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Pragmatist DemocracyEvolutionary Learning as Public Philosophy$

Christopher Ansell

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780199772438

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199772438.001.0001

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(p.22) Chapter 2 Institutions
Pragmatist Democracy

Christopher K. Ansell

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter investigates the rich but fragmented tradition of Pragmatist institutionalism. This tradition shares a Pragmatist model of psychology, an emphasis on the interpretation and production of meaning, an understanding of institutional life as a dynamic “going concern,” and a naturalistic stance towards institutions. Institutions are understood to be concepts that have become grounded in experience and around which publics have developed. Pragmatist institutionalism avoids the polarized image of institutions as either “rational design” or “congealed taste” by focusing on how complex institutions are scaffolded.

Keywords:   pragmatism, institutionalism, institutions, rational design, scaffolding

If Pragmatism places evolutionary learning at the center of its public philosophy, how should we apply it to public affairs? What is the right level-of-analysis for thinking about how publics, as opposed to individuals, learn? There is no shortage of possible answers to these questions, but some responses express the ideas and potential of Pragmatism better than others. This chapter begins by arguing that “institutions” is the best answer to these questions, better than possible alternatives like “culture” or “technology.” This answer places Pragmatism squarely within the institutionalist tradition in the social sciences. The chapter then demonstrates Pragmatism’s historical place within that tradition. However, neither the broader tradition of institutionalism nor its Pragmatist variant fully supports the Pragmatist conception of evolutionary learning. Beginning with a consideration of how the term “institution” is defined and continuing with an analysis of the dynamics of institutionalization, this chapter clears a path to thinking about institutions as a basic medium of evolutionary learning.

How should we describe social environments that result from, but also shape, our subsequent choices and actions? And how should we describe the products of joint social interactions that represent collective learning? Ordinary language offers a choice of at least three grand terms: “culture,” “technology,” and “institutions.” While the choice between them may seem merely academic, a moment’s reflection on each term suggests important implications for public philosophy.

In ordinary language, the term “culture” typically refers to the set of beliefs, values, practices, and symbols shared by a group of people. Culture connotes an all-encompassing set of taken-for-granted meanings fundamentally constitutive of identity and behavior. From a Pragmatist perspective, this attention to meaning is a clear advantage of using a term like “culture” to think about evolutionary learning. However, the emphasis on all-encompassing, shared, and taken-for-granted meaning implies that most cultural accounts do not stress the (p.23) reflexive or deliberative qualities of meaning. Although scholars of culture have argued that these are not necessary assumptions or conclusions, the colloquial meaning of culture is an important consideration for any public philosophy.

The term “technology” has nearly the opposite set of advantages and disadvantages. In ordinary language, the term refers to socially constructed objects used to achieve instrumental goals. From a Pragmatist perspective, this instrumentalism has useful connotations for problem solving.1 Technologies are deployed to solve specific problems, implying a level of critical self-reflection about their use and design. Although scholars of technology have shown that they are expressions of culture and can themselves become constitutive of thought and identity, technologies are popularly conceived as “means” rather than “ends.” Again, this colloquial meaning is an important consideration for public philosophy.

As pointed out in chapter 1, Pragmatism attempts to draw meaning and action—and, by extension, culture and technology—closely together. Dewey’s philosophy has, in fact, been characterized as “cultural instrumentalism” (Eldridge 1998). The term “institution” captures this dualism of meaning and action better than either of the alternatives. In colloquial terms, it is common to talk about an institution as representing and embodying the beliefs and values of a community. We speak of a beloved organization or practice in our community by saying “that’s a real institution here.” But it would not be unusual to hear a politician say, “We have created a new institution to solve the debt crisis.” Academic debate also tends to divide over whether institutions embody cultural meaning or are primarily tools for achieving instrumental purposes.2

An institution can be both a cultural framework and a technology and it is this Janus-faced perspective that makes institutions good candidates for evolutionary learning. As cultural frameworks, institutions sustain and accumulate meaning; as technologies, they are used to address concrete problems. Potentially, they sustain and accumulate the lessons from past problem solving while subjecting those lessons to the test of contemporary problems. While a less productive relationship between culture and technology often prevails in institutions, this is still an important potential.

