Question 1

Are all institutions social constructs?

What do you think? Do you already know the answer? Can you elaborate on the similarities and differences between institutions and social constructs as they are referred to in social sciences? Or maybe you want to make clarifications about this question. All contributions are welcome!





6 thoughts on “Question 1

  1. What is implied by a question of this form? Questions concerning universal generalisations can be simple to answer: if one knows of an institution that was not socially constructed, then the answer is no, not all institutions are social constructions. If one does not know of such an example non-socially constructed institution, it is unclear whether this reflects the absence of any such institutions, or just the fact that one has not searched sufficiently widely and for long enough. So a positive answer is harder to justify. The existence of “undersocialised” accounts of institutions, in terms of rational agents making decisions as individuals on the basis of economic considerations, seems to suggest it would be premature to conclude that only social constructionist accounts are possible. At the same time, such is the flexibility of more socialised accounts, containing social-relation concepts such as power, deference, norms, imitation, and trust, that it seems likely that for every undersocialised, rational-agency account, a social-constructionist alternative will always be feasible. So a definitive answer may never be forthcoming.

    Instead, consider what follows if we undertake to treat each case of an institution as a social construction. It does not follow that we lose contact with realism or with materiality. A socially constructed nature might mean that for any particular institution an alternative might exist, but it does not mean that it will exist with the same use of human and material resources. Neither does it mean that just any alternative may exist. Some institutions may be easier to socially construct than others.

    For an example social constructionism, consider the microsociology of Randall Collins. Beginning at the micro-level of face-to-face, often routinized social interaction rituals, Collins seeks to explain patterns of creativity among intellectuals (Collins, 1998), violence (Collins, 2008), smoking, sexual behaviour, social stratification and families (Collins, 2004), among other phenomena. Participants in interactions are energised by their mutal awareness of focusing attention on the same objects, which then become for them charged with emotional significance as symbols of common group membership. This is a realist theory in the sense that it takes social interaction events to be real, or the best place to start when explaining social phenomena. It is also realist about macro-level phenomena, including institutions, in the sense that these are based on intertwined chains of interaction rituals, or networks of real social interaction events. More virtual interactions via telephones, mail or internet draw upon social relations and cultural capital built up during face-to-face interactions, and they are not primary in this account.

    Material reality enters the account through several routes. Firstly, through physiology: during social interaction, participants monitor and react to each other’s bodies, including breathing, gestures, and direction and duration of gaze. Secondly, physical environment, or venues, can constrain or enhance the effects of interaction. Walls and distance can be used to determine who is present and who is not during an interaction, and contours can make people the focus of collective attention, such as happens in a theatre with tiered seating or during a sermon on a mount. Thirdly, interactions also employ physical objects as symbols of group membership, including uniforms, props and the payment of entrance fees. Study of how venues, props and fees combine with physiology will help explain why some interaction rituals are energising and get repeated while others decline. Changes in the availability of venues and props will help explain changes in the rituals performed. A social constructionist account, then, is not free from material conditions.

    Dependence on material conditions means interaction rituals are interdependent. Particular interaction-ritual performances affect the chances of others being performed. Venues and props become worn out, fees are spent, time is used up, and people are unavailable. There are opportunity costs to every performance. At the same time, by determining the colocation and coincidence of people and objects one ritual may enhance the chances of performance of another. Recurring patterns of interaction rituals, such as identifiable institutions, need to form networks that sustain themselves through use of material and emotional resources. Networks that transfer too many resources away from their participants risk losing those participants. Networks that lose participants cannot offer the same audiences to the remaining participants, and hence cannot provide them with the same emotional charge during interaction rituals. We may expect, then, some institutions to be more likely to emerge and be sustained than others. We may also expect some institutions to go better with others, due to conflicts over the use of time and social and material resources.

    What are the implications of this social constructionism for rationality in institutions? Collins (2004) suggests agents choosing between interaction ritual opportunities are bounded-rational seekers after the best expected returns in emotional energy charge given the material resources invested. This view would preserve the language of rational agency – it suggests that economists were just employing the wrong utility function or payoffs table. But, as agent-based social simulations have demonstrated, rational agents are not required for the self-organised emergence of collective phenomena, such as intelligence. For example, in Padgett’s hypercycles model of economic production (Padgett & Powell, 2012), the mechanism by which agents self-organise is not rational choice but rather a heuristic: learning by doing. Furthermore, an assumption of rational agency would only tell us which of two interaction ritual opportunities an agent would choose, not why the agent would be facing those particular opportunities. Present opportunities, including potential partners and their repertoire of rituals, or cultural capital, are the result of previous interactions. Recurring patterns of interaction rituals are there because of the existence of a wider system which creates the possibility for their occurrence while not being undermined by their occurrence. Like the emergent organisation in Padgett’s hypercycles model, the existence of the system has explanatory power over the agent’s behaviour. The assumption of rational agency is neither necessary nor sufficient for understanding institutions.


