Institutions

A former student got in touch to talk about “institutions”—which are important in Latour’s work, but rather “undertheorized” (as we used to say in the 1980s).  At least not much discussed in An Inquiry into the Modes of Existence, even as he chides “baby boomers” (278) for their knee-jerk hostility to them.  The boomers “accuse” institutions “of being routinized, artificial, bureaucratic, repetitive, and soulless,” fatal “to the initiative, autonomy, enthusiasm, vivacity, inventivity, and naturalness of existence. . . . [T]here is life only on condition of getting out of institutions, even destroying them, or, short of that, getting as far away from them as possible in order to subsist on the periphery” (278).  He locates institutions in the mode of existence called Habit—and sees them as a source of continuity and, hence, subsistence.  To be hostile to institutions is to end up throwing away a focus on subsistence in order to pursue that phantom: substance. The hostility to habit partakes of the characteristic “iconoclasm” of the moderns, who keep thinking they can get behind appearances to reality, can pierce through the “Shows” of the world to the “thing itself.”  We need (Latour argues), rather,  to develop the healthy regard for habit we find in William James, recognizing its benefits, its ways of making us at home in the world.

So the moral for Latour is “that we should ‘learn to respect institutions.’  [Otherwise], it will be impossible to know, given that habit has so many enemies, whether you want to protect a value by instituting it or, on the contrary, whether you want to betray it, stifle it, break it down, ossify it.  Now we baby boomers have drained that bitter cup to the dregs.  Confronting the ruins of the institutions that we are beginning to bequeath to our descendants, am I the only one to feel the same embarrassment as asbestos manufacturers targeted by the criminal charges brought by workers suffering from lung cancer?  In the beginning, the struggle against institutions seemed to be risk-free; it was modernizing and liberating—and even fun; like asbestos, it had only good qualities.  But, like asbestos, alas, it also had disastrous consequences that no one had anticipated and that we have been far too slow to recognize” (278-79).

For all this, Latour has little to say about how we are to think about institutions, how we are to describe them and what they do (or don’t do).  Maybe he does elsewhere.  I will have to take a look.

In the meantime, here is what I wrote to my student as a first stab of thinking about what institutions are:

My latest blog post (thanks for reading, by the way) does a little Latour stuff that points toward institutions.  I think, in fact, that what you can glean from his Science in Action or Reassembling the Social is most likely the best bet.  In short, Latour is great in getting us to think about all “the players” that contribute to the production of something.  Of course, he is interested in both human and non-human “actants” (to use his term).  Institutions, then, are formal structures within which actants operate (establishing hierarchies, differential access to resources, lines of authority and of connection), but which also represent an effort to stabilize and enable the continued existence of networks that spring into existence and act in relation to some specific end.  Institutions, in other words, put a public face on, and identity to, what might otherwise be ephemeral relations formed in the heat of action.  The institution tries to enable repetition–the gathering of these actants in the next instance, the next attempt to produce something.  This formalization of the actant network has its dangers/downsides (sclerosis is always a threat), but also its upsides (establishing relationships and procedures, so that re-invention of the wheel is not always necessary, and garnering resources).  A continuing presence, an institution can also bridge the gap between one instance of action and the next.  Finally, institutions can accumulate and store authority and/or prestige.  They can become a name-brand, thus attracting resources and attention.

 

As I thought more about this, I found myself troubled by the thought that most of what I say about institutions could also be said of “organizations.”  Yet in ordinary language, we do distinguish between the two.  Congress is a political institution; the Democratic Party is a political organization.  Amazon, Amnesty International, the New England Patriots, and the Modern Language Association (MLA) are all organizations.  To my ear, at least, it would be odd to call any of them “institutions.”  The Catholic Church, the University of North Carolina, and the Supreme Court are institutions.  In common parlance, we can also say that “Harriet Jones is an institution in these parts,” but we would never call her an “organization.”

“Hollywood” is a collective noun that designates the film industry; the “studio system” refers to a particular way that industry was (is?) organized.  But I don’t think we would normally call Hollywood an institution or an organization.  It is a loose affiliation of various actors—sometimes interconnected enough for us to speak of “networks”—with (perhaps) habitual ways of doing its self-appointed tasks.  But somehow it doesn’t rise to the status of “institution.”

Yet I feel as if Major League Baseball is on the cusp of being an institution—and is certainly an organization.  Even as I feel that the National Football League is definitely an organization, but nowhere near being an institution.  So can I make any sense of these contradictory intuitions?

