Institutional Behavior

Chapter 1: The Behavior We Call Our Institutions

Floyd Henry Allport

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AT A MEETING of the faculty of a certain large university a proposal for a new administrative policy was being discussed. The debate was long and intense before a final vote of adoption was taken. As the professors filed out of the room an instructor continued the discussion with one of the older deans.

"Well," observed the latter official, "it may be a little hard on some people; but I feel sure that, in the long run, the new plan will be for the best interests of the institution."

"Do you mean that it will be for the good of the students?" inquired the younger man.

"No," the dean replied, "I mean it will be for the good of the whole institution."

"Oh, you mean that it will benefit the faculty as well as the students."

"No," said the dean, a little annoyed, "I don't mean that; I mean it will be a good thing for the institution itself."

"Perhaps you mean the trustees then-or the Chancellor?" "No, I mean the institution, the institution! Young man, don't you know what an institution is?"

Probably most citizens of the civilized world of today have no clear conception of the nature of an institution. They have neither the time nor the curiosity to reflect upon their own behavior and those activities of their fellows through which the institutions of society are said to operate. They are prone to think of an institution, though intangible, as something more than individuals, as something which embraces human beings in a great scheme or purpose laid down by Society itself. In more critical moments, it is true, most persons will probably admit that such intangible social phenomena eventually simmer down to individuals, that, when submitted to the evidence of our senses, universities, govern-

(4) -ments, churches, and economic systems, resolve into so many individuals who are living and working together and are using certain buildings or equipment which they possess in common. Yet in an unreflective mood, or under emotional stress, many will slip back into a mystical way of speaking, and will refer to these phenomena as super-human agencies embodying the virtue and the wisdom of the race, prescribing modes of conduct, and exacting the support and loyalty of all good citizens. For example, the government is conceived as the ‘ship of state,' the ‘safeguard of human rights' and the ‘guardian of prosperity.' The church is lauded as the ‘rock of civilization,' the ‘preserver of morals,' and the ‘harbinger of God's Kingdom.' Business and industry are treated as autonomous, life-sustaining agencies which must be fostered by every public act. The school is regarded as the ‘transmitter of civilization' and as the ‘bulwark' of the other institutions and of society generally. Regardless of their character as human activities, institutions are frequently spoken of in terms other than those which we apply to ordinary human beings.

In order to obtain a clearer view of the realities to which the term institution refers, let us examine the question which the instructor and the dean, just mentioned, were belaboring: namely, what do we mean by a university? First of all, we find that a university includes teachers, students, executive officers, and trustees. The members of each of these groups have certain characteristic attitudes and sentiments toward one another; and each behaves toward the others and toward their common academic surroundings in definite, predictable ways. The students pursue assigned lessons; they come at certain times and places to hear lectures and to write examinations. The professors have the habit of setting assignments, delivering lectures, and conducting recitations. The administrative officials supervise registration, record academic attainments, administer discipline, secure and disburse moneys, and conduct the necessary dealings with non-academic people of the community. The treasurer can be counted upon to pay the professors certain sums of money at stated times. The president or chancellor is prepared to give diplomas to students who have completed prescribed courses of study. Secondly, there enter into the situation we call a university the attitudes of cer-

(5) -tain individuals not present upon the campus. Not only students in attendance, but individuals who have already received their diplomas and who live at a distance react with feelings of loyalty and give support when an appeal is made to them in the name of the university. Practically all the individuals of the surrounding community, though perhaps quite unfamiliar with academic life, display a certain respect and confidence toward the holders of college diplomas ; and upon these attitudes the college graduate can usually rely for his future vocation and his status in the community. In addition to these attitudes, there are, thirdly, certain feelings and a sense of values which are evoked in individuals by appropriate symbols with which the name of the university has been historically connected. These experienced values are commonly known as traditions. Examples of the symbolic objects which evoke them are trophies, school colors, the words and music of songs, the names of eminent graduates or professors of the past, historic edifices, and trees or other campus landmarks. As a fourth and final group of elements of a university, there may be mentioned the physical equipment for campus living and for the activities of teaching, study, and research. Here are included offices, laboratories, classrooms, libraries, dormitories and dining quarters.

In the preceding account, which includes practically everything we may discover about a university, there is no evidence of the university as a thing in itself, that is, as something apart from these specific objects and from the individuals who are teaching, learning, and coöperating in academic relationships generally. There is no need of invoking a transcendent institution in order to explain the presence of the individuals at that place or the activities in which they are engaged. We do not find, except in the language of metaphor, a university which is fostering the pursuit of learning, but only specific students who are seeking to learn and professors who are busy at teaching or research. There is, so far as we can see, no university which is working ‘through' the professors; the professors, on the contrary, are working for themselves, either because of their own interest in scholarship, or in order to win prestige, a wider reputation, or a higher salary. We witness no university in the act of setting standards of schol-

(6) -arship and awarding degrees, but only teachers, deans, presidents, and trustees who do these things ‘in the name' of the university. The notion of an Alma Mater calling her sons and daughters to rally to her support, so far as exact knowledge is concerned, is a poetic fancy. We actually find only athletic directors, publicity agents, and students (past and present) who make such appeals. From the standpoint of careful description, to speak of a university as something more than the activities and the equipment of its members seems like so much wasted breath.