    Collins, R. (1998). The sociology of philosophies: a global theory of intellectual change. Cambridge, Mass.; London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

    Collins, R. (2004). Interaction ritual chains. Princeton, N.J.; Oxford: Princeton University Press.

    Collins, R. (2008). Violence: a micro-sociological theory. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press.

    Padgett, J. F., & Powell, W. W. (2012). The emergence of organizations and markets. Princeton, N.J. ; Oxford: Princeton University Press.

  2. Pingback: New Debate Note on Question 1 | Constructed Complexities

  3. I very much enjoyed Christoper’s blog comment. Much to think about. A couple of thoughts that pick up on a few of the many themes:

    1. The notion that institutions emerge out of a diffusing and distributed shared focus makes a lot of sense. It sounds like Collins’ theory privileges face to face interaction as the mechanism, which is reasonable given the micro-sociology interest. I thought about Benedict Anderson’s imagined communities and media as additions to the argument to scale it up. For instance, institutional change is often initiated by a specific event that media rapidly distribute across a large population.

    2. Thinking of water and drugs–my parochial interests–it is interesting to think of how the focus that drives the diffusion that creates the institutions is material. Materiality, or rather it’s perception and interpretation when wrapped into the focus, is part of the dynamics of institution construction. The perceptions and interpretations can be wildly different, but they both include an “object” with material properties understandable at some levels in terms of natural science. Heroin and cocaine really do impact neurotransmitters. Water really does move in a hydrologic cycle.

    3. Further, as the blog notes, it is interesting to think of the intentionality that drives the diffusion as based on adaptation. Leaving aside for a moment the difference between drift and adaptation, the question would be, adaptation to what? Two concepts that come to mind–drugs and water as examples again–are adaptation to a threat and/or an opportunity. Drugs and water institutional dynamics often involve one or both of those things. Consider the U.S. “war on drugs,” or the current Southwest U.S. concern with “drought.”

    4. Rationality is interesting to contemplate. Iterative trial and error, as the blog suggests, plays a major role in adaptation, but humans also have the ability to reason about an error and how to use it to formulate a new trial, so I’m not sure if there’s an excluded middle in there. On the other hand, in my experience with politically and/or economically charged issues around drugs and water, “rationalization” is more prevalent than rationality, the use of reason to formulate some legitimation for the interests (such as threat and/or opportunity) that are the drivers of a particular institution.

    Sorry for all the drugs and water. That phrase sounds like a drinks order in a really strange bar. Hope some of this is interesting and I look forward to reading more blog posts. And thanks to Christopher for the good brain food.

  4. I have very much enjoyed the contributions on this blog so far and am excited to be attending the second workshop on Friday in Manchester. This post is thus a chance to organise my thoughts before that meeting but also I hope to add a slightly different view to the conversation. Essentially, I respectfully disagree that social constructionism is the right way to go in understanding social complexity.

    I work in the field of education, where social constructivism is a dominant discourse. Without getting into the ongoing discussion of constructivism vs. constructionism I wish to draw attention to the difficulties of extreme forms of constructivism which conclude that all of reality is a social construct. Osborne (1996) argues that this is incredibly problematic for an area such as science education because it denies that there is an independent, knowable universe; it denies that science can interrogate a ‘real world’. This has implications for science and for educational practice but here I wish to focus on the implications for our understanding of complexity.
    Complexity theory/science draws attention to dynamic, nonlinear interactions which lead to the emergence and change of structures. Extreme forms of social constructivism place humans at the centre of this by claiming that these structures are in the minds of people. This strikes me as an incredibly anthropocentric view. I don’t think complexity allows us to place humans at the centre of such a system, or in any pre-determined hierarchy because it forces us to recognise the tentative nature of life itself, let alone our thought structures. If we accept that there is a universe beyond humans (and this is the contentious point), then we are forced to accept that the universe plays a role in forming our understanding.

