Boyer on Institutions

Institutions make up the social fabric of life. We are born into institutions, we pass much of our lives in them, and institutions are involved when we die. No integrated core has been successful if it has not acquainted students with the major institutions-the family, the church, the legislative and judicial bodies, for example-that make up our world. The curriculum we have in mind would look at the characteristics of institutions: how they come into being, grow strong, become oppressive or weak, and sometimes fail. The successful approach will always ask when institutions have to do with us, how we are influenced by them, and how we can direct our institutions toward constructive ends.

Websites on Institutions:

Centers for research and study of the family or adolescence or childhood:

Children's Defense Fund

Copyright Law comic book.

Pew Research Center studies of Politics and Elections.

15-item quiz on religious knowledge from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Southern Poverty Law Center

The White House

The Senate

The House of Representatives

The Supreme Court

The Illinois General Assembly

U.S. Chamber of Commerce

AFL-CIO America's Union Movement

Project Vote Smart

Annenberg Political Fact Check

The United Nations

The Public Broadcasting Corporation

World Council of Churches

Public Interest Law Institute

Open Society Institute

Ed Cell’s Discussion Paper

4. Institutions: the Social Web

A major institution is "a well-established and structured pattern of behavior or of relationships that is accepted as a fundamental part of a culture." Included are marriage, slavery, school, work organization, news media, family, and legislative and judicial bodies. Minor institutions are less important regularities in our behavior and encompass politeness, styles of grooming, social greetings, and techniques of political campaigning.

The key is our need for social regularity. Our intelligence and self-awareness, which make us very adaptable, also exacerbate our vulnerability and feelings of insecurity and, so, place a premium on stability. We have a natural and deep need not to block change but to render change predictable. Robert Olson gives this account of the importance of social patterns:

. . . Some measure of stability is the most basic of all human needs. The fact that we live in a larger world [than do the other animals] means a greater awareness of dangers and outside threats . . . . And the fact that our behavior is less rigidly instinctual means that we must reflect and choose and are therefore prey to all the anxieties, doubts, and hesitations that accompany reflection and choice. Moreover, intelligence itself requires a reasonably stable environment in order to function well. Under completely unstable, or anarchic, social conditions nothing is predictable and intelligent planning is impossible.

Think, for example, of the dire consequences for a people when government becomes too weak to protect them, or for children when they are not nurtured by a strong family, or for employees when their organizations cannot be counted on. Think, too, of the deep importance to our future of the question as to whether the institution of capitalism is inherently unstable because it is premised on an overall good coming out of individuals acting purely on their economic self-interest. If there is this instability in our form of economy, the question then becomes whether government and, perhaps, unions can be stabilizing forces. We see here the significance of Boyer's question of how strong institutions are created and maintained.

Stability, however, has an ambiguous relation to other values such as justice and autonomy. While it is necessary to these values and they, in turn, may contribute to it, tensions inevitably arise. Institutions not only coordinate and harmonize our activities but also regulate our competing interests. If chaos is an enemy of human well-being, so too is injustice and oppression. Consider laws, now or in times past, that support slavery, strongly favor the rights of work institutions over those of employees, and are biased toward patriarchy. Institutions on which we most depend are tilted toward the interests and values of those with the most power to shape and control them. If we are to understand the enduring issues between conservative and liberal political orientations we need to grasp what it means to emphasize the value of stability, in the first case, and of justice and other competing values, in the second.

The most important and subtle aspect of the role of institutions in our lives is that they must depend heavily on socialization for their greatest effectiveness and long-term survival. From their training we absorb everything from morality to deference to authority. Socialization benefits us in enabling us to coordinate our activities with those of others and to gain inclusion in the social drama. It harms us in getting us to think and feel and act in ways that work against our true interests--especially against our need to live in accord with our human nature.

On the problematic side, consider, for example, our socialization into the life of our work organization. William Scott and David Hart argue that the organizational point of view into which most organizations seek to socialize us is what they term the "organizational imperative." This imperative is "based on a primary proposition, which is absolute. Whatever is good for the individual can only come from modern organizations." This is because it is they on which we depend for the goods and services on which our way of life is based. A secondary proposition is alleged to follow from and find its moral justification in the first: "All behavior must enhance the health of such organizations." The interests of the organization, that is, must take precedence over the interests of all others. The point of citing this passage is to illustrate the importance of asking, with Boyer, how our institutions influence us.


How effective are the key institutions in our society or in other societies? How well do they coordinate, harmonize, and stabilize activities and enable us to count on each other? How just are they in regulating competing interests? To what extent do they reflect patriarchal or individualistic assumptions and values? How does socialization affect our autonomy and the quality of our relationships?