Someone, however, may object that a university has an existence and a life of its own, since students, professors, and administrators leave or die and are replaced, yet the university goes on indefinitely. But have we any real proof that it goes on? Are not the new personnel merely different persons who, having acquired their academic habits through their predecessors, carry on their intellectual work in the same buildings as the latter, using the same equipment and referring to their combined activities under the same name? Even if the buildings and equipment should change, or if the ‘university' should be moved to a different location, there might still be a continuity of the name; and the inculcation of respect for this name and for symbols associated with it would continue from one generation to the next. It is true that students and teachers sometimes think of their university as having a life and a continuity of its own. Thinking in this way, moreover, may modify, to some extent, their academic behavior and their relationships. But the fact that they think and act upon the assumption that their university is a super-individual reality does not prove that it is such a reality. The early Greek conception of lightning as the thunder-bolt of Zeus was widely accepted and transmitted through succeeding generations; it also probably entered into the emotional life and the activities of the people in a profound way. Yet these facts do not constitute the slightest proof that the imagined Being called Zeus existed.

The official who, in our opening illustration, insisted that a policy could be for the interest of the institution without necessarily benefitting any particular individual might pursue, at this point, a somewhat different attack. He might argue that a university has an existence of its own because it has its peculiar

(7) interests, quite apart from the interests of its members. Every college president, he will say, has had the experiences of planning and ordering for the benefit of the university, without regard _or particular individuals who constitute its membership at a given time. Such a course of action is not only proper but eminently useful. The interest of a university as such is the preservation and enhancement of that office for which it exists, namely, the function of education. Anything which will help education to go on effectively among the student body at that particular place will be for the interest of the institution; anything which defeats this activity will be against its interest. But, we reply, is not this aim of education an interest also of the particular individuals enrolled? If the major desire of the university members were not to become educated, the attributing of this purpose to the ‘university' would be meaningless. The term interest, in fact, can be properly applied only to living beings. When I oil my lawn mower my interest may be said to lie in having a smoothly running machine. The machine runs better for being oiled. It can hardly be said, however, that the lawn mower itself has an interest in being oiled. Similarly with a university : the individuals employ their habits of academic behavior which make up the university to aid them in learning; they have, therefore, a genuine interest in keeping these habits properly functioning. They look to the college administrator to aid in this matter, just as I rely on my oil can to keep my lawn mower running smoothly; but one cannot say that these habits of study themselves, apart from the individuals in whom they operate, have any interest in preserving their own activity. The interest concerted lies in the integrated personality of the individuals as wholes. It is true that the purpose sometimes ascribed to an institution may not be the purpose of all its members, but only of a leader or of a small, privileged group. Such an aim, however, is always, so far as human knowledge goes, the purpose of some specific individual or individuals. It is never the interest of the institution as such, apart from the wishes of any human being concerned.

These discrepancies between the different views of institutions are due mainly to the contradiction between two differing approaches. When we set ourselves to describe these phenomena in

(8) the detached manner of a natural scientist, the institution as such disappears, and one sees only individuals. Thus the realistic observer of collegiate institutions sees only particular teachers and students interacting with one another, and apparently animated by the personal rewards of teaching and scholarship at that particular time and place. Such an observer sees the executive as one whose duty it is to keep these persons working together effectively toward these ends, and to determine the effect of methods of study and coöperation upon their scholastic attainment and their welfare as individuals.

When, however, we wish not merely to describe, but to control human action, when we seek to arouse feeling or effort toward some ulterior end, the institution then becomes for us the reality, while individuals fade into the background. The attitudes of college presidents, chancellors, or deans, are likely to be somewhat different from those of the disinterested observer; for these officials often look beyond the immediate academic behavior of individuals toward a more distant goal. the 'university' itself. A president, for example, may look at his university as a reality independent of its present members, because to him it may seem an instrument for maintaining a standard of scholarship, fostering research, guiding social policies, and assuming a definite leadership in the community or the nation. Of this institution he is the head and spokesman, and in its development he takes a natural pride. Through it he feels that he is accomplishing a service to society while at the same time building for himself a successful career. Now if, in looking toward these services to the community, the administrator were to think of himself (or be thought of by others) only as a regulator of academic habits or as a supervisor of the equipment of a particular group of students and professors, his zest for administrative achievement might be considerably diminished. To a disinterested investigator only individuals are significant; the institution is merely their manner of functioning. To an administrator, who is interested not only in individuals but in ‘results,' the abstract institution is sometimes likely to seem the more real and important. A descriptive scientist sees the spokes of the wheel and the rim as elements which, though working together, have each a separate and im-

(9) -portant reality ; an administrator is likely to see neither the spokes nor the rim, but the entire wheel. He may look at the wheel, moreover, not for itself, but as a method of taking him where he wants to go.

Here then are the two contrasting approaches to the phenomena we call our institutions. Though diametrically opposed both in logic and in method, each is tenaciously followed by persons who, in differing capacities, have to do with the study or the ordering of human conduct. And paradoxically, both are often followed, at different times, by the same individual.

