Question 3

Are institutions rational or rationalised?

What do you think? Do you already know the answer? Can you identify widespread assumptions in different fields of social sciences related to rationality of institutions? Or maybe you want to make clarifications about this question. All contributions are welcome!


5 thoughts on “Question 3

  1. If rationality is defined as a cultural norm that is well-institutionalized in the modern era (and not as an inherent property of actors), one can say that all institutions are rationalized rather than inherently rational (Meyer, Boli and Thomas 1987). In order to survive, institutions feel obliged to provide instrumental cost-effective arguments which may prolong their lifespan but does not necessarily predict their survival. Many institutions emerge and spread even in the absence of an instrumentalist rationale behind their existence. One usually ‘discovers’ the self-interested ‘reasons’ for complying with the prevailing institutions only during or after compliance (Meyer 2007:795). It is necessary to draw the line between the institutions and instrumental rewards associated with them. For instance, it is clearly reductionist and far-fetched to explain ‘the nuclear family by showing how it allows couples to obtain tax breaks from the Internal Revenue Service –the instrumental reward is, at most, a peripheral component of the larger cultural construct (Suchman 1995:576).
    Institutionalization is not solely driven by efficiency-optimizing mechanisms (Goertz and Diehl 1992: 663 citing Elster 1989: 15). Many cases (educational curricula, mass schooling, female enrolment to higher education or national constitutions regulating state-society relations) demonstrate that particular norms do not get institutionalized due to their efficiency in problem-solving but because they grant legitimacy to modern actors (Meyer 2010; Ramirez 2012). For example, ombudsmanship is embraced by highly dissimilar countries (with different needs and problems) because it is a ‘logo’ of modern democracy; for instance, it has been hastily adopted in Turkey which proved lacking the will to implement ombudsmanship in its proper sense —i.e. impartiality (Buhari-Gulmez 2011). Institutions do not necessarily solve existing problems, but instead, they can ‘create’ problems. For instance, the rise of domestic non-governmental organizations in Asia was not a response to particular (local, national or global) environmental problems but followed the world-level environmentalist movement whose claim of imminent global crisis is not truly substantiated by objective facts (Frank, Longhofer and Schofer 2007). Also, an institution may persist despite the disappearance of its raison d’être (e.g. NATO in the post-Cold War era). This indicates that institutions are more than efficiency-based responses to technical pressures coming from their broader environment (Brunsson 1989); they are also constitutive of identity and actorhood.

    Transcending the interest-driven approaches that treat institutions in a principal-agent relationship, Barnett and Finnemore (2004) argue that institutions can claim autonomous identity, interests and authority. If being rational means an eternal quest to maximize parochial interests, it is crucial to note that some institutions operate as if they were religious authorities (Meyer and Jepperson 2000). Their activities serve the ‘collective wellbeing’ transcending parochial interests and guide modern actors on how to define identity and interests in a legitimate way. Their agency and authority are based on the consensus that they do not follow any egoistic or hegemonic interests in principle. A popular example is science. Even though some scientists violate the ethical or professional rules of scientific world, no one contests the cultural authority of science in guiding modern life due to the embedded/taken-for-granted nature of science as an institution (Drori et al. 2003).

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

  3. You can download the full discussion notes with further questions and issues at:

    Discussion Notes (From First Constructed Complexities Workshop)
    Participants: George Thomas, Ozge Dilaver, Elvira Uyarra, Kieron Flanagan, Amy Woodward, Bruce Edmonds, John Sutcliffe Braithwaite, Eric Silverman, Huw Vasey, Bertha Darteh, Sheila Keegan, Timothy Morans, Christopher Watts

    Three different definitions of institutions common in the field emerged in the discussion.
    One is to equate institutions with formal organizations. Regarding universities, for example, the University of Surrey, Oxford, and the University of Munich are in this view institutions.
    Another is to define institutions as cultural categories constituting identities, what Berger and Luckmann refer to as “reciprocal typifications.” Regarding universities, the “university” is an institution without which particular organizations such as the University of Surry and Oxford would not make sense or be recognizable.
    Third, institutions are equated with practices and habits of thought and behaviour. Scholars following Foucault commonly use this definition or approach.
    Many of the policies and practices of an institution (as a formal organization) are oriented to accomplishing goals. Many policies and practices of an institution (as a formal organization) are oriented to claiming and establishing a particular institutionalized identity (as a cultural category).