If we treat institutions as the medium of evolutionary learning in public affairs, then we can build directly on a tradition of institutional thought inspired by Pragmatism.

Pragmatist Institutionalism

Contemporary institutionalism has broad interdisciplinary reach across the social sciences. To advance this book’s goal of developing a social science informed by Pragmatism, the book begins by revisiting a rich tradition of (p.24) Pragmatist institutionalism largely overlooked by current discussions of institutionalism. It is true that the founding Pragmatist philosophers—Charles Peirce, William James, John Dewey, and George Herbert Mead—did not themselves have a well-developed theory of institutions. James is sometimes even seen as an anti-institutionalist (Weinstein 1971). But Mead and Dewey, in particular, understood that institutions stand at the center of public life. Mead viewed society as “institutionalized social action” (Athens 2005, 307). Dewey mentioned institutions repeatedly in his work, calling institutions “the only means by which positive freedom in action can be secured” (1957, 166). Although the founding Pragmatists lacked a theory of institutions, they inspired a number of attempts to develop one.3

There are three recognizable branches of this institutionalist tradition: a sociological version developed by Charles Cooley and Everett Hughes, and advanced by the “Chicago School” of Sociology and symbolic interactionism; an economic version, associated with Thorstein Veblen, John Commons, Claude Ayres, and other institutional economists; and an organizational theory version, powerfully expressed by authors like Mary Follett and Philip Selznick.4

Taken together, the work of the Pragmatist institutionalists is rich but not as powerfully synergistic as it might be. It is not straightforward to find common theoretical touchstones that unify all three branches. However, by triangulating among the founding Pragmatist philosophers and these different schools of thought, it is possible to advance four foundational claims for this tradition. Pragmatist institutionalism is based on and motivated by (1) a Pragmatist model of psychology; (2) an emphasis on the interpretation and production of meaning; (3) an understanding of institutional life as a dynamic “going concern”; and (4) a naturalistic stance toward institutions, one that understands them in situ. Each claim is developed in greater detail below.

Pragmatist Psychology

The founding Pragmatists toiled at the boundaries of philosophy and psychology. Peirce sought to understand the cognitive basis of belief and reason, and James’s Principles of Psychology was the leading psychology text of his era. On these foundations, Dewey and Mead elaborated distinctive perspectives on individual and social psychology. The early Pragmatist institutionalists drew heavily on this Pragmatist psychology,5 which featured a multitiered view of mind that stressed the interaction between emotion, habit, and reflexive intelligence.6 Habit, or what we might today more broadly call “learned behavior,” was central to the Pragmatist psychology of Peirce, James, Dewey, (p.25) and Mead (Baldwin 1988; Lawlor 2006; Cohen 2007; Hausman 2008)7 and was particularly important to Veblen and the institutional economists (Hodgson 2004, 2007).8

It is worth noting that Herbert Simon’s idea of routine was inspired by William James’s interpretation of habit as a way of economizing energy (Barbalet 2008). However, Simon’s concept of routine veered away from the Pragmatist understanding of habit by treating routine as an automatic response distinct from cognition or emotion. By contrast, Pragmatism understands habit, cognition, and emotion as closely intertwined (Cohen 2007; Baldwin 1988). Whereas Simon’s concept of routine makes it analogous to automatic machinery, Pragmatist institutionalism associates habit with what today we might more readily call “skill” (Barbalet 2008).9 For Pragmatism, a habit is a competency or a capacity, a view exemplified by Veblen’s study of craftsmanship.10 For James and Dewey, habits also shape ends and are not simply means (Lawlor 2006). In fact, Dewey understood “character” as a bundle of moral habits—a perspective that influenced Selznick’s (1957) argument about institutional character.