It is not college presidents alone who tend to regard their universities as realities independent of their individual members. The trustees of such an institution often treat it as an entity so far as its financial status and its relationships with the community are concerned. The case is similar with citizens at large, who are interested in the appraisal of a college education rather than in the activities of students in attaining it. It is not the particular officials who are commonly regarded as imposing rules, setting standards, and granting degrees, but rather, the university. In campaigns for financial support, where the objective is ulterior rather than an immediate participating interest in academic affairs, the concept of the transcendental institution is again employed. It is more effective to plead for money in the name of the city's university or for one's Alma Mater, than for more homely purposes such as equipping Professor Jones' laboratory, raising Professor Smith's salary, improving certain classroom facilities, or giving to particular students more complete library privileges. Indeed, students themselves look beyond their daily activities to values which seem to lie not in individuals but in the institution. There is nothing very inspiring in being merely one of a large body of students and professors who have worked together in certain buildings. But if one is identified as a graduate of University, an old and distinguished institution of learning, one is immediately stamped as a leader in the community. A cheer for eleven particular students, all wearing the same color, and so coöperating that one of them carries a ball over a white line before eleven other students wearing sweaters of a different color can stop him, would strike any collegian as an odd mis-

(10) carriage of academic spirit. But if the game is felt to be the struggle of ‘Old Harvard' against an ‘ancient rival' for the honor of the ‘Crimson,' enthusiasm is brought to the highest pitch. 7 Human emotions, self-elation, leadership, convenience, the necessity for concerted action, and the aims of officials-all these and many other considerations enter into our thinking and acting to encourage the belief that institutions exist above the heads of men and women. Yet such a view, in our calmer and more critical moments, is contradicted both by the evidence of our senses and by our sober judgment.


Despairing of light from the laymen's confusion, we turn to the experts. When, however, we review the writings of scholars, we are troubled by the same contradiction. The social experts, like the laymen, shuttle back and forth between the horns of this dilemma, speaking of individuals at one moment and of institutional entities in the next. Their statements regarding the nature of institutions fall into two general classes: first, those phrased in purely abstract terms which are names of classes, and second, those which are expressed in metaphors. Formulas of the first type characterize institutions merely as collections of something else, with no hint of any substantive reality apart from the units of which the collection is composed. One writer, for example, speaks of an institution as a "cultural complex"; another says the term ‘covers' such and such phenomena; still others call an institution a "grouping of individuals," a "process," a "set of rules or practices," a "relationship," or a "means." An institution has also been spoken of simply as "ways," "established usages," "ideas," or a "system of habits or reactions." These expressions, for the most part, denote only a plurality. But a mere plurality, apart from the objects of Which it is composed, has no concrete or tangible meaning. The use of a collective or plural noun in a definition as the complement of a singular verb suggests an error of logic. To say, for example, that an institution is ideas, folkways, or relationships is much like saying that one thing is many things. If an institution, as a single, identifiable thing, has any reality as a part of the objective world

(11) of nature, if it is to be kept from dissolving into a mere plurality of individuals or habits, then some substantive term must be found to denote it. The efforts of the ablest scholars, however, to find that term has yielded nothing better than the collective abstractions which have been quoted above.

But the urge to believe that an institution is something independent of individuals cannot easily be quelled. It springs from divers sources: from enthusiasm, loyalty, self-esteem, the impulse to control, and the eagerness of social students to find a convenient, easy, and at the same time, respectable terminology. In order not to abandon this conception, its advocates are therefore driven to extremes of circumlocution. Having failed to find any class of things, other than individuals and their attributes, to which institutions might be assigned, some of the authorities have fallen back upon that time-worn obscurity, definition by analogy. The analogical definitions of institutions are exceedingly numerous and varied. They abound in personification, reification, metonymy, and other figures. In no case, however, is ii the institution itself which is denoted, but only something which the institution is said to resemble. Institutions have been spoken of as "social capital," "machinery for performing collective functions," "vehicles," and "frameworks." Writing upon the tendency of institutions to become inflexible, one author uses in the space of two and one-half pages the following remarkable series of analogies. Institutions are figuratively described by him as useless old creatures living beyond their time, as gruesome forms, bones, stones, machines, dignitaries, casuists, reactionaries, dogmatists, smug people, paternalists, museums for fossils, deposit places, decadent families, social vestiges, structures, trees, crystals, creatures capable of ‘institutional fatigue,' and family monuments.[1]

Since definitions by analogy never point to the object defined, but always to something which it resembles, they are of little value in leading us to the object itself or in helping us to begin upon it our task of analysis and study. All that we can do is

(12) to describe it by further analogies. Thus, if an institution is defined by analogy as a person, one cannot study it by handling or experimenting; one can only develop the comparison further by pointing out in its operations analogies for the particular attributes of a person. The whole treatment, therefore, becomes anthropomorphic. Another procedure, equally sterile for research, is to personify not the institutions of society, but society itself, and to define institutions as the means through which this 'over-person,' Society, ‘controls individuals,' ‘perpetuates itself,' and ‘attains deliberately approved ends.' All this duplication of individual and societal action, this bringing in of society or of institutions as Beings whose behavior, though outside the realm of human experience, is nevertheless described in human terms, contributes neither to our knowledge of an institution nor to our search for some avenue of investigation. It is mere tautology.

If the vagueness of collective abstractions in defining institutions is useless, the employment of metaphors is worse. Definitions by analogy result not only in obscurity of thinking, but in futility of observation. By a literary turn their authors conceal a poverty of real meaning and deceive their hearers into thinking that they are on the road to understanding. The victim of such a practice is likely to come through it with the illusion that his data are all gathered and his conclusions reached; whereas, in reality, he has not even started-nor has he envisaged his project in such a manner that a start can be made. He has not only failed to solve his problem, but has closed the door upon it.


