Social capital Institutions

Posted September 1999

Institutions and organising practices: Conceptual discussion

by Monique Nuijten
Department of Rural Development Sociology
Agricultural University Wageningen, The Netherlands
Summary version of a draft for discussion prepared for the FAO Rural Development Division. The opinions expressed in this paper are the author's and do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.


In recent years, the trends toward market-led growth, trade liberalisation, privatisation and the state's reduced role in economic development, have developed alongside institutional reforms undertaken in many developing countries. In the context of this changing environment, it is important to arrive at a better understanding of the manifold ways in which rural households - and different members of the household - are linked to different institutional settings and how these links are affected by neo-liberal reforms. These insights are necessary in order to formulate policy recommendations aimed at strengthening the institutional environment for households most affected by macro policy.

Although rural local institutions and their possible role in development is a much discussed theme in development policy circles, the debates show serious limitations. Many discussions tend to focus on the community and the way in which institutions contribute to the achievement of collective goals. Much less attention is paid to the way in which individual households are embedded in multiple institutional settings at the same time and how this is related to household livelihood strategies. In addition, too little attention is paid to institutional forms which are not characterised by "collective" goals; these are better described as clusters of relationships that have developed over time and have turned into practical rules structuring the access to resources. This document presents a discussion of the ways in which institutions are defined in different debates on development issues. It argues that the study of institutions should be combined with the study of organising practices based on recent anthropological insights.

Organisations and institutions: the development debate

Everybody realises that institutions play an important role in our daily lives and many development projects attribute central roles to local institutions for improving the situation of the poor. However, a quick look at the many subjects which come together under the umbrella institution makes clear the need to be explicit about the way in which we use the concept when referring to our specific projects.

Institutions that play a role in rural livelihoods
state bureaucracies
the family
caste system
land property rights
rules, laws, constitutions
the household
labour associations
migrant associations
indigenous cargo systems
local government
kinship exchange networks
a contract
private firms
credit unions
users associations

The fact that the concept institution covers almost everything explains that in many project designs the institutional environment is used as a black box. It is given a central role in the model, but its content remains spectacularly unclear. If institutions are defined more explicitly, it is often done in a very narrow way. The focus tends to be placed on formal organisations, such as credit unions, cooperatives, and official land tenure arrangements. This is understandable since such formal institutions are the most "visible" ones, while more informal ways in which, for example, access to land is organised, are much harder to grasp.

Authors who are aware of the importance of the more informal institutional configurations often change the word organisation to group and add the word informal (e.g., informal credit groups, informal production groups, youth groups, women's groups, groups of migrants, etc.) Although this extends the number of institutions, and broadens our vision on the institutional context it does not necessarily help us to obtain a good, overall picture of the institutional setting in which households are involved. The problem is that much of the organising households are involved in does not take the form of groups either. Clearly, the conceptual and methodological questions are not resolved by using words like "informal", "group", "networks", etc. The central question remains the same: how can we grasp the dynamics of the different institutional arrangements in which households are involved without imposing artificial (empty) categories?

The next fundamental question we should ask is what role we think local institutions can play in development. This question is essential since much development literature gives a central role to collective forms of organisation and local institutions for improving the situation of the poor (Esman and Uphoff 1984, Korten 1987, Harris 1988, Curtis 1991). In this line of thought, development workers try to "empower the poor" by helping them to develop better forms of organisation. Today local communities and local organisations are also given a special role in natural resource management. Many works on sustainable development formulate solutions in terms of returning responsibility for the management of natural resources to local communities (Ghai D. and Vivian J. 1992, Berkes 1995, Baland and Platteau 1996).

Although these works are based on a real concern for the position of the poor, several of them can be criticised for their unrealistic views on the relation between organising and power and for their simple use of the notion of community. Firstly, some approaches tend to ignore the multi-dimensional differentiations among the poor or rural people themselves based on economic differences, gender, age, and ethnic identities. Leach et al. complain that "it is striking the degree to which simplistic notions of community are being reinvented in the context of practical efforts towards community-based sustainable development" (Leach et al. 1997: 11). Secondly, even though several approaches claim to start from existing forms of organising, working from a "bottom-up view", they do not really take into account the existing situation. As Orstrom points out, "the institutions that individuals may have established are ignored or rejected as inefficient, without examining how these institutions may help them acquire information, reduce monitoring and enforcement costs, and equitably allocate appropriation rights and provision duties" (1995: 216).

