The word “institutions” probably conjures into the mind thoughts of massive buildings that dwarf any human who approaches them, intentionally symbolic of the often mysterious power that seems to emanate from them, somehow the aggregate result of the work that people are doing inside.  These structures, architectural and social alike, are usually intentionally intimidating, imposing, and impersonal.

For my purposes here, I’m not going to use a definition of institutions that only includes the massive structures described above.  Instead, the way I’m going to use the word is to describe much more local, individual, and concrete social relationships.

Every social interaction is ultimately unique from any other.  Different interactions have different people involved with different histories, or even if they are the same people, the circumstances of any given situation is different.  However, even with the infinite number of possible social encounters, there is a trend for certain patterns of interaction to recur with sufficient regularity among different persons that we can identify formal characteristics independent of the individuals involved.  Eventually, there comes a point when such regular interactions form a social structure that seems to take on a life of its own, something that can be referred to by persons as if it existed apart from the concrete interactions that compose it.  This structure is what I will call institutions.

The seemingly independent existence of institutions beyond the people and relationships that compose them is of course illusionary.  Even the massive global institutions with their Imposing Central Headquarters would disappear tomorrow if they were not recreated each day by the people who compose them taking compatible actions to reconstitute, recompose, and rejuvenate them.  However, it appears that humans will rarely decide to wake up one day and ignore all the social institutions that they have functioned as a part of until then, especially en masse.  Such situations are so rare that we rightly call those events “revolutions,” which really means the sudden disintegration of the established institutions.

Under this definition, institutions do not have to be centered in massive buildings.  They don’t have to be centered in buildings at all.  They don’t even have to be centered anywhere.  There need not be a mailing address, a bureaucratic staff, official officers, or logos and letterhead.  What is important is that there is a formal relationship that appears to be independent of the individuals involved, and can be referred to as such.

In this way, we can refer to things such as “The Institution of Marriage.”  While modern marriage is sanctioned by various state and religious institutions, marriage is an institution that, while supported and reinforced by those other institutions, it is ultimately a form of social relations that can be seen as independent of these other complex institutions.  It refers to a social arrangement that virtually everyone in the modern Western world will understand: the monogamous pairing of a man and a women in a relationship, which involves intimacy, exclusivity, a non-expiring contract, economic unification, and cohabitation, and usually serves as a basis for a larger institution called “The Family.”

In addition to understanding what this institution is upon hearing its name, because this has become the primary way individuals relate to each other in a long-term, intimate way in this culture, it becomes difficult for many people to comprehend intimate relationships that do not conform to the dominant institution, which we see in the lack of understanding of older generations of gay marriage, polyamorous relationships, and long-term cohabitation without formal marriage.  In addition to the simple problem of comprehension, newer, non-conforming social relations often have difficulty interacting with other more well-established institutions, although most institutions eventually will reach a state of some degree of compatible coexistence, such as the state’s growing recognition of gay marriage or even polyamory.

All of this is important because being able to identify and analyze institutions allows us to more concretely look at how humans are organized, how that organization evolves, and in what ways it can be changed.  Without looking at these formal social relationships, we are left with only being able to see the particular individual relationships one person has with others.  While the specific people involved are important, who those specific people are seems to become less important (in terms of their freedom to influence the dynamics of social institutions) the greater the size and scope of the institution in question, and the greater the length of time we are looking at.  However, even in small communities that are relatively isolated from the rest of the world, institutions still exist.

Institutions are the single most important aspect of social life that create cultural stability and continuity.  They are what typically allow someone to refer to a social group as the same entity over a period of time, even if a large number of the individuals who make up that group have changed.  For example, at Twin Oaks it is very easy for someone who was a member of the community 20 years ago to recognize the major forms of social organization in the community today, as most of these have not changed in any significant way.  Even though there has been a good amount amount of reorganization with the council system and new work areas have been created, the basic Planner-Manager decision making system is unchanged.  While there have been changes to budgeting and recording labour, the member from 20 years ago would recognize things like labour sheets, assigned work, and the way one earns vacation time.  Many more examples could be given.  The main point here is that all of these institutions are still essentially the same, even though there are only a small handful of members who lived here 20 years ago and are still here now.  Members are following the same basic forms of social organization in almost every aspect of their daily life as people living here did decades ago.  While some people may think of their connection to the thing called “Twin Oaks” as more place based, the location itself can be seen to not play that large of a role in our understanding of a collective social entity when we imagine what this person would think of this same area of land 50 years ago before the community existed.  There would probably be some feeling of connection with this particular space, but we couldn’t really call this area “Twin Oaks” just based on it having the same buildings or borders.



~ by Ethan Tupelo on 02012.09.07.

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