Sociocultural Evolution: Institutions as Survivor Machines

Like the concept culture, institution has so many definitions that it is may be a useless term in the long-run (for a much more in-depth take, see Abrutyn 2014). Nonetheless, sociology, according to Durkheim (1895), is the science of institutions. Institutions were, for him, the “collective ways of thinking and acting” that patterned life across a population, and intergenerationally. For my purposes, institutions are defined as macro-structural and cultural spheres of social reality that (1) carve out physical, temporal, social, and symbolic space that (2) contains horizontal and vertical divisions of labor and, (3) which shapes the cognitive, affectual, and moral experience of a significant proportion of the population. Thus, institutions cross cut all three levels of social reality (macro, meso, micro), and impact the way people feel, think, and do.

Universal Institutions
In a previous essay, I argued that there were universal human concerns, or basic exigencies that could become salient under the right conditions. There are correspondingly, universal institutions – or institutions we see in every society. Kinship, polity, economy, religion, law, and, many argue, education are the six most obvious suspects. One might add military, but I stick with Weber here and suggest that though the military is often a distinct collective vis-a-vis the polity in many times and places, its principle functions, goals, and so forth are not that distinct from the polity (cf Mann 1986).

To this list, it is plausible to add more recently autonomous institutional spheres like medicine (Starr 1982), science (Merton 1979), art (Becker 1982), and some sort of conglomeration of media (Luhmann 2000), entertainment (Abrutyn and Turner 2011), and sport (Abrutyn 2018). These institutions are secondary to the list above, as they usually are deeply embedded in the structure and culture of one or more of the six universal institutions until only recently. Art, for instance, was first a component of the political sphere, as political elite built a luxury good meta-market (Richards and Van Buren 2001), followed by it being embedded in the religious sphere and then the economic sphere.

Survivor Machines?
Jon Turner (2010) refers to institutions as the fundamental unit of cultural evolution, though he does not deny multi-level processes. Institutions are one of the only units of sociological inquiry capable of (a) lasting multiple generations, (b) patterned feeling, thinking, and doing for enough of a given population such that the societal structure and culture endures – even in the face of selection pressures, and (c) spreading to other populations either through conquest/colonization, human capital (e.g., developing country A sends elite to universities in developed country B who then bring institutional ideas from B back to A [Meyer et al. 1992]), cultural transmission/diffusion/imitation, and so forth. This is not to say a given innovation cannot be adopted, like the plow, but evolutionary transformation is likely to occur not only with the borrowing of the material culture, but also the cognitive, affectual, and moral dimensions of using it, making sense of how it changes the divisions of labor, and so on.

Institutional Autonomy
When we say, then, that institutions evolve, what exactly are we talking about? There are, of course, myriad ways to think about this, but I have argued that the evolution of their autonomy is essential to understanding the general evolution of human societies, and to understanding the specific evolution of various cases. By autonomy, I mean that (1) the structure and culture of an institutions grows increasing discrete vis-a-vis other institutions; (2) it develops a “core” in which the universal concerns it deals in are tangibly and intangibly produced and distributed; (3) a unique status hierarchy predicated on the distinctive culture emerges that fuses with other types of intra-institutional rewards to foster commitment to the institutional culture and attachment to the institutional identity people internalize; (4) physical, temporal, social, and symbolic space are carved out that externally and internally (cognitively) cue actors as to “what is happening”; and, (5) a significant portion of the population comes to recognize the institutional sphere and its core as real, and, simultaneously, the (primary or only) source for meeting certain concern and a center of authority (and, therefore, domination/power).

Institutions do not just have or lack autonomy, but rather it grows or shrinks. The more autonomy an institution has, the more distinctive the sphere becomes, and the more identifiably unique the goals, actions, attitudes, sources of status and power, and so on become vis-a-vis other institutions. 5000 years ago, as the polity grew autonomous, political goals and actions became differentiated from their kinship counterparts. That does not mean lines are not blurred, or political actions can be intended or motivated by other institutional spheres, rather they are distinct analytically in the minds of most people and judged corrupt when believed to be about something other than political criteria. Of course, religious motivations, as one example, could shape political actions and goals, but because the two institutions tend to deal in very different logics, the outcomes may not be necessarily successful. A drought can be dealt with through political expediency and the use of rational means to resolving it (Scott 1998) or by appealing to the gods to intervene, and leaving it up to chance. Both may, in the short run, be successful, but the odds favor the former over the long run and, hence, polities that differentiate political goals from other types are more likely to survive (and, thus, more likely to reproduce themselves intergenerationally and cross-culturally, as other group’s adopt what seems to work or have it imposed upon them through conquest).

There is much more to be said about institutions that I have said in various other outlets (Abrutyn 2009, 2013, 2014a, 2014b, 2016), so I will save an exhaustive discussion of autonomy for a later date. For now, this is the master process, I think, for understanding how institutional domains become survivor machines and the primary unit of social evolution. I do, however, want to talk a little more about the ontological nature of autonomous institutions.

Are They Real?
One of the criticisms my own work has received, and indeed macrosociology has suffered since at the least Homans’ (1958) masterpiece, are questions about whether institutions are real in the same sense as a dyad or an interaction – both of which can be directly observed and measured. Yes! They are real. Malinowski (1958) cogently demonstrated that law, even where full-time legal actors and systematic codes were lacking, was understood as different from other types of institutional rules like kinship custom or religious norms. But, with autonomy, institutions become increasingly tangible phenomena. And, they become the most important unit of sociocultural evolution precisely because their realness stretches across every level of social reality.