It appears then that, concerning the nature of institutions, not merely laymen, but scholars also, are in a state of perplexity. The meaning of the term shifts so completely with a change in one's approach that a single, clear definition becomes almost impossible. When we accept institutions uncritically, without definition, and try to do things through them, we get one picture; when we try to study institutions precisely, in and for themselves, (that is, when we try to do something to them), we get a wholly different view. Or perhaps it would be better, in the latter instance, to say that we get no view of them at all. When social

(13) students describe the functions of institutional activity,-when they speak, for example, of the work of the state, the church, the business organization, or the school-practically everyone knows what they mean. When, however, they attempt to define these organizations as independent realities, that is, in terms other than the purposes of individuals, they speak in a babble of tongues. They cannot point to the institution; they cannot name the class to which it belongs or state its essential nature. They can only say that it is a pattern or system, a collection of something else, or else merely a mental concept. They can illustrate how an institution works, but they cannot tell of what it is composed. They can tell what it resembles, but they cannot tell what it is.

From all these failures there emerges a challenging conclusion:' an institution, perhaps, is not a substantive thing at all. It is not a term by which we denote something in the same category with the natural objects about us; it is a term by which we do no more than record our observation that individuals are living and working together in certain ways. It is not a tangible thing, but a conceptual relationship of things. The notion of an institution is, in some ways, like the notion of a triangle. The three points which are necessary to the existence of a triangle are definite and are located for practical use by a material having substance, such as ink or the graphite of a lead pencil. Nevertheless, the triangle itself is not substantial; it is a conceptual relationship. It is our way of conceiving and reacting to those three points. A triangle is not discovered in nature by bumping into it as we might bump into trees or stones, nor even as we might react to the material of the three dots which it conceptually joins. We do not encounter it and then define it. On the contrary, if we are looking for it in nature, we must first define it and then proceed to find objects which are so arranged as to fulfill our definition. If we do not find them, we may ourselves place three movable objects in such a relationship. We can create a triangle, in other words, as the expression of our own purpose. A triangle has always the reality of conception or purpose, but never, so far as we know, the reality of something independent of ourselves which we may encounter or discover. Now the definition of an institution, like that of a triangle, is in terms not of sub-

(14) -stantial things, but of what we ourselves do, that is, of the manner in which we orient ourselves, in our thinking or acting, toward the objects about us. Just as we react to three given points in space in such a manner as to draw from them the conception of a triangle with all/ its theorems and practical uses, so we respond to other individuals in those relationships of cooperation, dominance, or submission, which give us both the conception and the practical working of the institution. Just as the notion of a triangle helps us to respond in certain useful ways to three points in our environment, so the notion of an institution helps us to understand what the individuals about us are doing and enables us to cooperate with them in our common existence. The notion of a triangle, however, does not make it possible for us actually and physically to encounter in nature such an object (triangle) ; nor does it give us any knowledge about the materials (graphite, etc.) of which the points visually defining this figure are composed. Similarly the notion of an ‘institution' points out no object which answers to that name and can be concretely studied; neither does it tell us anything about the individuals by whose relationships it is constituted, beyond the suggestion that they probably possess certain habits through whose functioning this relationship is maintained.

The institutional approach is also similar, in some ways, to the use of a guide book or a map. A map shows the relationships of the parts of an unfamiliar country over which we are to travel; it helps us to adjust ourselves to it and to find our way. Similarly, an anthropologist visiting an hitherto unknown tribe can react more intelligently to their behavior when he obtains, as a key, some notion of their institutions. A map, however, shows only relationships between objects; it does not convey an accurate impression of the objects themselves. If the traveler tries to substitute his experience with the map for his experience with the ground itself, and concludes that in covering the one he has covered also the other, he will be committing himself to a fruitless and dangerous course. Similarly, an ethnologist by reading, hearing, or thinking about the institutions of a certain tribe, may gain valuable clues for understanding some of the activities of the individuals. But if he treats this experience as equivalent to a

(15) contact with the individuals themselves, or if he regards such a study as an adequate investigation of the individual psychology of primitive men, he will be making a costly blunder.


Our vocabulary of science contains two types of names. The first consists of words denoting objects which impinge, directly or through the surrounding media, upon our sense organs,— objects which can be observed, described, manipulated, analyzed, experimented with, and generalized about. The objects which such names indicate do not appear to come to us through any reflection or theorizing of our own, but by our stumbling upon something which is outside ourselves. Words such as rock, tree, acid, water, fish, and man, are names denoting this type of experience. Objects of this sort can be singled out by pointing with our hand or by turning our eyes or our bodies; they can also be taken apart and experimentally studied through the use of our sense organs, our nerves, and our skeletal muscles, aided by the instruments and techniques of science. We can react to them in a manual and bodily manner, for they are capable of precise location in space. Such objects, we may say, are capable of explicit denotation. It is with objects of this sort that all experimental and descriptive investigations of the world about us begin. Things which are not of this sort, terms for example, denoting natural laws, formulas, and hypotheses may or may not be present in our thinking at the beginning of an investigation; but some sort of outer, explicitly denotable object must be present. Otherwise no investigation of the world about us is possible.

