The use of the term institution is mostly widespread in the social science discipline, in reflection of, economic, political, marriage, educational, geographical and philosophical institutions among many others (Helmke 3). The term has a long history in usage that dates from 1725 and its definition varies the social background that it explains at a given time.
In an attempt to provide a comprehensive and detailed definition of an institution, it is essential to find out their roles and contexts. In typical economic scrutiny, an institution can be explained as a set of rules designed to serve an economic interest by enhancing the actions or behavior of individuals. In a sociological perspective, an institution can be termed as a set of procedures that serve the concern of the actors. Such must form stable systems that lead to the formation of hierarchically ranked individuals. In a psychological perspective, an institution may be seen as a promotion and integration of different personalities with a common objective (Rawls 15).
Overall, the role of an institution is determined by the objective of its formation; that is if designed to integrate individual behavior to societal customs, then may be considered as a social institution etc. The institution formed by a group of individuals is a factor of the need be it societal, psychological or economical. Most scholars tend to define institutions based on their roles. For instance financial institutions are defined based on the financial or banking aspect that is their key performance objective.
Endless disputes on the definition of institutions are still significant from sociologists, philosophers and other learners. However, one thing that remains common amongst the many definitions brought forward by different writes is the concept of an established law that regulates the running of an institution. Different theories that try to explain what an institution entails have the commonality of integrated regulations that facilitate growth and cohesion in an institution.
The English thesaurus has an institution as a noun that implies an organization that provides a residential care in meeting individuals or societal needs. It is founded on a religious, educational, economical, social, and political or a similar purpose. It involves different individuals coming together, from a felt need, to accomplish a common goal. This definition identifies the different types of institutions that are formed with a common purpose. These includes political institutions, social, learning, economic, environmental etc.
There lacks a single or universal agreed definition of an institution. However, different schools of thought assert that institutions are social systems and structures composed of normative, cultural-cognitive and regulative elements. These elements, together with resources and associated activities, provide a stable social life. Institutions are transmissions of a variety of carriers that include relations, symbolic interactions, routines and artifacts. They operate under different levels of jurisdictions from a local perspective to a regional or world system.
In basic terms, an institution can be defined as an organization, foundation, arrangement or a society that devotes to the promotion of a program. The aim of the institution is usually focused to benefit the public or members of the institution. An institution is an establishment under a custom or different customs or laws that are consistent in regulation of individual pattern of behavior. The norms in an institution are self regulating and acceptable to the members of the institution. In a more generalized term, an institution can be defined as a system of prevalent societal rules that build or structure social interrelations and interactions.
Gretchen Helmke is amongst sociological scholars who view institutions self enforcing organizations that form societal structures. In his quest to come up with a comprehensible definition of an institution, the author divides an institution into two different components; informal and formal institutions (Helmke 5). The author goes ahead to define a formal institution as procedures, regulations and rules that are created, enforced and communicated through different channels. These rules are acceptable to the society in question and are enforced in fulfilling structures such that they are not biased or oppressive to some class while favoring other classes.
Informal institutions are viewed, by this author, as socially shared laws, which are written, created, enforced and communicated (Helmke 6). Informal institutions are regarded as those groupings or organizations that are not officially sanctioned and mostly intended to develop behavior in a society. The rules governing an institution are binding, and lack of adherence leads to different punishments that may include facing criminal law, physical punishments, loss of employment and social disapproval.
John Rawls is also another theorist that tries to come up with a detailed definition of an institution. The author defines an institution as a public system of laws or rules which define rights and duties of offices and positions (Rawls 7). The author expresses an institution in two different perspectives; as an abstract and as a realization of thought and conduct to persons at a certain place or time. As an abstract, the author views an institution as a form of conduct articulated by a structure of rules. These definitions are, however, criticized as ambiguous to which is justifiable or unjustifiable. An institution exists at a certain time and place if only the intended actions are carried out in accord to the public understanding and set rules.
In his efforts, Douglas Cecil views an institution as the rules that govern a society or as human constraints that shape human and societal interactions. The structures of an institution form the base of societal evolvement in time, and, therefore, act as historical literature of change (North 3). The author regards institutions as structures that provide certainty in everyday life. The structures guide human interaction and as a guide to human behavior. An institution in this case is seen as a form of restriction towards certain behavior and a constraint towards intended behavior. The constrictions come with a structure of rules and laws that are binding in development of the intended human behavior that shape human interaction.
In all these definitions, the key concept that is brought forward is the element of social order and governing of human behavior in a community (North 6). There is the element of social purpose, intentions to mediate set rules and a group of individuals. The term institution, therefore, can be applied to essential behavioral patterns and valued customs that shape a society, an organization or a company. Although, institutions are deliberately formed by people, their development in societies may be regarded as instant. This is in the senses that as institutions arise, develop or function; they go beyond the conscious intentions. They form other social interactions that continue to shape behavior, culture, customs and individual habits.
A clear example can be derived from the growth in banking and financial institutions. Many banking institutions are developed as a result of going beyond the original intentions of the initial plan. The development of commercial banks results from growth in ideas from the public financial institutions to more privatized institutions which later act as competitors.
In defining an institution, there is the need of differentiating an institution, organization and an association (Rawls 8). In defining the term, the concept of an organization is almost inevitable. However, the two terms reflect different aspects, which complement each other. An institution is not an organization rather it is formed from an organization of individuals with a common goal. An organization can be expressed as a social arrangement which aims at pursuing collective goals.
Unlike an institution, an organization controls its performance and has its own boundaries that separate it from the immediate surroundings. A good example of an organization is the World Health Organization. To differentiate an organization with an institution is the concept of custom and purpose. An organization performs diverse purposes that may not suit in a society but benefit other communities. Contrary, the formation of an institution is based on customs and intends to pursue a societal interest. A good example of an institution is a University like Oxford University. An institution can develop from an organization whilst organizations from an institution are formal without relations to customs.
An institution is not an association; both are formed by human beings but with an individual or a social aspect. The formation of an institution involves a set of constituted laws, and regulations whilst associations are formed by a consensus by human beings. An association represents a human aspect while an institution is based from a societal aspect.
Associations arise from a felt need or necessity while an institution evolves primarily. This explains why associations are not permanent while an institution is permanent. Once the need is accomplished, an association may be liquidated while the need of an institution continues to grow as an institution grows. For instance as financial institutions come up with new products, their need becomes more elaborate. In addition, an association represents membership while an institution denotes ways or modes of service. It is an institution that gives life to an association.
The best definition of an institution is that which integrates the concepts of social order and human collectivity. It is that which determines the set rules and regulations that a set of individuals follows in accomplishing the objective of the formation of the structure. It is that which does not constrain or limit the chances of change that may influence its running.
An institution, therefore, can be defined as a structure or mechanism of societal order and cooperation that governs behavior of a group of individuals. The individuals forming the institution are usually from a given human collectivity. An institution is identified with a social purpose, permanence, intentions, and a set of enforcing laws to govern behavior (Rawls 13).
Helmke, Gretchen. Information Instructions and Democracy: Lessons from Latin America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2006. Print.
North, Douglass C. Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance. Cambridge [England: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Print.
Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 2000. Print.