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Types of institutions

art 481

Institutions can be grouped in different levels according to their characteristics

– Level 0 Institutions (from now on L-0i). Subjective and Non-Formalized Institutions.

Its most significant institution is the language. The language is not only a vehicle for communication, it’s also a mechanism of conception through which we construct the world around us. Thanks to a language we communicate stories with our peers and try to reach an agreement about what is canonical in our culture and how to deal with the exceptions. Language allows us to preserve a culture and makes it easier to pass it on to other societies. So, basically the language allows people to create and transmit stories, stories that let people to define themselves, to explain their thoughts, to objectify the perception of reality, to share this reality and to justify the unknown. All this is awesome. As a downside, language, even for the ones that really master it, can never offer such a direct and transparent knowledge about the other one as the natural communication does. That is to say, to verbalize, «I kiss you» it will never be like kissing you.q

Language is not as good as the real thing, but the capacity to talk helps a lot in keeping up the strength of the bonds in a group. Thanks to a tool like the language people may have knowledge of themselves. They may be aware of what they can and cannot do, what fears or virtues do they have, what do they like or dislike, etc. By talking people come to understand each other and when this happens it’s easier to behave considering the other people in the group. There is no need to establish any rule or law when people already know what the other ones will do.


With level 0 institutions, the distance between people and reality, including the other people’s mind, is quite small, because there are very few institutions intermediating their relations. People can sense nature, group and other persons, therefore there is a strong sense of community and of belonging to the nature, which usually gives rise to animistic conceptions of nature and the unknown. When there are almost no rules people and nature seems to be closer. In other words, the less institutions you need, the closer to nature and people usually you will get.
In a group society where the predominant institutions are those of level 0, people with more experience and wisdom usually become institutions themselves. There are no other vessels of knowledge so what they say is accepted as correct.

This is the first stage of any culture and is characteristic of hunter-gatherer societies, clans, families, friends, etc. any group where people know other people’s needs and because of this knowledge they could change their behavior, without any rule imposing them to do so.


– Level 1 Institutions (from now on L-1i). Objective and Formalized Institutions.

The Institution is defined and explained. With these words we mean that when there is to much people in a group, one can not act and plan ahead solely on the assumption that everyone knows very well all the other group members. When a group reaches a certain number of members, its members have to start creating rules and the group has to enable a space for communication where people can debate those rules, explain them, formalize its uses and deal with the problems.

In a Level 0 Institutions’ society, the knowledge about the others persons was always obtained through interpersonal relationships but now part of the knowledge is obtained inside this new public space and in this new sphere of communication, public and private begins to split. Communication cannot be as straightforward because now there are two different ways to communicate each one with its own peculiarities.


Once you create public rules, someone has to keep track of them and someone has to in-force and apply them, thus in the public sphere new characters began to appear that may have direct control over the communications in the public space and over the rules created.
When the people in a group formalize its particular way of thinking creating public institutions, it becomes easier for them to establish relationships with other groups. The other groups may not like their rules or traditions but at least they know them. Knowing the other one helps to define your particular ways of seeing the world and allows the groups to get closer to the similar ones or away from the different ones. It also allows tradition to become law, i,e., anything that before was done just because it had always been done this way, now it can be explained, justified and somebody can ensure its compliance. Similarly, experience turns into technology. The technical expertise that anyone could have in any area, when it is structured and formalized, it becomes easier to explain, and once explained it can be shared and improved.


In a L-1i society the possibility to do or not do something no longer depends exclusively in the knowledge of the people, now there are rules and therefore, generally, it’s at least as important to know the rules as it is to know the people in the group. And this weakens mutual trust, because is easier to know the rules than the persons. Why somebody has to waste his/her time talking and getting to know the people? You learn the rules and the ones that control the rules and you are done! Instrumental knowledge gets  reinforced over emotional knowledge.

When the rule is formalized, society begins to differentiate, as the social position is no longer determined only by experience and capabilities, but also by the person’s relation with the institutions. People and institutions validated each other. The social position gives prestige to the person and the person tries to force reconnaissance to his/her institution. For example: in a group with L-0 institutions, a brave and wise person could become the leader. That is to say, someone is a leader because of his/her personal capabilities. When the group is under level 1 institutions, this same person will have to go through a ritual of passage linked with a leadership institution, like the royalty, before he is accepted as a leader; a King. He is still a brave and wise person, but the fact of being a King (institutional position) is as important as his qualities.


We may found this kind of institutions in societies such as agricultural tribal societies, early trade organizations, early cities, etc. In these societies stories are not any more spread throughout the people, instead some institutions begins to control them. L-1i gives cohesion to cultures where oral tradition is still predominant and creates shamanic figures and heroes to deal with the unknown and the myths.

