Jun 02 2009

Riding the Bus: a lesson in institutional adaptation

by at 4:03 pm under Uncategorized

Riding the bus to class is perhaps the not best way to observe people, but it is a good way to look at institutions. Institutions in the sense that all people have formal, informal and transitional views which shape other institutions. On the bus, people act certain ways depending on whether they are willing to share the seat next to them, talk or even approve or disapprove of another bus patron’s behavior.

DC Metro Bus

DC Metro Bus

Example: This morning I got on the bus and a woman was screaming when she exited the bus, when I got on the bus the people on the bus appeared disgusted (thus, glaring at the perpetrator in unison) because loud boisterous noise is not an acceptable social norm on the bus. On the bus, if there is someone who does not adhere to these norms, most of the time it is evident the person has rejected a standard of behavior because of the ways others react. They react this way also because they know the bus driver could be distracted by the screaming (and because they want to be safe).

Civic engagement on every level can make or break the success of a policy or plan. According to Robert Putnam, those “seemingly ‘self-interested’ transactions take on a different character” even more so “when they are embedded in these social networks which foster mutual trust” (Putnam, 89). Perhaps this would provide insight into how involvement in local, national and global institutions can lead to development on those levels.

Giant Ant Hill

Giant Ant Hill

So what is the state of national and global institutions today—that is, how adaptive are they and does this affect their performance? I would argue that the ability of a national or global institution depends on those who are involved in it. An ant hill is only as strong as it continues to produce generations of ants and decomposes of messes (and certainly ants will eat whatever is in their path even if that means adapting to a picnic in the middle of their turf). Democracy similarly is sustained by those who participate in it.

Citizens, expect governments to follow the high standards which they have set because of pre-existing norms and institutions—and in turn are willing to also obey the rules the government imposes (Putnam, 111). Robert Putnam also points out that citizens in more involved regions are able to express the need for changes and adaptation freely, while those who live in less civic regions become supplement to the “ancient plague of political corruption” (Putnam, 111).

National institutions often use power as their driving force rather than adaptability. Similarly, institutions often have a pull in the governments of states. Sometimes those institutions stretch beyond borders and are constantly adapting and changing. A functioning state would complement the functions of informal institutions working on a national or global level (Narayan, 15).

Information, its decimation, and transformation are often dependent on how adaptable the institution releasing it is. Formal and informal constraints often open and close doors for policy makers and even those trying to work within a social or economic structure and make change. Adaptation is often a result of changes because of cultural evolution—which includes “accidents, learning, and natural selection” (North, 87). However, often radical changes bring about shock in institutions and fear of the unknown, rather than adaptability. Often informal rules are supplanted by formal rules with constraints that hinder the process of adaptation. Douglas North says this is ideology creates an “unresolved tension” which can result in long-term instability (North, 140).

Team Work

Team Work

So, the national or global institution will only be as strong and perform as well as its constraints are adaptable to the informal social institutions—there needs to be cohesion of the institution and the developmental plan or some sort of common goal (Narayan, 40). Creating a willingness to adapt the plan to meet the needs and consider the previous functioning institutions is also key to avoiding conflict and developing in a way that benefits the people involved rather than just politicians or investors.

How would the cohesion and adaptation of institutions change a bus experience? I got the answer when the woman got off the bus. Eventually, societal norms (institutions) become the accepted norm–not only is there a formal rule about distracting the driver, there is an understanding that people should respect the other riders on the bus as well.

No responses yet | Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Comments RSS

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.