The second type of names used in scientific work are those dealing not with objects capable of being explicitly treated, but with abstract things, such as relationships. These abstractions are phases of our experience with which we can deal only by thinking or talking about them. They cannot be heard, seen, handled, or pointed to with any part of our bodies. Such terms include properties (such as length, hardness, redness, etc.) which we ‘abstract' from explicity denotable objects by the process of reflection. They also include the laws or hypotheses which

(16) we formulate about objects in order to describe their actions. We talk, for example, of such things as gravitation, electrical change, erosion, growth, reproduction, evolution, and personality. We do not respond directly to these concepts; we cannot take them apart or manipulate them. We can only make responses of thought or communication about them. We can speak, write, or make gestures to denote them; we can employ them as symbols of communication; but we cannot in treating of them bring our bodies into direct and explicit contact with the things about which we are talking. Such things, we may say, are capable only of implicit denotation.[2]

In actual scientific research explicit and implicit forms of denotation are closely related. We react to objects which are explicitly denotable, and then, in order to standardize and record our reaction and to convey an understanding of it to others, we make other responses whose reference is implicit. An apple falls, according to our experience, always toward the earth. Now the realities denoted by the terms ‘apple' and ‘earth' are both capable of being reacted to by our bodies in an explicit manner, that is, of being explicitly denoted. We need, however, in addition to ‘apple' and ‘earth,' some term to designate the relationship

(17) (tendency to move toward each other) which we have found to exist between them. We therefore employ a special term 'gravitation.' Now gravitation is not something we encounter in an explicit manner; it is something which we seem to discover by reflection. It derives its meaning not by pointing or by making responses directly to the apple and the earth, but rather by thinking or talking about them. Gravitation, therefore, is capable of implicit, not of explicit, denotation. To take another illustration : we react with our bodies to pieces of wire and to plates in acid solutions. These are explicitly denoted objects. From the result of this experience we think and talk about currents, watts, ohms, conductance, resistance, and the ‘laws' of electrical phenomena in general. This second class of entities are capable only of implicit denotation. A biologist encounters organisms. As he manipulates, dissects, and experiments with them, he makes inferences also in the nature of biological laws and principles. These latter are implicitly denoted entities. To a psychologist, a man, as a physical organism, is explicitly denotable; but his habits or his traits of personality, like the principles of growth and conductance, are capable only of implicit denotation.

Now it is to our second class of terms, names for things which are implicitly denoted, that the notion of an institution belongs. Just as the concepts of conductance and resistance pertain to the action of the parts, or explicit materials, used in a particular combination known as an electric circuit, so the terms university, industry, church, or state, refer to activities, or habits, which individuals in certain relationships perform. This institutional arrangement of uniform and coöperating habits, like the actions of the parts of an electric circuit, gives us a formula, a means of generalization, and a basis of prediction. But useful as the notion of an institution may be for such ends, it is absolutely incapable, in itself, of being explicitly denoted, pointed to, or manipulated. In the case of the electric circuit we find that it is only when we turn from the concept of the circuit to the materials operating as a circuit that we can begin an investigation or learn anything new about electrical science. And sim-

(18) -ilarly it is only when we abandon the institution for a time and fix our attention on the individuals that we discover a reality which can be encountered and which affords us a starting point in our investigation of the human world about us. We do not study institutions, but individuals, as tangible objects. Institutions are the things we say about the objects, that is, the individuals, we study.[3]

Notwithstanding their convenience, a danger besets the use of names for things implicitly denoted against which we must be continually upon our guard. We are prone to forget that such things are known to us only in this implicit, or conceptual manner. Sometimes we delude ourselves into believing that they

(19) are subject to the same experimental study as objects capable of explicit denotation, or that the conclusions reached in talking about them have the same value and validity as those discovered in dealing with explicitly denoted things. This is a fatal error. It is a confusion of explicit objects with the formulations which we make about them. Tied up in our own definitions we travel in circles, postulating nature instead of discovering it. This error of confusing the implicit with the explicit in experience is accountable for the dilemma of scholars and laymen in their attempt to define an institution. Since institutions are experienced only in an implicit manner, it is impossible to define them, as entities distinct from individuals, by reference to any class of explicitly denoted, natural objects. Yet the unquenchable desire of some writers to endow them with an existence like that of rocks, trees, and men, and to subject them to the same methods of study, has led these authorities to attempt the impossible. As we have seen, they have succeeded only in producing empty collective abstractions ; or else they have resorted to analogies, which, though explicit enough in their reference, are false if taken literally and irrelevant if taken otherwise.

A falling apple strikes us, and we take our cue from it (and from similar experiences) for phrasing a useful generalization concerning falling bodies. The law of gravitation, however, does not strike us. We can neither see it, handle it, nor make it the direct object of our investigation. A physicist who started by looking about him for a force or substance known as gravity which he might subject to experimental analysis would be like the man who set out to find the end of the rainbow. In order to experience gravitational phenomena at all one must deal with falling or moving objects which can be explicitly handled. Similarly, a student of social science who sought at the start to lay his hands upon an institution as such and subject it to direct analysis would soon find himself lost in a sea of words. If his investigation is to be profitable, he must search first for concrete, explicitly denoted materials which are behaving institutionally, and from whose behavior he may make his generalizations in terms of the institutional concept. Such materials he will find in the individual human beings about him. It is true that he

(20) must also have in mind a notion of what he means by ‘behaving institutionally' when he selects his objects for explicit study; just as the physicist must have a notion of what ‘falling' means in practical experience in order that he may find falling objects and study their action. But neither ‘institution' nor ‘falling' can be defined in explicit terms, and neither can be taken alone, in the absence of objects which are explicitly denotable, as the beginning of a scientific investigation.