– Level 2 institutions (from now on L-2i). Physical and Timeless Institutions.

Its most significant institution is the scripture. Scripture is not just the invention of a technique of annotation and decryption. To write man had to, in a manner of speaking, «isolate thought” making it an object, a visual representation; a pictogram. Once the representation as been made, the person has before him a part of his/her own thinking. From this point, a second operation it’s possible, to start splitting the pictogram between the visual representation of the object and the object it designates; the concept. Therefore the symbol does not have to mimic the object. Sign and meaning can be distinguished thus it’s possible to change and improve symbols without changing its meanings. At the end of this process the graphical system becomes a script made out of words or letters.


With letters humans can not only fix and share concepts writing them down, they also have a tool for generating signs with different meanings. Anybody -institutions included- potentially can create meanings for the symbols that the members of the society use in a public or private communication. Whoever controls the creation of those pairs (symbol-meaning) has power over the communications inside the community therefore has power over the stories and the culture of this community.

In the oral tradition cultures, such as the ones we’ve seen, to use institutions like the language, or the myths, or some rituals, in order to manage the group increase the distance between the people because you don’t have a direct transparent contact, but face-to-face contact between people is still essential. Whoever wants to know the rules and the group traditions, has to be with the members of the group or with people related with the group, because it’s the very same people, the ones who pass on and explain their institutions and the ones that are the institutions.


Coming back to the earlier example of the kiss, is not the same to kiss Alex than to explain to Alex what you feel when kissing her, but the distance increases further when instead of explaining «your kiss», you write it down for Alex -or anyone- to read it whenever he/she wants.


Upon fixing an institution on a physical medium, for example in a book, there is no need anymore to have a person attached to the institution, in order to explain it to somebody else who wants to learn it or apply the institution somewhere else. In a L-0i and L-1i societies, key persons where the pillars of the society because they were the holders of the ancient knowledge; objects were tools to help people to understand the old knowledge. In a L-2i society the object that vessels the knowledge becomes the pillar of the society and people become tools that aid to understand this knowledge. Rational objective knowledge becomes paramount and people have to create human sensitive institutions to counterbalance the power of institutions.


This is an enormous change. We move from a subjective, active and dynamic knowledge that a person in a society of L-1i has, to a static knowledge -engraved somewhere- that can be transported and shared but not altered. Now it’s not the person who validates the institution but the institution the one that validates the importance of the individual, and since the institution is valuable for its function people related with the institution must emphasized the importance of this function for the good of the group. The objects and the institutional function not the person and his/her stories is what begins to matter in society. The social up-rise of a person in society is therefore linked to the importance of the institutions where he/she belongs or feels committed. There is no need anymore for myths or famous heroes or list of names or genealogies to justify an institution; the institution justifies itself by its role among the other institutions. Myths and heroes are either incorporated into the institution or simply forgotten.


If the importance of an institution is determined by the importance of its role, when the institution delegates some of its own functions in an office or other institution, it has to enhance the importance of this new institution and their subordination to the main institution. For example: the steward of the King is important because the King is very important and the King is important because it’s the head of the institution of monarchy, which in turn is important because it represents the country. Each institution attempts to increase its power by creating new hierarchical networks of subordinate institutions that infiltrate the group as if they were roots of the main institution. The more roots an institution has and the stronger those roots are, the more cohesive the substrate of the society will be and the more immovable the main institution will be … but also the more resources the institution will need and the faster it will consume.


The model of a society where the value of person lays in a title, granted by the people because of skills, knowledge or expertise, is being replaced by a model of society where the value of people lays in the position that people holds inside large institutional hierarchies. In those hierarchies there is a peak that retains all the power and a base that, more or less voluntarily, subordinates themselves to that power. Institutions become very dogmatic and began to influence each other weaving links between them. For instance, monarchical institutions rely on political and religious institutions to reinforce their importance against persons heirs of the oral tradition that refuse to lose their ancient inherited powers. When the public service it’s not the main goal but the service to institution itself, abuse of power and corruption become systemic.

Another crucial aspect of a L-2i society is that once you really understand that a text -which is just a human creation- is made out of signs or icons with a specific meaning, it’s easy to follow up that any sign or icon created may have a specific meaning as well. That is to say, that the reality around us -because was created- may be made out of signs. The world is seen not only as something given, but also as a creation that can be deciphered, as if it was a divine scripting. Everything can be interpretable and it is possible to assign arbitrary meanings to symbols and analyzes the results to guess what should be the correct meaning and forecast its purpose. The educated ones, or the ones favored by the gods, can grasp the meaning of the symbols and determine what is right and what it’s wrong, as well as what kind of action or behavior is closer to gods’ or nature will.