    But I have so far talked of extreme forms of constructivism, which deny the existence of a real world, independent of our thoughts. More moderate forms, which I will denote social constructionism, might claim that whilst there is a real world, our understandings of it are limited and as such are best understood as dynamic and tentative, in a way commensurate with complexity. The issue for me is how we distinguish between what is socially constructed and what is a consequence of our interactions with the real world. Sawyer, in his consideration of ‘social mechanistic’ viewpoints notes that:

    “Once social properties emerge, they have an ontological status distinct from their realizing mechanisms which may participate in causal relations.” (Sawyer, 2004, p. 261)

    So we are not able to simply start from bottom-up and claim that all of our institutions are social constructs, those institutions also have a role in institutionalising us, and should be afforded the status of being real. My young son is learning how to talk, think and behave through the social institutions he has been born into. We could still argue that these are socially constructed but when I take him outside and he sees a bird am I saying that the bird is a social construct? The word ‘bird’ is, as is the chirp chirp sound my son makes, but these have at least a correspondence with an actual bird. Take as an analogy genes, which evolve in relation to an environment. We don’t give the genes a different ontological status to the environment so why should social constructs be anything other than ‘real’? The issue is that in trying to maintain that there is a real world but that our social institutions are distinct from it we lose the ability to distinguish and become lost in questions about what it means to be ‘not real’.

    In classic marketing techniques you explain the problem and then offer the solution, this is what I shall attempt now. Realism has historically been associated with notions of fixed, apriori identities, essences, Platonic universal forms and representation. If we say there is a real world independent of us then we are claiming that it is possible to discover how it works in a positivist way or we are denying that our understanding of it is historically contingent.

    Derrida (1968, 1976, 1978) did a fantastic job of showing that there are no fixed relationships between our symbolic language systems and the world they represent. However, in doing such a good job of refuting representation he essentially led us into a dead end, where we are able to say nothing about the real world. Thus, Derrida’s flavour of postmodernism is to be commended for undermining positivist epistemology but it puts us in a sticky situation. I believe that the way out is to instead draw on the work of Giles Deleuze (2004a, 2004b) and in particular DeLanda’s (2002, 2006) interpretation of it which, as Bearn notes,

    “is the difference between playing a Derridean game you can never win and a Deleuzean game you can never lose. It is the difference between No and Yes.” (Bearn, 2000, p. 441)

    Simplifying horribly, this position is best described as recognising that everything is real: our thoughts; language; institutions; models. It is a ‘flat’ ontology because we do not need different categories for constructs versus reality and we do not need to distinguish human thought from the natural world. This requires a shift in thinking. For example we need to stop getting hung up on models being closer to ‘reality’; models are part of reality and go on to influence that reality. We also need to stop separating social institutions from reality. If we are to link our understanding of complexity to social institutions then we must first recognise that they are not part of some ephemeral other universe, they are part of reality.

    I very much look forward to discussing all this at the meeting in Manchester on Friday.

    Bearn, G. C. F. (2000) Differentiating Derrida and Deleuze. Continental Philosophy Review, Volume 33, pp. 441-465.
    Deleuze, G. (2004a) Difference and Repetition. London: Continuum.
    Deleuze, G. (2004b) The Logic of Sense. London: Continuum.
    Derrida, J. (1968) Differance. Bulletin de la Société française de philosophie, July-September, pp. 73-101.
    Derrida, J. (1976) Of Grammatology. Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press.
    Derrida, J. (1978) Writing and Difference. London: Routledge.
    Osborne, J. (1996) Beyond Constructivism. Science Education 80(1) 53-82
    Sawyer, R. K. (2004). The Mechanisms of Emergence. Philosophy of the Social Sciences, June, 34(2), pp. 260-282.

  5. Hi Mark, So you don’t dig social constructivism, eh? Well it isn’t a method but is more like an emergent property, a pattern emerging in the real world that turns out to be useful like Deleuze’s Paris Metro Map. The problematic nature of reality ‘out there’ is a besetting fear for us humans and I agree that anthropomorphising it is nonsense – a temptation to allay the fear when the problem is we can only make sense of our senses by applying that supreme but subjective affordance of our fallible minds. This is able to achieve a resolution of the infinite patterns, the thousand plateaux of Giles Deleuze by traversing the infinite rhizome of reality (whatever that is). Now we are looking at inferencing what the meta-patterns mean weighed against multiple complex adaptive ontologies of life itself. This is as powerful as the Copenhagen Accord, only there is more diversity and we perturb it all the time looking for more satisfying morphogenesis, in the continuous experiment we call ‘Life itself’. And spread across the thousand plateaux are temporary institutions that are templates sign-posting the way, (sometimes replaced when some advance restructures the roads or even HS2 in UK…)

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