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.


Written by mattkraatz

October 28, 2009 at 7:17 pm

Posted in uncategorized

7 Responses

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  1. Interesting post Matt. The book sounds original and intriguing. I’ll have to pick it up over Christmas break.

    I’m curious – what is the difference between willfully committing to an institution and conformity? The imagery seems different but is the outcome the same?



    October 29, 2009 at 1:34 pm

  2. I like some of the intuition in your post. To put my own spin on it — essentially, the commitment to particular institutions and norms is (also) a function of agentic decision-making by actors. This then also allows us to explain the emergence of institutions (along with their persistence), which is why I tend to prefer Coleman-like, more stripped down models and theories of structure that begin with idealized initial conditions that don’t presume structure (in whatever form) but rather explain its emergence (e.g., literatures on the emergence of norms, equilibria, and I think institutions also fit in). Or, if we do begin analysis with extant institutions, interesting agentic and actor-oriented issues also show up at the margin where actors may decide to ‘do otherwise’ and innovate. (In the institutional literature, Paul Ingram and Clay’s ARS piece touches on this, as does some of Victor Nee’s work).



    October 29, 2009 at 5:15 pm

  3. Brayden, the difference between conformity and commitment is seen in the metaphor of ham and eggs. The chicken conforms. The pig is committed. ;-)

    The outcome is not the same in the organization, particularly in the actor-centric view that Matt notes. Committed members are active in the coaching and acculturation of others, particularly new members. Between conforming and committed members, who responds to threats to the institution in an active, positive way and who exits?



    October 29, 2009 at 5:18 pm

  4. I think Merton’s social structure had it going on. There’s a difference between ritual conformity and more instrumental uses of institutions.



    October 29, 2009 at 5:45 pm

  5. Here are two quick responses. First, I think that Brayden’s question of whether the “outcome is the same” is the right one to ask. Looking backward, it is very hard (perhaps impossible) to tell if any given action is the product of willful choice or institutionally-induced conformity. This argument is old and probably not worth restaging. Second, I think that it does make a difference on a forward-looking, pragmatic basis (in the sense that it might have an effect on people’s “actual lives”). I think that there are negative consequences to propagating theories which equate institutional rule-following with cultural dopism. It seems to me that these same actions are (sometimes) better described using terms like commitment, responsibility, duty, or ethicality. These words lack the negative connotations of conformity. I also think that it is problematic to equate agency (which is generally seen as a “good thing”), with consequentialism and contra/ extra-institutional action. Institutions do not take care of themselves. People need to do “institutional work” in order to maintain and perpetuate them. Some (perhaps most) of this work may be dismissed as self-serving and thus sufficiently explained with reference to the power motive. Some of it can’t. This is the realm of substantive rationality — and of leadership in the Selznickian sense.



    October 29, 2009 at 9:24 pm

  6. […] of my favorite examples of the sort of “institutional thinking” that I discussed in my last post is found in Jim March’s short essay, “A Scholar’s Quest,” from which the preceding quote is […]


  7. […] Here are some highlights:  Matt Kraatz on Selznick’s ideas about ideals and ethics, institutional thinking, authentic values, and a humanist science; Selznick on the formation of character as a life-stage […]


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