The conclusion that institutions are incapable of being explicitly denoted should not be taken as evidence that they do not exist. Whether relationships in nature are real, that is, whether relational terms, which can be experienced only implicitly, are or are not as real as the objects related, is a question which demands a criterion of reality surpassing our present human knowledge. It is impossible for us either to prove or to disprove that things which can be indicated only implicitly really exist, or to tell what the nature of their existence may be. The important question, however, about institutions is not the problem of their ultimate reality, but what they mean to us as methods of approaching our experience. Although we may never know whether institutions are independently real, it does make a considerable difference in our thinking and living if we act as though they are real. Let us ask ourselves, therefore, what attitude we must assume in order that we shall seem to experience an institution as a reality; and what are the consequences of our holding to the belief in such a reality as the basis of our thoughts and actions.

Let us return to our example of the electric circuit. To one who did not ‘grasp the idea' of putting metals and acids together in such a way as to generate electric energy, the materials composing such a system would seem a purely arbitrary assemblage of objects, having little or no meaning. Such an observer would see plates, liquids, wires, and connecting posts; but he would see no circuit. The meaning of the circuit exists not so much in the materials in which it operates, as in the attitudes of those who recognize and know how to use it. Applying the same

(21) observation to social phenomena, we find that we must also have the idea, or function, of the institution in mind before the institution becomes to us a reality. Just as we read into the parts of the electric circuit the meaning of their interrelation as a functioning whole, so we must try to understand the actions of individuals with reference to the totality of human inter-relationships to which they belong. As we joined the parts of the circuit together so that, through their co-activity, they would do useful work, so we react toward our fellow men, and they toward us, in such a way as to accomplish certain practical and mutually desired ends. Institutions, in other words, take on reality for us when we are looking for the fulfillment of some purpose upon a collective, or multi-individual scale. We envisage an institution when we regard human beings as cooperating, in a regular and habitual fashion, toward the satisfying of some common human want. We cannot experience an institution as a reality when we' merely examine or study individuals disinterestedly, but only when we try to do something through individuals by organizing them (or conceiving them as organized), in the direction of some ulterior, common end. When understood in this sense, terms denoting institutional fields, such as business, government, the church, the school, and the family are clear to all.


These practical relationships, or institutional fields of action, though they are themselves incapable of explicit reference, nevertheless serve as an aid to explicit study in a unique and interesting way. They orient us toward a study of the explicitly denoted elements (individuals) of whose behavior they are composed. Our concept of a triangle again affords an illustration. It will be recalled that the triangle itself, as a pure geometric concept, cannot become the object of our explicit, manipulative study. Nevertheless, by our taking an attitude to ‘see' a triangle in nature we are led to pick out three particular dots; and these dots, as bits of explicitly denoted material, may then be set off from thousands of other things in the world for our special attention. Or again, the direction of a bar of metal with respect to a magnetic pole, as pure position, is a phenomenon which can

(22) be denoted only in an implicit manner. Nevertheless by setting himself to notice such relationships in the world about him, a scientist is led to pick out certain fields of objects and events for special study. The notion of magnetic attraction thus serves him as a methodological concept. It directs his attention continually to certain minerals and their behavior, and leads him to improve his generalizations about them. Just as triangles and compass deflections are bits of implicit experience which direct us toward the study of certain objects and their relationships, so, in the social field, the implicitly experienced notion of an institution leads us to encounter certain objects (human beings) who are acting in a certain general manner. These individuals, since they are explicitly denotable objects, can then be subjected to careful observation and manipulative study, as a result of which the behavior in which we are interested can be more accurately described and understood.

Let us consider, for example, the behavior involved in an urban traffic system. If an observer from Mars, wholly ignorant of earth beings and their ways, were to look down from one of our tall buildings upon a cluster of automobiles at the intersection of two busy streets, he would probably be lost in bewilderment. Unless he understood the common purpose towards which the behavior of all motorists was directed, he would see only successive groups of objects, starting and stopping at the same time. To such an observer the red signal at the intersection would have no significance different from that of any other object commonly present in motorists' environments when they stop. He might classify the light, for example, as belonging in the same category with detour signs, with obstacles in the road, or with arresting bits of scenery. He might include in his field of observation the responses of the individuals not merely to the traffic signals, but to colored lights of every description. There would be, in short, no purposive guide through which to connect certain stimuli with certain responses in a unified field for systematic observation.

Suppose now that we inform our Martian observer that all this flux of lights and traffic is a method whereby automobilists

(23) may drive about the city as rapidly as possible without collision. Immediately he begins to perceive more clearly, and to select and unify his impressions. Certain things fit themselves at once into the picture; others are as promptly rejected. He neglects as irrelevant such objects, for example, as colored billboards and advertising signs, as well as all changes of speed on the part of motorists which are not associated directly with the purpose of traffic facilitation. The lights are not merely bits of colored illumination, they become traffic signals. The observer might also include in his survey many objects which are different in character from traffic lights, for example, boulevard stop signs, policemen, or processions of ‘one way' traffic. All these elements are now experienced by him in a unified relationship, that, namely, of traffic regulation. To have such an understanding of any institutional pattern of behavior an observer, therefore, must first approach it with the attitude of a practical citizen living and functioning within the relationships involved. In order to comprehend an institution we must first comprehend its purpose. It is from such an approach that an institution, as an implicit pattern of human relationships, becomes a significant reality ; and it is only by accepting the institution as such a reality that certain broad and useful classifications of human action can be revealed.

