Are We All Institutionalized?

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.