Are We All Institutionalized?

Jeff Carreira Blog Posts 8 Comments

We might be. I wanted to share some more thoughts as I read John Searle’s new book “Making the Social World“And one of the things that has struck me profoundly about social reality is the degree to which we are in fact all institutionalized.


Think about it – most people in the developed west who share a similar culture do similar things. Why? If you think about a particular country, or a particular region of a country, or more specific locality you find the similarities between the way people think, speak and act becoming even more pronounced? Why? The classical American philosopher John Dewey described the why of social conditioning in terms of habit. The contemporary American philosopher John Searle describes it in terms of the status functions of institutions. Different institutions give and take away different powers. The institution of marriage allows me to have a certain kind of relationship with my wife. In relationship to that institution some things are allowable others are not. The reason that the institution works to define human behavior is that we all agree to it. I am realizing that this is more profound and pervasive than I had initially realized.

Let’s think again. In America (and in many other countries) millions of people drive their car to work every day and then drive back home every night. Only a very small fraction of the people that engage in this activity will leave their house in the morning and rather than take their own car will walk down the street and find a much better car, break into it, hotwire the ignition, and drive off. Why not? Wouldn’t most of us prefer to drive a better car than a worse one? Why don’t we act on that desire? Similarly the vast majority of the people who drive back from work to home each night will drive to and enter the same house, even though they might pass dozens of houses much better than their own. Still they end up, night after night, in the same house. Why?

The reason we drive the same car every day and end up in the same house every night is because of the institution of private property. As a society we agree that some things belong to specific people and not just to anyone. The people who own things have the right to use them and people who do not own them do not have the right to own them. And we have all kinds of paperwork that helps us determine who owns what. Houses have deeds, cars have registrations and everything you purchase in a store comes with a receipt of purchase so that you can prove that you own whatever it is you bought.

If you extend your thinking about social institutions you will begin to see that we are utterly submerged in social institutions and our lives and our actions are almost entirely encircled and dictated by them.

I have only so far been talking about what could be called “strong” institutions. Marriage, money and private property are all regulated by law and government as are many other institutions, and there are also “weak” institutions that are not upheld by law that also control our behavior. There is an institution of family, an institution of friendship, an institution of common decency and courtesy, an intuition of work ethic, an institution of personal hygiene, an institution of fashion, etc. We could go on an on. As you think about it more and more you see that the way we interact with others, what we dress, the things we own, the way we work and play, what you eat and just about everything else is constrained by institutional norms that we all agree to accept.

I am also reading John Dewey’s Human Nature and Conduct and he has an interesting way of thinking about this. I will describe what he says in more detail in future post, but he believes that social institution and custom does not constrain us, it liberates us.

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Liesbeth
Liesbeth
9 years ago

Dear Jeff, Reading your blog I realized how wrong I was attacking you last one. With this one I immediately thought of Foucault and the sixties attacking all these things. Point is, that even though a lot is changed within for example marriage, habits have been restored. So it is very good to look again at these institutions…(and functionality). In the sixties it was not so much marriage itself that was attacked but roles in it, and those have totally changed. As far as I know the institution of marriage started when men became owners of production tools and they… Read more »

Nanna
Nanna
9 years ago

Dear Jeff.
Thank you for the blog. I cant wait to hear what you learn from reading John dewey. I recently discussed the subject, wether it is more liberating to trust in individuals or adhere to social institutions and regulations. And I´m still thinking of the subject. Social institutions do seem to generally simplify things.
Thanks.
Nanna

Michelle D'Avella
9 years ago

Hi Jeff, This is a great thing to think about. I’m also interested in John Dewey’s liberation perception. I’m not sure his points yet, but I can see some ways this would be true. One thought I had while reading this was that while some institutions are there for our protection, in a sense, I also think our morals hold us back from doing things like stealing someone’s car. This makes me wonder how much institutions have influenced our morality. Also, when you mentioned that marriage allows you to have a different kind of relationship, I immediately thought, “Well, do… Read more »

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
9 years ago

“Institutionalization” displays the human propensity to seek support in numbers. To consider it in a negative way, it’s displaying lemmings-like behavior.

In a more positive light, it may be giving support to something deemed worthwhile and wanting to participate.

To be adamantly wanting to be individual and not join in crowd behavior may be too egoistic if not recognizing worthwhile enterprises.

The “bad” is victorious when “good people” do nothing to uphold values that will benefit humanity and the planet.

Mette
Mette
9 years ago

Hi Jeff, yes, it is amazing how we are ompletely made up by institutions and norms, and sometimes it makes me wonder how we at all are able to create something new, now that I realize how everything I do is something I have learned. But the mystery can maybe be explained by how we are almost one big organism moving forward. I found a great inspiration in looking at a video at Tolle TV – the one called “individual choice” (sorry I couldn’t link to it) where he explains how a sunset only is a sunset to the individual… Read more »

Brad Bethel
9 years ago

I believe Mead had a lot to say about this, and it was James who first articulated the notion of habit. Mead, as one of the first social psychologists, suggested that one’s individuality can only be realized through interactions with others, or to put it another way, through participating in the various *institutions* society has established. Some might think of institutions as constraining, but another way to think about them is as providing the cultural and intellectuals resources with which one can grow and express him- or herself. For example, I find that participating in a committed marital relationship and… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
9 years ago
Reply to  Brad Bethel

Hello Brad, George Herbert Mead is next on my list to tackle…from the little I have read he is a major social philosopher and probably not nearly recognized enough for his contributions.

Robert E. Cobb
9 years ago

Subject: Evolutionary Philosophy in the Age of Cosmic Genealogy Evolutionary philosophy recognizes intelligent life as a gift with indefinable promise whose culmination can be best achieved through reverence for life and universal forelaws of empathy and compassion (empirical attributes of cosmic genealogy seated within the genome of humankind and all intelligent life). Louis Pasteur’s pivotal work of 1859 in disproving spontaneous generation of life – launching the age of cosmic genealogy – continues to bestow new meaning and context upon reverence for life, with intelligent life recognized as a gift with indefinable promise. More pronounced in modern times owing in… Read more »