But after we have once understood the meaning of the institutional field and have found the individuals of whose relationship the fields consists, we are free to shift our approach. We may now permit the ulterior purpose (the comprehension of the institution) to fade from our view, and may turn to the activities of the individuals themselves, to the objects, in other words, which are explicitly denotable and with which our investigation, as manipulative experience, can begin. The traffic observer having once understood the meaning of traffic regulation, and having learned to discriminate individuals acting as part of this system from those who are not, may forget all about the goal of safe and efficient driving which gives this system its meaning. He may now center his attention upon the explicitly denotable realities, the individuals, in order to ascertain the bearing of their ‘traffic'

(24) habits upon other aspects of their behavior. He might record. for example, their differing degrees of action, such as completely stopping before the signal, slowing somewhat, or going ahead without change of speed. He might then note whether the characteristic performance of an individual in this regard bears any relation to this ‘natural' rate of driving, to his various other habits, or to his temperament in general. Or again, he might try to discover whether the necessity of a certain motorist's driving in accordance with the traffic regulation has prevented him from driving in a manner which might be more characteristic of him as an individual. To make such inquiries, however, it is necessary, once we have used the notion of the institution to find and understand the field of action, to lay aside the ‘institution' and deal only with the behavior of the individuals whom we encounter in this field. We must deal with them, moreover, not merely in terms of the institutional purpose, but in terms of explicit and objective description. In order to find individuals to study who are behaving institutionally, we must start by accepting the reality of the institution; but in order to study them we must forget the institution and see only the individuals themselves.

Let us return to our illustration of a university. In order to encounter individuals in such a situation we must locate a group where we can recognize the relationships and the common purpose of education to be paramount. In order to find ‘university' students, we must first recognize a university. But having used the notion of the university to locate the general field of our problem, we are now free to shift our attitude from the institutional and purposive approach to the observation of what the individuals are actually doing. Education through an institution of learning is no longer the goal of our interest, but the actions and conditions of human beings as they are being educated. Having once located the individuals and their activities by the ‘teleological map' we call the institution, we can lay the map aside. The institution, of course, in the telic and implicitly conceived sense, keeps on operating; and we can shift our attention back upon it whenever we choose. It is also true that not everything about the behavior of the individuals can be fully under-

(25) -stood without reference to their coöperation in the institution. Nevertheless, it is possible, for our present purpose, to put aside the institutional approach and view the individuals purely as individuals. We now observe, not a ‘university' in operation, but merely certain students, professors, and administrators who are studying, instructing, doing research, or giving academic directions. Every activity, as we have observed before, is actually performed by individuals ; and all of these activities, both separate and reciprocal, can be accounted for in terms of the purposes of individuals. A purpose of the institution itself does not need to be invoked.

A manufacturer, to take still another example, may speak of his personnel system, his factory organization, or his business as a system for production and profit which is quite independent of the particular workers or executives who are, at the moment, employed. We can find these employees in order to observe their behaviors only by going to the ‘company's' records, or by visiting the ‘company's' plant-in other words, by taking as a starting point the notion of the ‘institution.' But once we have found the workers by placing ourselves, as it were, in the field of their co-ordinated behavior, the industrial institution, with its underlying purpose of production, may fade from the scene. There now remains only the particular workers and employers with their individual traits, abilities, and desires, each performing certain regular activities at particular times and places. Passing then from the institutional approach to the study of these explicitly encountered realities, the individuals, we may observe the significance of their ‘institutional' actions in the economy of their lives as biological organisms and psychological personalities. We may note, for example, the effect of industrial competition upon the executives as individuals, or the relation of habits of machine production to the hygiene and the attitudes of the workers. We may inquire how the movements of the workers, which might have been performed individually in the absence of organization, are altered by working in a highly organized and competitive industry.

In the field of politics most persons are probably accustomed

(26) to think of power as residing in the political office, in Congress, or in the government at large. Individuals are called upon to be loyal, not to particular leaders, nor even to their own principles, but to the ‘government' or to their ‘party.' Here again, the view is institutional; for we are interested not in describing the actual behavior of individuals which makes up the field of politics, but in securing concerted action through which some common ulterior objective may be gained. As soon, however, as we turn from such institutional considerations to the elements which can be explicitly dealt with, that is, as soon as we set ourselves to observe what individual citizens and office holders are doing, the notion of the ‘institution of government' as a controlling agency becomes something of a myth. The scene now resolves itself into particular executives, legislators, judges, political bosses, or citizens each having his own peculiarities of ability and character, and each putting to use, for ends which are either selfish or public spirited (but always his own ends), the influence of his prestige or the common habits of obedience to the symbols of authority. Here again, the implicitly denoted thing we call the institution, which is so real to the practical leader as an instrument of control, is real to the student of human behavior only as a means of calling attention to an interesting field of action which might otherwise be overlooked.

