression has to do with institutions.

For Marxists, if you want to understand a social formation (e.g. capitalism), you cannot do this by simply adding up the sum of putatively undistorted rational choices that individuals make. In contrast, understanding a social formation requires first of all that we understand how the social institutions that constitute it are structured.

Similarly for feminists, if you want to understand the oppression of women you cannot simply look at the actions and choices of individuals. You have to critically examine the institutions (e.g. the family, the church, economic organizations, clubs, unions, schools, etc.) that constitute a sexist society. (Even further: if you want to understand gender as such, you must examine how it is continually produced and reproduced in institutions).

The reason that institutions are of central importance for both views (and I'm not presupposing in the least that they're incompatible... I would want to characterize my own politics as embodying both views), is that both hold that individual beliefs, choices, and actions are shaped by institutions. We cannot understand individual beliefs, actions, desires, self-understandings, ambitions, or motivations unless we have something to say about the institutional context of concrete individuals.

We can easily see from the above why properly Marxist and feminist politics take the strategic forms that they often do. If you think that oppression is a matter of the very institutions that constitute a society, then you aren't going to think that political change is merely a matter of electioneering. Rather, you're going to try to change the way that the relevant institutions are structured and organized. Of course, precisely how one might go about doing that is another question entirely (Marxists would lean toward the answer that our efforts must at the end of the day be directed toward changing the way that production is organized... but again, how we might do that is another question entirely).

But what exactly is an institution?

In ordinary speech, it sometimes seems as though "institution" literally refers to certain buildings. Obviously this is not the sense in which the term interests us here. But on the other end, among sociologically savvy people, we sometimes find that "institution" casts such a wide net that its difficult to see what it picks out specifically at all. Sometimes we speak of the family as an institution in the same breath that we talk about financial institutions. What exactly do we mean by "institution"?

The wikipedia entry for the term is a helpful starting point:
Institutions are structures and mechanisms of social order and cooperation governing the behavior of a set of individuals within a given human collectivity.
Now many people may be tempted to interpret this as pertaining in the first instance to the purview of law and the state. This would be a serious mistake. This state-centric view ignores the fact that the majority of major social institutions in contemporary societies are not tethered to the state at all; in fact, the direction of causal force probably goes more in the opposite direction: the character of the State is largely determined by the structure of non-state institutions. What non-State institutions do I have in mind? Think of the impact that norms embodied in schools, media, film, film-rating organizations, newspapers, TV, music, clubs, sports, churches, families, and so on have in socialization.

Here's an example that I frequently find myself returning to. Some moderate environmentalists today express pessimism that people (as they are today) will willingly choose not to think of cars as the be-all-end-all of transportation. Their problematic is this: how can we convince, by way of giving persuasive arguments, so many people that driving cars is wrong? Thought of in this way, the problem really does seem insurmountable.

But this pessimism belies serious ignorance of history and the way that institutions function. First of all, before the 1950s the vast majority of Americans did not own cars, and the infrastructure of America reflected this fact: communities were walkable, laid out on a grid, and mixed-use buildings were widespread. The hit song "Little Deuce Coup" would not have made sense in 1910. Neither would it have been a hit in the 1930s. Due to the way that institutions were configured at that point in American history, people did not think of themselves or their lives as having any important relation to the personal car. People did not long for personal cars, they did not sit around wishing there were films, songs, toys, and pastimes having to do with them.

But due to complex political and economic changes in the 1950s, institutions were re-arranged in a variety of ways, with the result that the suburban single-family home came to be thought of (for white people at least) as the embodiment of the "American Dream". With the implementation of a national highway system, deindustrialization in major cities, and an array of other reconfigurations, the car began to quickly acquire a significance it had not previously enjoyed.

Today, the "importance" of the personal car is inscribed within many institutions that in the past had nothing to do with automobiles. Just as this importance was not accomplished by way of convincing individual people one by one, present states of affairs will not be changed in this way either.

If most Americans are quasi-addicted to driving cars everywhere and think that their very mode of life is bound up with driving, it's not because of a series of undistorted rational calculations that we might expect any individual, irrespective of time or place, to make. Nor is it because they've sat down, hashed out all of the important moral arguments, and decided after lengthy deliberation that cars are the way to go. The idea of driving is literally woven into the very physical infrastructure of the United States now in a way that it was not 70 years ago. Moreover, the institutional structure of the US is now tightly bound up with the automobile.

If we start to change those institutions, many people will change along with them.

Imagine a world in which we weren't barraged with Car advertisements every 30 seconds on television, radio, and the Internet. Moreover, imagine a world in which neighborhoods were more dense, walkable and closer to places of work, grocery stores, and so on. Imagine a world in which other transportation options were both accessible and the way the majority of people got around. Imagine that culture (films, TV, music and so on) didn't valorize (implicitly or explicitly) the personal car as sexy, powerful, or indicative identity and of social status.

This is no utopia. This is literally what America was like before the 1950s. Now this isn't to say that this period was perfect (nor that we should want to return to the past... particularly to the Jim Crow south). But this example makes rather obvious how influential basic social institutions are on people's consciousness and behavior.

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

Hi, Sisters. I just posted this as well on feministing's community board. I also wanted to post it here, because of the capitalist issues interwoven with a religious right's homophobic and sexist project. It relates to this base-superstructure post:

In addition to CBS's recent policy change that allows an anti-choice Superbowl advertisement, it now has rejected an ad for a gay dating site. [...]

Another strange twist is that they are rejecting an advertisement for a product (capitalist) in favor of an ideological message that has no product (anti-capitalist), so they are forming a corporate persona in 2010 of an ideological fundamentalist extremist mouthpiece.

From the CNN article:

"'It's straight-up discrimination,' said Elissa Buchter, spokeswoman for the Toronto-based dating site."