Macro: 5,000 years ago, or so, the political institution grew autonomous vis-a-vis the kinship sphere (Abrutyn 2013). That is, archaeology and textual evidence show that the four dimensions of structural and cultural space (physical/temporal/social/symbolic) were carved up in ways that affected most of the population consciously (monumental architecture was designed to make people feel small in the presence of the political) and unconsciously (public space affected the daily rounds of life – walking, economic exchange, etc.). In Mesopotamia, the Palace, for instance, was usually located on a hill and surrounded by a miniature city whose denizens served the Palace; around this mini-city was a wall, and then the city itself, and then a defensive wall (Yoffee 2005). Additionally, a pattern that carried on from these early agrarian states was the placement of the most important temple in the capital, often near the Palace as it had important economic functions (e.g., grain storage) besides its religious function (Richards and Van Buren 2001).

Today, in every city of a certain size, we see the physical demarcation of space. Many cities have areas that are comprised of courthouses, law offices, bail bondsmen, police headquarters, jails, and some sort of governmental office. Economic spaces – industrial parks; malls – are differentiated from kinship spaces (neighborhoods); the list goes on.

But, these institutions also carve out temporal space. Working/business hours v. family hours; political and religious holidays; school days v. family vacation. Further, they carve out social space (which will be discussed more below), and symbolic space. Palaces, as noted above, like temples were designed to be big, imposing, representative of power beyond the average person’s purview. Ornate style further supported this. But, even functional architecture serves as symbolic distinction: in a major city, a hospital is legible to most people vis-a-vis a Catholic church, a federal building, a university/school, and a block of row houses. The actors we see walking around reinforce these distinctions. I’ll never forget when I moved to Los Feliz in LA, and drove down Sunset off of Vermont and saw the Scientology headquarters fully surrounded by a massive medical complex. The irony was palpable. Doctors and nurses walking to and fro, while this very different building with extraordinarily different function and culture sat quietly in the background.

Meso: Institutions are also comprised of congeries of organizational actors. If we imagine a given institution as having a “core” or a center in which the institution is made and remade daily – physically, temporally, socially, and symbolically – than we can imagine that there are real actors, usually organized into organizational units, responsible for this reproduction. The US polity, for instance, has three obvious physical sites of daily reproduction: the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court. We are not always privy to the processes themselves, but we believe that they are active. Surrounding these “core” sites are myriad support actors whose activities are rather mundane and even less visible – e.g., the IRS, FBI, civil bureaucracies across various Cabinet-level Departments. There are also “liaisons” actors, whose primary function is the translation of other institutional actors’ concerns into the appropriate language of another institution, and then re-translating the institution’s decisions. For example, lobbyists act in the interests of economic, religious, educational, medical, and scientific actors by transforming them into political language and then translating them back again. Finally, every institutional sphere has an environment that stretches from the core into overlapping interstices between institutional spheres. Here various actors go about their business, sometimes orienting themselves to the core (e.g., voting, watching/reading political news), sometimes completely unaware of the polity’s activities or existence.

In theory, every institution can have this diverse array of collective units producing, reproducing, supporting, translating, and so forth. The greater the size and density of an institution’s meso-level, the more distinct its structure and, very likely, its culture. That is, the more collectives there are, the harder it is to manage them by way of a distant institutional core (Rueschemeyer 1986). A second corollary here, is that the greater the number of collectives and the greater the difficulty of managing, externally, the greater is the integrity of the institution’s ability to meet human concerns.

Micro: And, thus, at the micro-level, we see actors going about their daily lives. Perhaps not consciously noticing the Catholic Church or courthouse they walk by everyday to their job. But, on a Sunday, before or after mass, or on the day of a high profile case, they will become aware of the institutional sphere. More importantly, as institutional spheres become autonomous, they are socialized into a world in which compartmentalized generic roles like doctor, judge, athlete, president, parent, artist, scientist, priest/rabbi/imam/etc are simply taken for granted. And, along with these roles, their statuses are taken for granted, as are the divisions of labor that these roles operate within, as are the differences – great or small – between political and kinship goals; religious and economic actions; artistic v. scientific v. religious ways of knowing.

In many ways, then, this is why the divide between urban and rural organization and people is so pronounced. In a big city, physical, temporal, social, and symbolic space are actually and intersubjectively carved into institutional spheres. In a small town, “main street” may house the most powerful economic actors (and the Chamber of Commerce), the main church dignified folk belong to, City Hall, and, not far from it – especially before cars – the neighborhood everyone wants to live in. The boundaries between spheres are blurred, and so are the roles and divisions of labor. The world looks very differently.

Yet, even in these small towns, the wider world is imposed upon them as politics at the local may indistinguishable from economics or religion, yet politics at the state or federal level care little about the local religious or economic concerns. Federal buildings – not just post offices, but prisons, social security offices, and so forth – ensure the physical, social, and symbolic presence of the larger political sphere, while national holidays – even idiosyncratically celebrated – are the temporal reminder of power above and beyond. Indeed, while Marx conceptualized town and country as the great growing chasm of human evolution, I would reframe it and argue that it is the local and the global (or, perhaps, a better fitting term for the latter).

In future essays, this divide will be a central topic as will the agentic side of evolution. For now, it is enough to posit that institutions are indeed the survivor machines of cultural evolution, as they alone are capable of crystallizing or sedimentizing cultural innovations into routinized patterns of activity, physical space, time, architecture, social relationships, generalized role positions, and so forth.




About Seth Abrutyn

Theorist. Institutional evolutionary teleological existentialist. Interested in emotions, social psychology, macro-historical social change, suicide, and why/how patterned thinking, feeling, and doing clusters in some collectives and not others.
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1 Response to Sociocultural Evolution: Institutions as Survivor Machines

  1. Pingback: On Institutional Entrepreneurship | Seth Abrutyn, PhD

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