structure, agency, and institutional thinking
One of my favorite books of the last year is On Thinking Institutionally by Hugh Heclo, a political scientist at George Mason University. Heclo’s short book tries to describe a particular orientation toward social institutions and to advocate for this general way of thinking (and acting). Taking a stance that he recognizes to be “unfashionable,” Heclo argues that institutions are basic fonts of human values and vital sources of personal identity. He suggests that (many) institutions deserve respect and admiration and require stewardship from their leaders. He also notes that this sense of institutional obligation and responsibility is often lacking, and elaborates many of the negative consequences which stem from institutional neglect.
Heclo’s book duly notes institutions’ checkered history and spells out their many oppressive potentialities. It also provides a very long list of good reasons for the widespread contemporary distrust of governmental, business, and not-for-profit institutions. Nevertheless, Heclo stresses that:
“…it is possible to imagine being both thoroughly modern and more deeply committed to institutional values.” “By thoroughly modern,” he continues, “ I mean that we will have to continue to be distrustful of institutions and to guard against their power over us. However, I also think that we can achieve a saner way of life by more self-consciously learning how to think and act institutionally.”
Heclo‘s book elaborates his core concept of “institutional thinking” and provides some good examples of it. It also effectively contrasts its preferred stance (i.e., “to distrust but value”) with the prevailing social-scientific view which “expects the worst because it has already reached the conclusion that institutions and their leaders are generally oppressive and self-serving.” (For one interesting explanation of this latter view, see James Stever’s book The Path to Organizational Skepticism).
I like Heclo’s book for a number of reasons. First, anyone who read my earlier posts will likely note its strong familial relationship to Selznick’s “Hobbesian Idealism.” Heclo, like Selznick, emphasizes the essential duality of institutions. While he acknowledges that they frequently frustrate ideals, he also follows Selznick in viewing institutions as these ideals’ best and only real friend (i.e., as the very things that serve to give our ideals “life and hope”). Second, Heclo’s perspective also stresses that it is possible – and often desirable– for people to willfully commit to particular institutions and the values which they embody. In this sense, his perspective is substantially at odds with much contemporary institutionalism. In that literature, there is a tendency to view institutions as mere control structures (which induce “conformity”), and to see agency as something that happens “against” or “outside of” institutions’ otherwise constraining influence. Third, Heclo’s perspective provides a viable platform for criticizing the many institutional failures that seem to be continually occurring around us. Heclo articulates a normative vision even as he acknowledges the darker, persistent, and often more obvious realities of institutional life. Finally, I like Heclo’s book because it points out the difference between “thinking about institutions” and “thinking institutionally.” He argues that much of the academic theory and research on institutions is, in fact, “anti-institutional” in nature. His book encourages scholars to see institutions from “within,” and to embrace an actor-centric viewpoint. While this viewpoint is, of course, partial and limiting, I think that it provides an opportunity to see some important things that we are otherwise apt to miss.
I will be interested to hear what you think about this book and my summary of it. In future posts, I will also try to identify some other contemporary scholars who are, in different ways, “taking values seriously” and thus building on Selznick’s legacy.