Many of these works do not try to understand why, in many situations, people prefer to work in loose personal networks instead of collective projects, or why we find villagers working in continuously changing constellations instead of in more enduring groups. However, in some regions it may be more important for rural households to be involved in constellations of social networks which cross the border of the local community, rather than in local collective organisations. Although it is obvious that collective forms of organisation and different institutions can make a contribution to improve the situation of poor households, some attention must be paid to the possible disadvantages and dangers involved in collective organising. In certain regions more formalised collective actions may imply political dangers and risks. More informal and individualised forms of organising have the advantage that they remain, to a large degree, outside the control of the state bureaucracy. Although in development debates the so-called informal or corrupt practices are considered to be detrimental to the poor, they can also provide them with a certain freedom and liberty in their actions (see Appadurai 1997 on resistance to techniques of nationhood and Hirschman 1970 on "exit" from the system). This is especially the case when the state has the reputation of being unpredictable, dangerous, and sometimes violent.

Although it is easily accepted that villagers are conscious of the risks involved in engaging the state bureaucratic machine, it is more difficult to see that villagers may be equally reluctant to become involved in "local" or "community based" organisations. Yet, villagers may have good reasons to be reluctant about involvement in any type of more formal organisation. In many regions it seems impossible to think of any "village" or "community based" organisation in which the state does not become involved in one way or the other. As Gupta describes the situation in India, what is most striking "is the degree to which the state has become implicated in the minute texture of everyday life" (Gupta 1995: 375). Furthermore, there are many situations in which it can be important for people to remain outside the more formalised forms of organising, whether these are governmental, non-governmental, local, community based or similar organisations. This means that we should study the various agents and social actors that play a role in specific situations (Long 1997). Only when we understand the logic of existing forms of organising in the context of wider power relations and relations with the state, can we begin to think about devising strategies for developmental organisation and institution-building.

Organisations, institutions and organising practices in a development context

The approach to institutions and organisations in different disciplines

When we look at the literature, it is clear that the terms institution and organisation are often used interchangeably. Furthermore, different disciplines and sub-disciplines, such as organisation sociology, new institutional economics, economic sociology, and anthropology use the concepts in different ways. Even within one discipline there is no agreement on the use of these concepts.

Most works that try to distinguish between organisations and institutions tend to stress the normative aspects of institutions while stressing the structural aspects of organisations. For example, Uphoff argues that organisations are structures of recognised and accepted roles, which may operate on a formal or informal basis. Moreover, he defines institutions as complexes of norms and behaviour. To the extent that an organisation has acquired special status and legitimacy for having satisfied people's needs and for having met their normative expectations over time, one can say that an organisation has become 'institutionalised' (Uphoff 1986: 8).

The new institutional economists also stress the normative, ruling-side, which define institutions. For example, North defines institutions as 'humanly devised constraints that structure human interaction. They are made up of formal constraints (rules, laws, constitutions), informal constraints (norms of behaviour, conventions and self-imposed codes of conduct), and their enforcement characteristics' (North 1990). In new institutional economics these practical rules are seen as the core element of the institution. For example, Orstom, defines institutions as the set of rules actually used (the working rules or rules-in-use) by a set of individuals to organise repetitive activities that produce outcomes affecting those individuals and potentially affecting others (Ostrom 1990). This view on institutions has been widely used in the debate on common property management.

The organisation sociologist Scott defines institutions in the following way: "Institutions consist of cognitive, normative, and regulative structures and activities that provide stability and meaning to social behaviour. Institutions are transported by various carriers - cultures, structures, and routines - and they operate at multiple levels of jurisdiction" (1995: 33). According to Scott, institutionalists call attention to the role of beliefs, rules, and social and political elements in the structure and operation of organisations.

In many definitions on organisations and institutions alike, reference is made to collective actions and collective goals. For example, Uphoff argues that institutions are complexes of norms and behaviours that persist over time by serving collectively valued purposes' (1986: 9). In the context of natural resource management, Berkes and Folke, argue that "institutions have to deal with the two fundamental management problems that arise from the two basic characteristics of all such resources: how to control access to the resource (the exclusion problem), and how to institute rules among users to solve the potential divergence between individual and collective rationality (the subtractability problem)" (Berkes and Folke 1997 : 7,8). Yet, we should be careful with the notion of collective goals. With respect to natural resource management it may be the researcher or policy maker who perceives or determines the collective goal (sustainable natural resource management) and not necessarily the actual stakeholders. The people involved in collective actions may all have different goals. Hence, collective goals should not be taken as a central element in the definition of organisations or institutions. Instead, we should focus more on the power differences that are created by organisations, as well as the distinctions they produce. This is especially important if we want to study the mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion, which are part and parcel of any organisation and institution.