For Pragmatists, habit and creativity are also entwined. In his essay “Fixation of Belief,” Peirce argued that we draw inferences habitually; and, as developed in his concept of abduction, he also suggested that these habitual inferences could be creative.11 Peirce thought that we arrived at hypotheses through educated guesses and that our capacity to guess was partially innate. He distinguished learned and unlearned innateness, with habits being a form of learned innateness.12 Recent work in the Pragmatist tradition emphasizes this close interaction between habit and creativity. Sabel (2006) describes the way that continuous revision of “routines” provides the foundation for highly productive and innovative organization. Berk (2009) and Berk and Galvan (2009) emphasize the creativity inherent in recombining existing habits to confront novel problems, a process they call “creative syncretism.”

The Interpretation and Production of Meaning

Pragmatism is centrally interested in meaning and stresses the role of symbols in the mediation of social life. Building on Dewey and Mead, Herbert Blumer summarized this perspective in his articulation of the three core principles for symbolic interactionism: (1) “human beings act towards things on the basis of the meaning that the things have for them”; (2) “the meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has with one’s fellows”; and (3) “these meanings are handled in, and modified through, (p.26) an interpretative process used by the person in dealing with the things he encounters” (Blumer 1969, 2). These orienting principles express the way that Pragmatists place the continuous interpretation and production of meaning at the center of institutional processes.

Mead understood institutions as arising from a process whereby individuals engage in interaction through the mediation of symbols. As Athens writes: “According to [Mead], whenever and wherever people use common maxims to organize their joint actions, they are engaging in institutional social action” (2005, 307). Mead’s understanding of institutions included the idea of a “social object,” which “is the common attitude that participants assume toward a prospective social act’s construction.” Participants may thereby “simultaneously form a ‘common plan of action’ for its subsequent execution” (Athens 2005, 311).

Pragmatism closely links meaning to action. Therefore, meanings are not constructed once and for all, but they are continuously constructed and reconstructed through action. This leads to a situational view of meaning, which W. I. Thomas expressed by coining the phrase the “definition of the situation.” He argued that the definition of the situation was a central concern of sociology and it assumed a central place for the Chicago School of Sociology. Everett Hughes later built his approach to institutions around this situational view of meaning (Helmes-Hayes 1998).13

While stressing the meaningful character of institutions, the Pragmatist institutionalists also saw institutions in instrumental terms. Building on Dewey’s ideas of instrumentalism, the institutional economist Claude Ayres developed a view of institutions as “technologies” (Ayres 1951, 50–51). As discussed in the introduction to this chapter, however, it is important to appreciate how Pragmatism links this instrumental view of institutions to a more cultural understanding of how institutions embody meaning (again, this follows from the stress on the close link between meaning and action).14 Selznick (1957), for example, argues that organizations, as social technologies, only become institutions when they become valued in their own right. In making this argument, he draws directly on Dewey’s discussion of the continuous interaction of means and ends.15

Dynamic, Going Concerns

One of the strongest and most important commonalities among the Pragmatist institutionalists is the idea that an institution is a “going concern”—a social order that develops a reflexive concern about its own survival and functioning. Everett Hughes coined the term, which was later picked up by Commons and Selznick (Helmes-Hayes 1998). The idea of an institution as a “going concern” (p.27) was at the core of Hughes’s understanding of institutions and captured his dynamic, ecological, and experiential approach to institutions, as he described in the preface to The Sociological Eye:

In any society there are certain mobilizations of people for expression or action. They are “going concerns”; some people keep them going. Other people get moved by them or to them from time to time and they also keep them going…. If we are to study human society, we must attend to the going concerns, which are subject to moral, social, and ecological contingencies. (Hughes 1993, xviii)16

As can be seen from Mead’s concern with social maxims and Hughes’s idea of an institution as a going concern, Pragmatist institutionalism associates institutions with collective action. Commons was the most explicit in this focus on collective action, defining an institution as “collective action in control, liberation and expansion of individual action” (1931, 649). Collective action, he elaborated, “ranges all the way from unorganized custom to the many going concerns, such as the family, the corporation, the trade association, the trade union, the reserve system, the state” (1931, 649).

