What is an institution, that people may participate in it?
In a recent post, Christophe Heintz told us about “institutions that make us smart”. The posting was of great interest by itself, and got us thinking about institutions – our field still has its work cut out if we want to make sense of institutions.
We have all sorts of interesting tools and theories in cognitive anthropology (as that should be the name of our field – see discussion here), but precious little to say about institutions. That is, to put it mildly, rather unfortunate as many social phenomena seem to depend on the interaction between people and their institutions. Cognitive anthropology should be the place to understand why and how people are compelled by institutional arrangements such as money, marriage, law courts, schools and markets. So far, we cannot say we have made great progress in that direction.
The sketch of an epidemiological account
I had reached this point in my desultory reflections when I realised that I had been scooped, and that there actually is a rather interesting account of institutions, the best formulation of which can be found, again, in an article by Christophe Heintz. The model develops arguments originally presented by Dan Sperber in other texts. The main point here is that institutions can be studied in the framework of the deflationary ontology of cognitive anthropology. In the same way as “cultures” are patterns of distribution of mental representations in groups of people, “institutions” can be defined and studied without assuming that they are a separate level or domain of reality.
Sperber and Heintz characterise institutions in terms of, would you believe it, an epidemiology of representations. In particular, institutions are sets of representations that include normative representations about the distribution of representations. As Heintz puts it:
"Institutions involve at least two levels of representations: a higher level of regulatory representations and a lower level of representations whose content and distribution is in accordance with regulatory representations. […] Understanding the role of institutions in cultural evolution then consists in describing the causal chains that link the mental representations and the public productions of the institutions together, and accounting for the causal effect of the regulative representations."
To take the example of law courts, these work because of distributed representations (about what the laws are, what the definitions of various actions are, what constitutes property, etc. etc.) as well as normative notions about who holds what representations (defining the various roles of plaintiff, judge, defendant, etc., as well as scripts for their interaction).
This account of institutions illustrates a reductionist approach to the ontology of social phenomena. Which is a Good Thing, of course. A standard anti-reductionist rejoinder is that there are many instantiations (low-level realizations) of a given higher level entity, institutions too. So there may be indefinitely many ways in which different participants mentally represent the workings of the law-court, with no overlap at all between these individual versions – so the judicial system exists independently of these mental representations.
Let us leave aside this question (which is actually no problem at all, and can be quickly solved by any social scientist worth his/her salt), and turn to cognition.
The standard economic account
The Sperber-Heintz account is quite interesting – and perhaps even valid! But it is also, to put it mildly, a tad abstract – it will need considerable fleshing out before we can say that cognitive anthropologists have a viable framework to understand institutions. In particular, it seems to me that this is a place where cognitive anthropology could start where economics left off, and solve complex issues that institutional economists consider out of their bailiwick.
The tradition of economic thought called “institutional economics”, founded by Douglass North and others, described institutions as “rules of the game”, either formal or informal, that regulate property rights, the enforcement of contracts and other such indispensable elements of economic growth. For instance, commercial law (formal) and scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours reciprocity (informal) are among institutions in this sense. The good thing about institutions is that they reduce transaction costs – given that the latter include the cost of contract-enforcement.
Since these rules benefit everybody but are also costly to design and enforce, who provides them? Institutions invariably include constraints on the behavior of participants, so how is that solved? Finally, free-riders should be avoided, and punishing them is also costly.
The various answers in the neo-institutional literature are in the form of historical development. The idea is that in some special circumstances, a slight change to previous institutional arrangements, e.g. in the direction of better property rights, can accrue prospective benefits to may agents – enough of them to agree to enforce the modified rules. This suggests that a long historical development can result in such arrangements. But economists generally agree that these suggestions do not amount to an overall account of institutional development.
Everyone gets institutions wrong
If the reductionist agenda is to be followed – and it is, it is – we will have to address the paradox, that most people who participate in institutions seem to have the wrong ontology! For instance, in many human groups we find marriage institutional arrangements, that we can perfectly well describe in the Sperber-Heintz way as combining shared representations about duties and rights, together with a set of normative rules about the distribution of these representations. Fine (although pretty difficult to achieve), but this account typically clashes with the participants’ intuitions. For most people in the world (except a few social scientists), marriage is something that is not just the occurrence of particular concepts and norms in people’s minds. Marriage is also… well, at that point people typically become rather vague, but they generally feel that the compelling nature of institutions shows that they are, somehow, in a mysterious way, “more” than the particulars of people’s specific social interactions.
In many cases, this intuition of “something more” adds great support to other assumptions, e.g. that the gods or ancestors created the social institutions, or that social norms are eternal and inviolable. But you do not need supernatural beliefs to stick to the non-reductionist intuition. In the US, for instance, a substantial number of people are all in favour of granting gay folks all the rights they want , including the standard form of legally binding union, except that that should not be called “marriage”. This nominalist anxiety is immune to all standard liberal arguments (e.g. “How does it change your marriage, or any other heterosexual marriage, that two same-sex people also call their union a marriage?”) because it is not just about words, I suppose, but (among other things) about something much more anxiety-inducing, the suggestion that institutional arrangements are nothing else than what we decide they are.
A similar form of intuition also applies to money. Even though money works only through the distributed trust of many people in the exchange value of some debt, it is often considered to have its own value beyond that. One could, I think, consider many other domains and find that people generally assume some form of non-reductionist ontology of institutions.
And they are, of course, very, very wrong. But why is that illusion so pervasive?
Do people have to be wrong about institutions?
There may well be functional aspects to the notion of super-organic institutions. One could speculate that this kind of cognitive illusion is necessary to coordination. The latter would in principle require that agents have accurate representations of each other’s goals, norms and concepts. In any group larger than bands of foragers, this would constitute a computational problem well beyond ordinary human capacities. People who represent norms and institutions as supra-individual can use them as a (usually very reliable) instrument to predict other agents’ future behaviors. The scientifically valid explanation of the workings of law courts is just massively non-intuitive and computationally expensive, while the notion of a “justice system” divorced from people’s singular circumstances is cognitively cheaper.
This would make institutional beliefs rather similar to other phenomena, like the pervasive anthropomorphization of social groups. It is almost impossible to discuss large-scale social interactions without using the idiom of intentional psychology (“the committee wanted this…”, “the government will not accept that…”, “the bourgeoisie has had to accept that…”, etc.), although any decent social scientist can tell you that this is both ontologically misguided and predictively very poor.
But a useful illusion has to come from somewhere. Since we evolved in the context of small groups without complex social institutions of the kind discussed here, what elements of our fitness-driven cognitive tool-box make it possible to think of super-organic social institutions?