During this shifting from man to objects, from subjective to objective, objects become so important that man is seen as a simple aid. When a creation has, or pretends to have, an embedded meaning the person is a mere channel throughout the one the gods can embed a special meaning to an object. The written words become a sacred book and the book becomes an object of worship and veneration. Creation is due to god’s will, and the man that produces those creations it’s just – at the most- an enlightened man, good enough to grasp or channel through himself god’s will, and often those men are considered just lucky tools with no real relation with the brilliant meaning of his/her creation. In fact as long as nobody knows God’s reasons anybody can become God’s hammer, sword, pencil, hands, brain, voice. The displacement in the assessment of the person towards to the assessment of the objects is further reinforced.


L-2 institutions are not linked to any particular person neither depend upon any person or group in order to be transmitted and applied. Thus a L-2i society may exceed the limits of the tribe, assimilate other tribes and manage empires.


– Level 3 institutions (from now on L-3i). Meta-institutions.

Its most significant institution is the market. Institutions enhance society growth, and a growing society needs more institutions. When this virtuous loop starts, soon the society has more institutions that people can handle by themselves. So, in the same way that institutions were created to manage relations between people, meta-institutions were created to manage relations between institutions. Example of it are: markets for derivative contracts, customs arrangements, Doha agreements, Constitutions or Bill of Rights, IMF, UN, Foreign Exchange Markets, EU, etc.


Meta-institutions can be very powerful so to ensure its independence, meta-institutions have been designed in a specific way that makes them very difficult to be controlled. No one wants a meta-institution, which controls other important institutions, to end up in the hands of a person, or a small gang of people. Problem is that the ultimate guarantee of control and ethical performance of an institution is the person. Once you let Meta-institutions free of any control, the assurance that institution’s goal is the welfare of the people gets lost, because nobody can account it and reinforce it. Without any control, institutions care about nothing but their own interests (market, state, party, business, religion, etc) and people’s needs become a secondary goal.


There is no conspiracy whatsoever in this way of working. Institutions have to be powerful enough to survive as they have to be useful tools to manage society. But without human control the amount of power and resources required to survive is up to the same own Institution, and this is never enough. Therefore, disappears the illusion of an institutional performance with humanitarian values ​​in the society, as the interest of the institutions is its own interest or its parents Meta-institution interests.
Meta-institutions dehumanize so deeply its society and grow so quickly that at one point society simply stops functioning. There are not enough resources to be plunder from the enormous meta-institutional structure neither trust between citizens to push society towards another direction, or to make more sacrifices to satisfy the institutional needs. When meta-institutions lead the system to a crisis -like popular upraises, wars, chaos, financial cracks, genocide, etc.- we stumble upon another drawback of meta-institutions, the ease at which some messianic figures can access the power and control the institutional system


In such a terrible crisis all of the democratic mechanism of control and accountability become outdated and people leave off any hope of a fair and democratic government as long as somebody appears and claims he/she/them can fix the situation. Sometimes a good leader may emerge, a benevolent figure who effectively can lead the situation and dismiss the meta-institutions that are not working and causing all the problems, but there are the same possibilities, or even more, that the emerging figure turns out to be a dictatorship or tyrant who concentrate all the power in his hands with the excuse of saving the population from the crisis or the enemies or whatever ‘evil’ pops up in his/her/their minds.

E.g. and simplifying: Roosevelt was able to intervene USA economy because of the 29 crash that plunged the system. Hitler was able to manipulate the German population because the nation was crashed and demoralized. Lenin was heard and followed because the Russian system was in misery. Gandhi succeeded because the colonial institutions were sinking and didn’t have enough support from the metropolis.


The same applies to smallest crisis. One cannot interfere in a financial market, until it sinks and threatens to sink the whole system. One cannot alter the sovereignty of an extremely corrupted country until it runs into a crisis and threaten the other countries. One cannot modify the law to suit its needs unless its way to big to fall or unless the people is already so full of rage that are about to make a revolution. And one can not change a political party or force it to behave ‘nicely’ until people organize themselves and overtake it rendering the party useless -then the party will quickly change and be very ‘nice’ … for a while.

Each level is its own cultural universe and each level means a bigger detachment between people. When a society is build over level 3 institutions, the institutional detachment from the society is absolute, therefore, no matter who or how people feel, what matters are the rules; the institutions: markets, political parties, state institutions, big organization, trade agreements, tax systems, committees, social theories, laws, etc


Today’s society is based on third level institutions; a network of hierarchically structured and interconnected meta-institutions or institutions with no connection with the real world; people and nature.

And the person discourse isn’t much better. As we said, institutions and persons are both sides of the same coin. Thus a person’s tale has become a huge mash up of markets, IDs, states, laws, organizations, companies, financial organizations, title, trade agreements, etc. The more meta-institutions a human being needs in his personality, the more addicted of meta-institutions will be and the further away he will stay from people and nature.