The term “going concern” suggests more than mere collective action. It implies a form of collective action that has become self-conscious. Distinguishing a group from an institution, Cooley, for example, wrote that an institution is “a continuous organic activity with a social heritage of its own and with methods of cooperation which it imparts to the persons who enter into it” (1927, 318). Seventy years later, Selznick makes almost the same point: “To see the corporation ‘as an institution’ is to view the enterprise as a going concern, taking account of relevant stakeholders, attending to long-run interests, being sensitive to the operative structure of authority” (Selznick 1996, 272). Note that this argument does not mean that the institution merely reproduces itself in an identical form, but rather that it develops an awareness of its own value. Survival—for example, reproduction—typically requires adaptation rather than stasis. Commons expressed this idea of reproduction and adaptation in terms of the continuous revision of the “working rules” of enterprises. For Selznick, it was the “character” of the institution and its “distinctive competence” that adapts (Selznick 1957).17

Pragmatist institutionalism emphasizes the dynamism of institutional change. Rather than understand institutions in equilibrium terms, they are better understood as continuous processes—a philosophic point stressed by James and embraced by Mary Parker Follett (1919) and Charles Cooley. Cooley described institutions as a “distinct organic process” (1927, 318). Symbolic interactionism also stresses this processualism, arguing that institutions (p.28) are best understood from the perspective of social interaction that produces a continuously negotiated order (Strauss 1988).18


Consistent with the idea that institutions are dynamic going concerns, Pragmatist institutionalism emphasizes the importance of seeing them as “lived in.” Jane Addams, who had a strong influence on the early Chicago School and on Dewey, strongly emphasized this idea of the lived experience of institutions. She criticized municipal reform that focused on the institutional machinery of government to the neglect of how these institutions were rooted in the lived experience of the community (Shields 2006). Everett Hughes and the symbolic interactionists followed in this tradition, envisioning institutions as “arenas” of social interaction, an idea made explicit in Anselm Strauss’s “social worlds model” (Strauss 1993). As Hallet and Ventresca (2006) argue, one of the values of symbolic interactionism is its emphasis on seeing these arenas as “inhabited.” An important implication of this naturalistic perspective is that institutions must be studied in situ—that is, from the perspective of the lived experience of institutional inhabitants.

This image of social arenas inhabited by people having concrete interactions and experiences supports an ecological perspective of institutions.19 Drawing on the Chicago tradition of sociology, Hughes made the first explicit description of the ecological character of institutions.20 He emphasized the specifically territorial or spatial meaning of the term “ecological.”21 Building on Hughes’s concept of institutional ecology, Star and Griesemer (1989) demonstrated how it helps reveal opportunities for institutional cooperation and conflict.

If we combine these four foundational ideas of Pragmatist institutionalism—Pragmatist psychology, the interpretation and production of meaning, dynamic going concerns, and naturalism—the rudiments of evolutionary learning come into view. The emphasis on habit as learned behavior conserves the lessons of experience.22 These lessons are continually reinterpreted and revised as new situations arise that require creative response. As institutions become more self-reflexive about their own survival and functioning, they can engage in more self-conscious and systematic revision of these habits. The contexts for this evolutionary learning are situated action and interaction linked together ecologically. As Chisholm (1995, 2001) has argued, Pragmatist institutionalism is a problem-driven model of institutional evolution.

This model of institutional evolution is both progressive and conservative, as suggested by Veblen’s interpretation of how institutions evolve: (p.29)

The habitual element of human life changes unremittingly and cumulatively, resulting in a continued proliferous growth of institutions. Changes in the institutional structure are continually taking place in response to the altered discipline of living under changing cultural conditions, but human nature remains specifically the same. (Veblen 1914, 18; cited by Cordes 2005)23

Commons also had a view of institutional evolution, which he envisioned as working something like the evolution of common law:

The decision, by becoming precedents, become the working rules, for the time being, of the particular organized concern. The historic “common law” of Anglo-American jurisprudence is only a special case of the universal principle common to all concerns that survive, of making new law by deciding conflicts of interest, and thus giving greater precision and organized compulsion to the unorganized working rules of custom. (1931, 651)

Although it is scarcely recognized in the organization theory literature, Selznick also had a view of institutional evolution. His later work on “responsive” law developed a valuable perspective on the implications of reflexiveness for the ongoing evolution of institutional processes (Nonet and Selznick 2001).