Starting from the scene of human living, there lie before us always these two diverging pathways. When on the road of the implicit, organized, and collective purposes of men we are interested only in discovering how the habits of individuals can be made to function together toward the better satisfaction of some common need. When we are on the track of explicitly observable human beings, we care nothing for the objectives toward which the habits of individuals are organized and directed, but only for an accurate account of those habits themselves as characteristic behavior of the individuals concerned. In the former view institutions are often considered as realities, with purposes of their own, apart from the individuals; in the latter they are nothing but the purposes and activities of the individuals themselves. On the pathway towards societal achievement we are engrossed

(27) by the end to be accomplished; the activities of men and women are of secondary importance and attract notice only as means to such an end. For our study of individuals these means of institutional accomplishment become the ends themselves. From the former approach the institution is the preëminent reality; from the latter, the individual. From the one view we see how institutions are said to work in controlling and directing individuals; from the other we see how individuals behave in order to make ‘their institutions' work. The one account is in terms of how institutions operate; the other tells us, in terms of human behavior, what institutions are. The one treatment is instrumental, the other purely descriptive. The one picture shows us, in terms of leaders, what institutions can do for us; the other brings us a realization of what, figuratively speaking, they are doing to us. From the former approach we are interested in the/ success of the institution as a method of providing some particular good which is important for life; from the latter we are concerned with the manner in which institutional habits affect the individual's life itself, that is, the degree in which they enhance or limit his integrity, his autonomy, and his opportunity for self-expression.

The aim and method of these essays should now be clear. Our approach will be that of the second pathway. Institutional behavior is that portion of human action which we can observe through studying individuals as they function in their institutional relationships. We are not interested in such behavior as a means of bringing individuals to the accomplishment of an ulterior, or institutional, purpose, but only in its immediate relation to the lives of the individuals themselves. The notion of the institution we employ only as a means of locating our problem, of directing our observation towards groups of individuals who at the moment are manifesting the behavior which we have called institutional. An institution is a conceptional field, capable only of implicit denotation, which, when we set ourselves conceptually to recognize it, so orients us that we encounter certain objects in certain relationships, objects which can be explicitly denoted. These objects are human individuals, and it is their behavior in

(28) their institutional relationships which we are now concerned in studying. And, finally, we are to study this behavior not through the metaphors of institutional leaders who are seeking direction and control, but through the observation and experiment which explicit contact with the objects before us can alone make possible. Institutional behavior, then, is that behavior which we observe individuals in a field of institutional relationships to be performing, when we, as observers, give up the implicit, purposive approach by which this field and the individuals within it were selected, and regard the individuals themselves as the unique, explicit, and independent objects of our investigation.


  1. In fairness, it should be said that these metaphors were probably not intended by their author as precise definitions, but only as descriptive characterizations of institutions.
  2. The reader should avoid confusing the present usage of the terms ‘explicit' and ‘implicit' with their use by certain behaviorists. Dr. John B. Watson, for example, treats as ‘implicit' any response which cannot be readily noted in the subject by another person; ‘explicit,' in his usage, indicates readily visible or measurable responses. My problem, however, is not one of classifying human behavior, but of distinguishing the different types of relationships between scientists' behavior and the environment they study. ‘Explicit,' in the present discussion means any relationship of the investigator to his environment of such a character that his movements are capable actually of affecting, taking apart, or altering some object about him. ‘Implicit' denotes a situation in which the investigator's movements can do something not directly to, but only about the object before him (and this regardless of whether his behavior is visible to another observer or not). Certain movements may be explicit in their reference in one connection and merely implicit in another according to the outer circumstances, that is, according to the realities with which we ' are dealing when we make these movements. It will be seen that I am here concerned with ‘explicit' and ‘implicit' not as types of behavior, but as distinguishing forms of denotation of the things with which scientists deal. My classification is not physiological, but methodological.
  3. There are those who maintain that an institution or a co-functioning group are methodologically no different from a biological individual; for just as an individual organism can be reduced to an aggregate of tissues and cells all functioning together, so an institution reduces to individuals in their coöperative activities. This contention, however, is unsound. Whether an individual can be reduced to the co-functioning of unit cells or not, he is, at least before such a reduction takes place, an object capable of explicit denotation, capable, that is, of experimental manipulation and analysis into spatially separate parts. He is a reality which we would surely stumble over if he were to lie across our pathway on a dark night. Should our critic object that, in our illustration, we would be stumbling not over an individual, but over organs, cells, molecules, atoms, or electrons, we would be willing to concede his point. The fact, nevertheless, remains that we would stumble. This, manifestly, would not be true in the case of our encounter with an institution. There exists no evidence of any higher organism, or of any aggregate of human beings or their cooperative activities above the level of individuals, which is of such a sort that it could lie across our pathway and cause us to stumble. And without some physical encounter of this sort we cannot begin an experimental or manipulative study of the object in question. We can collide with an individual organism, and the collision will give us some object which we can then proceed to analyze and study. We can then trace out its component parts and the laws of its activity. But we cannot collide with an institution. We lack, therefore, in the latter instance, that basis from which an explicit investigation of the object can begin. Our only recourse in this case would be to call the individual or individuals with whom we have collided the institution, and state that the parts or activities of the individuals are the parts or laws of action of the institution. This procedure, however, would tell us nothing new about our world: it would be pure tautology. Clearly then an institution is not a direct counterpart, upon a higher level, of the biological organism on the individual human plane, but a different sort of thing. There exists between an individual and an organized group or institution a difference of the first importance for scientific investigation.

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