Merriam-Webster defines institution as “a significant practice, relationship, or organization in a society or culture.”
Political scientists elaborate on this description. For example, Michael Atkinson (reference below) states that “a definition of political institutions must recognize first, the central role of human beings; second, the foundation supplied by rules; and third, the capacity created by organization.” He builds on the work of Fritz Scharpf (reference below) to define institutions as
“configurations or networks of organizational capabilities (assemblies of personal, material, symbolic, and informational resources available for collective action) that are deployed according to rules and norms that structure individual participation, govern appropriate behaviour, and limit the range of acceptable outcomes.”
Atkinson notes that “the idea of institutions as concrete structures helps to emphasize their relative permanence. People come and go, but buildings remain. They symbolize the continuity we associate with institutions even though we know that there is more to institutions than concrete images can convey.”
Atkinson cites Weber (reference below) in describing the state as consisting of “those political institutions that together comprise a system of order that claims a monopoly on the exercise of coercive power and the authority to issue determinations that are binding on all of those living within a prescribed territory.”
He notes that although one can think of the state as a single institution that acts with a coherent purpose in times of national crisis, normally “the state is a united entity only in the abstract” and that “in most states, separate institutions create, consolidate, divide, exercise, and adjudicate public authority. Included among state institutions are electoral systems, bureaucracies, executives, legislatures, and judiciaries. … Only totalitarian states that are marked by exceptional levels of organizational sophistication can aspire to overall coordination and only then by destroying the autonomy of individual institutions.”
Atlas topic, subject, and course
Atkinson, Michael, 1993. Governing Canada: Institutions and Public Policy, pp. 5-10. Toronto: Harcourt, Brace and Co. In formulating his definition of institutions, Atkinson cites Fritz Scharpf, 1989, “Decision Rules, Decision Styles and Policy Choices,” Journal of Theoretical Politics, vol. 1, no. 2, 149-176, at http://jtp.sagepub.com/content/1/2/149.short, accessed 2 August 2016.
Max Weber, 1922, Economy and Society, 2: 56.
Merriam-Webster.com at http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/institution, accessed 2 August 2016.
Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 2 August 2016.
Image: Histemia, at http://histemia.com/association/travailler-avec-les-institutions/, accessed 2 August 2016.