The tradition of Pragmatist institutionalism is without a doubt a rich one, but it is also rather fragmented. Although the traditions of institutional economics associated with Veblen and Commons, Blumer’s symbolic interactionism, and Follett and Selznick’s organization theory were all influenced by the philosophical tradition of Pragmatism, they drew on rather different sources of inspiration from that tradition. Veblen drew heavily on the idea of habit and evolution, as developed by Peirce, while Blumer drew most explicitly on Mead’s model of social psychology. Follet was clearly influenced by James’s processualism and pluralism, while Selznick drew on Dewey’s analysis of the continuous interaction of means and ends. There are deep affinities among these perspectives, but the very richness of the Pragmatist tradition makes a Pragmatist institutionalism difficult to unify.

The next section returns to basics. A good way to elevate what is common in the Pragmatist tradition is to reconstruct a basic definition of institutions that might serve as a common platform for further research and investigation. While definition is a mundane task, it is an important one. Institutionalists often neglect to define what they mean by their most fundamental term (“institution”), and when they do attempt definition it is often clear that different varieties of institutional theory begin from different starting assumptions. The (p.30) discussion that follows supports the goal of treating institutions as a medium of evolutionary learning.

A Transactional View of Institutions

Good definitions signal key dimensions of a phenomenon but avoid defining what should be explained. With this dictum in mind and inspired by the discussion above, we can begin with the following very general definition of institutions: Institutions are relationships between the symbolic artifacts that mediate social life and people’s experience of those artifacts. The use of the term “artifact” signals that institutions have an objective quality in that we treat them as having an existence outside our minds.24 To say that these artifacts are symbolic is to say that they embody subjective and intersubjective meaning. To say that institutions mediate social life indicates that we call symbolic artifacts “institutions” when we are referring to their role in mediating social interaction. To say that an institution is a relationship between people’s experience and symbolic artifacts is to emphasize that an institution is not the artifact per se, but the meaning the artifact has for people. By this broad definition, art, language, music, law, organizations, technology, and social conventions may all be institutions.

This very broad definition captures some of the essential ideas of Pragmatism. To think of an institution as an artifact endowed with meaning is to follow Pragmatism in trying to bridge the divide between subject and object.25 To focus on the meaning of artifacts is to emphasize the essentially interpretative quality of institutions. And to emphasize their social mediating role is to call attention to Pragmatist institutionalism’s emphasis on collective action. The reference to “people’s experience” highlights the “lived in” character of institutions. Experience is cumulatively carried forward from the past, even as people have fresh experiences in the present.

This Pragmatism-inspired definition of institutions can be made more specific. We are interested primarily in the conceptual aspect of symbolic artifacts. Concepts structure thought and social life, helping to reveal the bridge between “mind” and “society.” Free-floating concepts are not institutions per se. They become institutionalized only as their meaning becomes partially “fixed” (to use Peirce’s metaphor) in three senses. First, since Pragmatism insists on the “lived” character of institutions, the meaning of a concept depends on how it is concretely grounded in experience. Second, since concepts take part of their meaning from their relationship to other concepts, meaning is shaped by ecological relationships to other concepts. Finally, the meaning of concepts is bestowed not only by those who use them but also by third-party audiences who arbitrate their (p.31) use. Institutions can therefore be defined as grounded conceptual ecologies with audiences. A detailed justification of this definition is provided in an excursus at the end of this chapter.