An anthropological approach: organising practices

Much of the academic work that has been done on organising processes has been largely neglected in the development literature. As Shepherd points out, "local-level organisation is a field where greatly improved academic understanding has often not been translated into practice" (1998: 13). Several anthropologists, for example, have developed perspectives on organisation, which are useful for the development debate. They have argued that that there are many ways in which rural people organise activities in their daily life. For most of these matters no organisations are set up but networks are mobilised which provide crucial information, financial support, and practical help. Moreover, the ways in which rural people manage to circumvent the law or resist forms of oppression is a clear indication that people are very inventive and skilful in organising different personal matters and in defending their own interests in their daily lives (see Wolf 1990, Long 1990).

In the action patterns and strategies that we can distinguish when individual people or groups try to achieve certain objectives, we can often find forms of structuring or patterning. It is argued that the patterning of organising processes is not the result of a common understanding or normative agreement, but of the forces at play within the field. Organising practices are closely related to forms of inclusion and exclusion of socio-political categories. Based on these views, a force field can be defined as a field of power and struggle between different social actors. This tends to focus around certain resources or problems and may develop into forms of dominance, contention, and resistance, as well as certain regularities and forms of ordering (see Nuijten 1998). This notion of force field resembles Bourdieu's notion of a field (1992: 94-115). According to Bourdieu, every field has its own logic, rules and regularities which are not explicit; it can most closely be compared to game playing.

Within this perspective, social theorising, reflexive talk and story telling by social actors are a central part of the organising process. By studying the reflective talk and dialogue around different forms of organising it is shown how these express forms of struggle, contention and resistance in relation to power relations. The fact that people everywhere are in a critical, reflective dialogue with the world in which they live, with themselves and with development workers is also very well illustrated in the works of Pigg (1996, 1997) and Tsing (1993) and de Vries(1992).

Basic assumptions of an organising practices approach
- We often find organising practices in non-formalised forms, such as personal networks (family, friendship, compadrazgo), group-formations, individual alliances, ad-hoc constellations, and individual relations with officials or higher placed politicians.

- When we study these apparently loosely structured organising practices in relation to specific problems or resources over a longer period of time, we may discover certain forms of patterning and regularities. This patterning can refer to the ways in which access to resources is usually arranged, but also to forms in which accountability normally takes place, the way in which conflicts are dealt with, and so on.

- In these structured organising practices, the official law, formal rules, and procedures normally only play an indirect and partial role. The formal organisational or institutional structure normally is only indirectly related to the "real way" in which things are organised.

- The forms of patterning in organising practices are linked to the development of fields of power relations (force fields). These force fields generally transcend local and even national borders.

- In relation to the patterning of organising practices and the force fields that develop we can distinguish actors with different roles, and different access to resources. For that reason, it is important to distinguish the central resources at stake, processes of domination, and the different categories of people with specific positions and interests.

- In relation to these structured organising practices and forms of domination, languages of differing rights develop. Reflexive talk and story-telling by different categories of people refer to these differing forms of access and processes of domination.

from: Nuijten 1998

It is clear that the concepts institution and organising practices are closely linked. Especially when organising practices become more structured and seem to follow certain implicit rules, they are very similar to institutions. Yet, there are fundamental differences in approach. Firstly, many structures in society are informal; they consist primarily of regularised practices which persist over time, rather than any fixed set of rules or regulations (Leach et al. 1997, Crowley and Appendini 1998). These will be more easily discovered by a study of organising practices than by a study that focuses on institutions. Secondly, a study of organising practices can enhance our insight into the ways in which more structured forms may or may not develop. It can also explain why more individualised and fragmented forms of organising often prevail without leading to collective projects. And it may offer suggestions for policy recommendations towards strengthening certain informal forms of organising. Thirdly, an important focus in studies of organising practices are conflicts and tensions. This differs from many studies of institutions which tend to focus on collective goals or functions. One of the central assumptions about the organising practices approach is that all forms of organising are linked to relations of power. Hence, subtle processes of inclusion and exclusion, in which many different elements together determine how certain groups arrive at privileged access to resources, can more easily be studied. Fourthly, studies of organising practices will prevent us from the tendency to reify organisations. Formal organisations, their rules and procedures normally only form a small and indirect part of the ways in which life is organised.

Differences between studies of institutions and organising practices
- starts with the idea of structures
- dynamic of each separate institution
- the complete institutional lay-out
Organising practices
- starts with activities
- the combined influence of different institutions
- only those elements of institutions that are relevant

The stress on organising practices does not mean, however, that we should ignore the existence of formal rules or downplay the importance of institutions or formal organisations. On the contrary, it can be argued that by combining studies of different types of institutions with studies of organising practices, one can arrive at insights that are necessary to formulate adequate policy recommendations.


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