Institutions as Social Theory - RSA

Institutions as Social Theory


  • Picture of Alexander Titus FRSA
    Alexander Titus FRSA
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Just as the natural sciences aim to model how part of the physical world works, social institutions are working models of their bit of the social world, as a hypothesis or theory about how to achieve something. FRSA Titus Alexander explores the current weaknesses in the social science model and argues that treating institutions as ‘theories’ will increase impact.

The natural sciences comprise of a set of institutions and methods designed to improve our understanding of the physical world. One of the most powerful things science does is to produce theories – models of reality – that are used by others to change the world. The benefits of using science are so great that societies have created many channels to develop and use research to improve the human condition.

Social scientists also seek to improve the human condition. However, the channels from research to application are often weak and most social research is buried in academic papers and books. Some will inform policy via think tanks, civil servants or pressure groups but practitioners and politicians often prefer their own judgement and prejudices, using research only when it suits them. But a working example – the institution as the method – has more influence than a research paper. The evidence is tangible, like an experiment in natural science, and includes all the complexities of real life. It demonstrates its reliability over time and provides proof of what works.


Reflexivity is key to social science

In the physical sciences the investigator is separate from the subject of investigation and she or he has no influence on what they observe. Generally, theories in the human sciences cannot provide this kind of detached explanation, because societies are reflexive. When we study human behaviour we also influence it. People change what they do in response to being studied. They use theories to change their own behaviour or the behaviour of others. Many scholars and practitioners have explored reflexivity, including Albert Bandura, Pierre Bourdieu and the financier George Soros. Anthony Giddens called it the ‘double hermeneutic’.

The fact that society is reflexive is the key to effective social science. Like scientists, societies create systematic detachment to increase objectivity in decision-making, through advisers, boards, regulators, opinion polls and so on. Peer reviewed social science research is a form of detachment, but it is often so detached to be irrelevant.

Social research can become more effective and relevant by treating institutions as social theories. Every institution embodies a collective model or theory about how society works in its area of concern. Most contain greater ability and knowledge than any individual or group within it, because people develop routines and tricks to handle specific problems, whether conscious or even recognised. Institutions include the myths, rituals and stories people tell, unwritten norms and practices, as well as organisational frameworks, funding, policies and external power structures that enable them to exist. Unconscious assumptions, tacit knowledge, hidden habits, symbolic acts, invisible relationships and private personal contacts may play vital roles that are not obvious to observers.

Institutions adapt to changing circumstances, incorporating lessons about how to do things into their systems and procedures. These are passed on through recruitment, training, custom and practice, which are more important than any written handbooks or policies. Institutions do not just reflect society, but also shape it. New institutions can start and grow very fast, like Google, Amazon and Uber, while ancient ones like money, the Catholic church and Chinese state have evolved over millennia. Each one is constantly testing assumptions about how best to influence its environment and thrive in our rapidly changing world.


Social science and practical politics

By treating every institution as a working hypothesis or theory, social research can help people improve the ability of institutions to do what people want and dramatically improve social conditions for everyone, everywhere. Effective institutions enable people to mobilise social power to shape the world, just as natural sciences enable people to unlock powers of nature. The most effective institutions have built-in reflexive processes to gather, test, analyse and use evidence to make them better at what they do. Today’s rapid pace of change – largely a result of innovation in natural sciences – means institutions need to learn and adapt fast. If they fail to do so, social sciences will remain left behind.

Many social institutions do not do a good job in achieving their objectives because their culture and working practices are poor ‘theories’ about how to achieve their purpose. The best institutions are models of continuous improvement, fast feedback and adaptability, using relevant research as well as people’s abilities and experience.

Getting institutions to use research effectively is a political task, so that social scientists must also be good at politics. The rule of law, markets, states, cities, armies, parties, families, schools, hospitals, corporations, science and technology are just a few of the many ways we understand and act in the world. Some of these institutions may be technically successful but environmentally disastrous, while others may be economic liabilities but essential for survival of the species.

Practical politics is the applied science of the humanities. It is how people understand and solve collective problems. By encouraging political competition and subjecting policies to scrutiny by citizens, we hope to create better, more acceptable solutions. Building impartial, non-partisan social research into the political process can help people make better decisions.


A new role for social sciences

Most institutions would benefit from better analysis and research to understand the needs they address and how to meet them better. They are not as innovative, productive or environmentally sustainable as they could be. Society spends a great deal on audit, inspection and regulation, but this knowledge is collected and used in ways that are often poorly designed and not reliable enough to bring about sustained improvement. We also invest in academic institutions to study social problems, but little of this is used, because researchers are encouraged to produce peer-reviewed papers rather than influence institutions.

Shifting the focus of social research from publishing papers to developing institutions as ‘social theories’ could dramatically improve society, just as the natural sciences have improved our use of the material world. This requires a few practical steps.

First, leaders of institutions should become more self-aware and systematic in how they collect and use knowledge to improve their work and innovate to meet their aims. Local and central government should build social research into provision and policymaking at all levels, from local services to global governance. Auditors, regulators and inspection bodies should use social research to create better feedback loops to promote learning and development in the institutions they monitor.

Second, social researchers should work with institutions to help them develop, test and demonstrate the best way of achieving their aims and meeting people’s needs. Social research institutes should also treat their relationships with the media, policymakers and practitioners as part of their primary purpose and the social research process.

Finally, none of this is possible without giving people the right skills. Universities should equip people to become reflective practitioners and develop the skills and knowledge to embed social research into institutions and public policy. All education institutions should develop practical politics as a basic skill, so that everyone can learn how to take part in society as democratic citizens and influence decisions that concern them, because how society runs is ultimately accountable to them.

Politics is about applying knowledge of how the world works to solve social problems and make institutions work better for people. As I have argued elsewhere, we need to improve people’s practical political skills if we are to enable our global society to become more resilient and responsive in the turbulent century ahead. This is not a theoretical argument, but a profoundly practical one about the nature of knowledge, society, education and our survival as a species.

Titus Alexander FRSA, is an independent scholar, founder of Democracy Matters UK and author of Practical Politics: Lessons in Power and Democracy, Family Learning: Foundations of Effective Education (Demos 1997) and Unravelling Global Apartheid: An Overview of World Politics (Polity Press, 1996). You can download free extracts from and contact Titus at [email protected]

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