Although the meaning of an institutional concept is partially “fixed” in this way, Pragmatism would locate the dynamism of institutions in indeterminacy. The meaning of an institutional concept is never fully fixed by past experience, ecological association, or third parties. Instead, the meaning of an institutional concept is ultimately “fixed” (for now) by its use in the present situation. Indeterminacy allows us to place institutions in a larger processual context that Dewey called “transactional.” A transactional approach rejects the idea of a fixed starting perspective and instead places elements in a larger field of action and examines their subsequent interaction (Dewey and Bentley 1949; Abowitz 2000; Garrison 2001).26 A transactional approach to institutions would focus on the interaction of concepts and experience over time as individuals and groups use them to respond to situational problems.

Variants of contemporary institutionalism that assume that institutions are “taken-for-granted” norms, “logics of appropriateness” or “stable equilibriums” often have trouble explaining institutional change. An analysis of the institutional process as a repeated transaction between concepts, experiences, and situations offers, therefore, some distinct advantages. In these transactions, individuals may utilize established concepts and experiences to confront situations in a way that simply reproduces institutions across time. When confronted with problematic situations, however, people may “abductively” create new institutional concepts (hypotheses).27 This logic is consistent with arguments about the importance of “ideas” for institutional change (Weir 1992; Parsons 2003). New concepts, however, often arise from a creative recombination of existing experience and concepts (Berk 2009; Berk and Galvan 2009).

A transactional view suggests that experiences with concepts will accumulate over time as they are used. A concept becomes more institutionalized as people develop a richer inventory of associations with it. As these experiences become dense, a kind of “lock-in” might occur, leading to path-dependent consequences (Arthur 1989; Pierson 2004). As research on expertise suggests, a rich set of associations between experience and concepts may lead to the ability to utilize concepts and experience in a skillful and strategic fashion sensitive to the logic of specific situations (Fligstein 1997; Klein 1999). In this sense, dense experiential associations may narrow the bandwidth of institutional behavior but they may also enhance freedom of maneuver within these bounds (experts are anything but arbitrary or random in the deployment of their experience). Much the same thing can be said about the ecological level. As concepts and experience become embedded in wider ecologies, their (p.32) meaning is constrained by their relationship to other concepts and experience. But freedom of maneuver may be enhanced as the ecology becomes more complex.

The final point about institutional processes follows from the argument about audiences. Pragmatist institutionalism regards institutionalization as a process whereby groups become self-reflective about the meanings they attribute to certain concepts. We can call an audience that has become collectively self-reflective a public. A public is an audience that communicates among itself and deliberates about the meaning of concepts and experiences. A community is a public that can act collectively to arbitrate the interpretation of concepts and control their meaning.28 The idea of communities as third-party arbiters of institutional meaning is at the heart of Selznick’s institutionalism (Selznick 1957, 1992).

Building on this definition of institutions and on the transactional perspective advanced here, evolutionary learning can be said to take shape through the following types of processes: (1) when experience is conceptualized or new concepts are articulated (conceptualization); (2) when concepts become grounded in concrete experience (contextualization); (3) when concepts and experiences become articulated in relation to other concepts and experiences (elaboration); and (4) when audiences form around the use of concepts and experiences (reflexivity). Recall that when we are referring to institutional concepts, we are assuming that they play a role in mediating social relations.

From any baseline situation, evolutionary learning can be said to occur at the institutional level when these processes of conceptualization, contextualization, elaboration, and reflexivity allow groups to more skillfully act together to understand and solve subsequent problems. For this to occur, we should expect to see socially mediating concepts being used more precisely or comprehensively or see them drawing on a richer set of experiences. We should also expect to see greater articulation and consistency in relationships between concepts. And we would expect to see audiences exhibiting greater competence and capacity to act reflexively about social concepts and experiences. Whether learning has occurred has to be judged from the point of view of a particular institutional audience.

As these indicators make clear, not all institutional change is evolutionary learning. Faddish new concepts may be developed that actually reduce the precision or comprehensiveness of situational action. These new concepts may ignore past experience or spawn unnecessary complexity. Institutional audiences may lose their capacity to act reflexively. As the next section argues, in judging whether evolutionary learning has occurred, we should also never lose sight of the role of power.