Here’s a try before I go to the dictionary.  An institution is the framework within which a variety of actants can practice (in any variety of ways, including cooperatively or competitively).  The institutions lays down protocols—canons for a specific action being counted as an instance of the “practice” that the institution shelters/enables/presides over.  The authority of the institution faces two ways: 1. Inwardly toward instances of the practice itself, judging the status and quality of those instances. And 2. Outwardly toward the world as it makes the case for the general benefit that practice can provide to non-practitioners.  [In short, I am stealing here Bruce Robbins’ understanding of professionals; their guild establishes and maintains “professional standards,” even as their guild must legitimate to a wider public the usefulness of “professional practices.”]

Within that institutional setting, there can be a wide variety in the ways its practices are put to use—and there can be widespread disagreement and contestation about substantive matters.  The institution provides “the rules of the game” and the certification of who gets to be “a player.”

And something, like Major League Baseball, becomes “an institution” when the it garners a widely acknowledged “authority” and respect in relation to its wider legitimating function.

An organization may establish a “brand” that is well-trusted, seen as reliable.  But it will not have the “authority” that an institution has.  Why?  Because an organization is put together to facilitate the more efficient accomplishment of a single purpose.  Everyone in the organization must get with the program; all of the members of the organization must contribute to its achieving its goal.  The organization is not a framework for multiple uncoordinated actions; just the opposite.  Its whole point is coordination, in making sure that actants work in sync, in tandem.  An organization is never, like an institution, “above the fray.”  It is never the enabler of the varieties of practice; instead, it harnesses energies toward a goal.

Hence, if the Supreme Court becomes the tool of one political faction, it loses its “authority” as the institution that enables political contestation, becoming instead just another piece of an organization.  So maybe I can say that organizations exist to produce something; but institutions exist to enable the production of things, but do not produce things directly themselves.

Major League Baseball allows for the playing of numerous games of baseball; it does not do the playing itself.  It is the integrity with which it plays that role, as guardian of the practice, that gains it the “authority” that leads us to think of it as an institution.  But if the single-minded organizational goal of making money comes to dominate, then Major League Baseball will only be an organization, not an institution.  Football seems much more directly commercial than baseball—and hence the National Football League is not an institution.  This may be pure sentimentality, but it also has to do with how differently the two professional sports are related to the history of their games, and to the ways in which football players are interchangeable parts and constricted to a communal project.  Baseball is much more individual, much less faceless (it takes a truly devoted fan to know the linemen on a football team.)

Anyway, I could be totally wrong about this baseball/football divide.  More important is to recognize that the issue is not commercial versus non-commercial.  Amnesty International is an organization because devoted to a specific goal.  It is working for something substantive, not providing a framework within which a practice can unfold in myriad, even unexpected, ways.  But Amnesty is not commercial.  So the distinction I am trying to probe is not about the presence or absence of a profit motive.

It turns out the dictionary is not much help.  Here’s my Random House dictionary on “institution”: 1. An organization or establishment devoted to the promotion of a particular object.

But # 4 might help us some: Sociology, a well-established and structured pattern of behavior or of relationships that is accepted as a fundamental part of a culture, as marriage.

Followed by # 5: any established law, custom etc.  and #6: any familiar practice or object.

Whereas the definitions offered for “organization” are not very useful either.  #1 is “the action or process of organizing.”  #5 is “a body of persons organized for some end or work.”

I would say that the dictionary’s deficiencies indicate a general difficulty in describing collective action.  Organizations, quite obviously, act.  Things get produced and decisions get made that could never be done by a single person acting alone—and the thing produced and the decision made is not fully controlled by one of the actors (actants) in the process that yields that result.

When it comes to institutions it can seem even trickier.  If we are talking “habit” or “custom,” we can seem to be identifying a force that has no obvious origin.  It is “just our way of doing things,” even as that “way” does not remain completely impervious to change. But the mechanisms of change are hard to identify and even harder to manipulate.  We like to think we can tell an origin story about our political institutions—and we even have mechanisms for their being revised/amended/reformed etc.

But when it comes to relations between the sexes or between the races, the dead hand of the past, of cultural mores, proves incredibly resistant to direct intervention even as those relations do not remain immobile.  If we deem racism “an institution,” then it is like the Supreme Court in that it provides a framework for a whole set of practices, but it is unlike the Supreme Court in that there are no procedures for adjudication among those practices.  Racism as “an institution” is a product of various actions/practices in the past; but none of those actions/practices in itself had the power to establish racism.  We have what is truly a collective product here, one that is only “deliberate” in a very attenuated way.  No wonder conspiracy theories as so appealing; at least they identify agents powerful enough to serve as the originators or perpetuators of a particular state of affairs.

All of this is inconclusive enough.  The term “institution” clearly encompasses apples and oranges.  The more fruitful approach might be a version of Latour: consider particular instances of something you are tempted to call an “institution” and try to trace the actions that lead to its production.  Then, “institution” is the end product, not the starting place, of an inquiry.  And we don’t assume from the outset that one institution has much in common with another one.  An escape from essentialism into particularities.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s