    Rationality in one sense is relative one’s point of view.
    In this context, according to Weber, all cultures (and organizations) are rational but can be characterized by different kinds of rationality. A substantive rationality is when actions and practices either are ends in themselves (the right moral thing to do) or are means to attain valued ends. Formal rationality is the strict adherence to established (bureaucratic) rules however irrational they might appear. Instrumental or practical rationality is a cultural imperative judge action by whether it maximizes efficiency or success, defined abstractly.
    Rational-actor, rational choice theories presume that actors (individuals, formal organizations) optimize material interests. This is the prevalent definition of rationality in the social sciences and is much narrower than those discussed by Weber.
    It was brought out in discussion that a broad, accessible definition of rationality is any intentional, purposive action – action that has a goal or purpose. This might be a good place to start. In this view, non-rational or irrational behaviour is either non-existent or very limited (maybe suicide, for example although this would be open for discussion).
    Within this broader understanding of rationality, we can distinguish the narrow rationality of rational choice theory (optimization of observable material interests) from other kinds of rationality.
    For example, most cultural theories from phenomenologists (e.g., Berger & Luckmann, Goffman) to post-strucutralists (e.g., Mary Douglas)
    argue and demonstrate that much action and practice of actors are oriented to establishing, claiming, and working on identity – definition two of institution. The policies and practices of particular universities, for example, flow from the organization’s identity as a university (and not a state or corporation).
    Put another way, a lot of work is for creating and maintaining the self. Maintaining an identity commonly is consistent with material interests and attaining ends or gaining resources, but much identity work may clash with material interests or the smooth functioning of an organization.
    Action that works on one’s identity is purposive and thus rational in the broad sense. Relative to the common, narrow definition of (material) interest driven rationality, this identity work looks non-rational and we might refer to it as non-rational in this technical sense of the word, understanding that it is rational or purposive in a larger sense.
    Focusing on institutions as formal organizations, can we take survival of organisations as a signal of their rationality on the idea that irrational institutions don’t last very long? So is rationality permanency? This tends to identify rationality through posthoc judgements of success, rather than the intentionality of the actor at the time. In any case, there is plenty of evidence that organisations that operate purely on rational (in this narrow sense of the term) basis do not survive. Organisations often do counterproductive things to demonstrate to the state (and other actors) an identity for sustaining their permanency.
    Moreover, in complex environments there can be multiple goals that in clash with each other. Hence, while responding to complex environments, a lot of things can look counterproductive, in addition to the possibility of having a lot of nonrational behviour. Assuming that all such behaviour is purposive (and thus rational in the broad sense), any given action of an organization might be rational relative to one goal or interest but nonrational relative to another.
    Can we understand what is rational through its opposite? Is there such a thing as irrational behaviour? Exploring this line would need to consider things like creativity, chance, and emotion. Using our terminology, someone having delusions would be considered irrational from a common everyday life perspective although rational within their delusions. This of course sets us on a course of discussion.
    The issue of custom also might be relevant. If we do something because this is just what we do, is that rational? Some people when they accidentally hit a rock, kick the rock back, because it is what they always do. Turkish police may be attacking protestors because that’s what they always do. There might be good, rational, purposive reasons for doing things, but people commonly will report that this is just what we do.
    This leads to consideration of rationalizations in the sense of after the fact justifications even in a Freudian sense. There are rationalisations or legitimations of whole institutions, for why they even exist, from universities to religions. Who makes these? Can they be assessed as rational or non-rational? They seem purposive.

    Bases of institutions (and rationality):
    There is the impact of power on imposing certain habits of thought on others, certain organisations trying to affect rationalisation process.
    Institutions must have come to exist as a group of people agree that ‘it shall be so’. Sometimes there may be a need for another group of people to contest the innovation for us to remember that institution exists. There is the role of power, network effects and unconscious intake of institutions on the level of agreement that is reached. How much agreement is necessary is a boundary object in STS studies.

  4. Pingback: Discussion Notes on Institutions and Rationality | Constructed Complexities

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