Question 2

Are all social constructs institutions?

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 commonly referred to in social sciences? Or maybe you want to make clarifications about this question. All contributions are welcome!


3 thoughts on “Question 2

  1. All social constructs are not institutions. Indicating social interaction and intersubjectivity, social constructs explain what is beyond ‘objective’ environment that exists independently of its observers. In order to grasp institutional effects (all contextual effects are not institutional –Jepperson 1991:149), it is useful to treat social constructs under different categories (like norms, values, concepts, institutions, and regimes). For instance, theories of International Relations put forward (at least) two main types of social constructs: norms and institutions. If norm indicates a specific pattern of behaviour associated with a particular identity (Goertz and Diehl 1992:661; Jepperson, Wendt and Katzenstein 1996), its institutionalization refers to acquisition of taken-for-granted character (Jepperson 1991:147). A norm that is well-institutionalized at one point in time (e.g. fascism, slavery, genocide) may lose its taken-for-granted quality due to the institutionalization of rival norms that delegitimate it (e.g. human rights, decolonization) (Finnemore and Sikkink 1998). Alternatively, it may merge with competing norms and pave the way for different types of identity and interest (e.g. sustainable development as the merger of capitalist development and environmentalism –Frank, Hironaka and Schofer 2000).

    Why is there a variation in the institutionalization of social constructs? The IR literature’s overemphasis on ‘good norms’ improving living standards (Finnemore 1996) overshadows the fact that norms do not only become institutionalized because of their problem-solving character or moral quality. ‘Bad norms’ (genocide –Fujii 2004) or impracticable (even self-destructive) norms can also get highly institutionalized in national and global context. An institutional environment does not only provide pragmatic and moral solutions. It also provides a set of constitutive scripts which determine what types of decisions are accepted, how and on what basis they are justified, understood and evaluated (Suchman 1995:576). In this regard, institutions do not only indicate a normative framework for appropriate behaviour but they also imply cognitive standard-setting for meaningful behaviour. Therefore, institutional impact is not only based on the actor-centric logics of expected consequences and normative appropriateness, but it is also driven by ceremonial/ritualized compliance and mimetic processes (Strang and Meyer 1993) –implying logic of rule-following, collective action, and heuristic decision-making.

    According to some scholars (see Boli and Thomas 1999; Lechner and Boli 2005), institutions encourage ceremonial compliance based on their association with global cultural structure reflected on the agenda of the United Nations and international non-governmental organizations. Others (see Levitt and Khagram 2007) suggest that many norms, values, and scripts (or ‘social constructs’ in general) make strong sense when taken together (as ‘assemblages’) and reinforce one another in getting further institutionalized. Finally, power and coercion may establish new institutions. Their lifespan however is largely dependent on whether those institutions gain legitimacy which derives from ‘the perception of those addressed by a rule or a rule-making institution that the rule or institution has come into being and operates in accordance with generally accepted principles of right process’ (Clark 2005:18-19; citing Franck 1990:19). ‘Auto-legitimation is an oxymoron —an actor can jump up and down, declaring loudly that his or her actions are legitimate, but if nobody accepts this, then they are not correctly described as such, even if he or she is making a legitimacy claim’ (Reus-Smit 2007:159). In this respect, power and coercion alone cannot explain the institutional processes and outcomes.

  2. Pingback: Debate Notes on Question 2 and 3 | Constructed Complexities

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