(p.33) Institutions, Politics, and Power

A criticism frequently leveled at Pragmatists is that they ignore politics and power. Therefore, we should consider how the definition of institutions as “grounded conceptual ecologies with audiences” lends itself to thinking about politics and power. It does so in several ways. First and foremost, politics and power exert themselves through the control of concepts. We may think of this control as the power of framing and agenda setting in specific situations or, more broadly, as the ability to control the discursive field of concepts. In any case, this is consistent with thinking about the institutional process as a transactional process, because framing, agenda setting, and discursive power all control the “premises of decision” (March and Simon 1958).

Second, politics and power are refracted through the experiential basis of concepts. Power is exercised by controlling the experiential associations that people develop with concepts and by controlling the associations between concepts. But even the powerful must work through or around the matrix of historically grounded meaning that concepts have for people.29 Powerful actors are often skillful in mobilizing these sentiments for their own purposes. But they must contend with audiences who have power to arbitrate the use and meaning of concepts. The power of audiences varies depending on their resources, organization, and unity.

The evolution of the concept “organic agriculture” offers an example of just how political and contentious processes of institutionalization and institutional change can be. In the 1930s, an international movement developed to reject the increasing reliance of farming on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. The term “organic farming” was first coined in 1940 by a British agriculturalist, Lord Northbourne, to capture his idea that the farm is an “organism” (Johnson 2006). He argued that a farm should be managed holistically and self-sufficiently, and he contrasted organic farming with “chemical farming.” In the 1960s, the counterculture movement embraced organic farming as a more “natural” relationship between humans and nature. Organic farming came to be understood as a challenge to “industrial farming,” with all that it implied about large-scale production, mechanization, reliance on imported energy and chemicals, monocropping, and commodification of products.

Although organic food was originally a small niche market, market size expanded dramatically in the 1990s, setting the stage for the current battles over the meaning of the concept (Guthman 1998). As production scale expanded, organic food was increasingly produced on an industrial scale, using industrial techniques and mass marketing. After a series of food scares, consumers (one important audience) saw “organic production” as a sign of safe food, and food producers came to recognize the value conferred by the label “organic.” (p.34) Marketing strategies increasingly exploited the natural image of organic food and governments stepped in to set organic standards (Pollan 2006). These standards focused on the production of food without the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. Critics of these developments argue that organic food production has been industrialized and commodified and that the meaning of “organic” has been gutted. Instead of meaning a sustainable, holistic practice of farming (farm as organism), the meaning of the term “organic” has increasingly come to mean “no pesticides or synthetic fertilizers used.”

The example of organic agriculture illustrates that the process of institutionalization can be a contested one that is shaped by the power of different actors to control the meaning of a concept. It also illustrates how institutional change takes shape through creation of new concepts (the concept of “organic”) and through subsequent elaboration or contraction of the meaning of these concepts. The meaning of organic farming has always meant farming without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. But for many it means something more than that—a more holistic and natural way of farming. From the perspective of this latter audience, recent consumerist trends in organic production certainly do not appear to represent evolutionary learning; they appear to erode the basic concepts and values of the organic movement.

The conclusion that evolutionary learning must be judged from the perspective of particular audiences is consistent with arguments made about “advocacy coalitions” in public policy studies. Those arguments assert that policy learning typically occurs within, but not across, advocacy coalitions (Sabatier 1988). Chapter 10 on collaborative governance will argue, however, that wider learning can be fostered by creating publics that bring stakeholders from different advocacy communities together.

Between Rational Design and Congealed Taste

To explore some of the implications of this conception of institutions, we can return to the discussion of the Janus-faced quality of institutions. Are institutions cultures or technologies or both? In some respects, this is a very old discussion. One of the founders of sociology, Max Weber, observed that tradition and modernity (gesellschaft and gemeinschaft) produced very different types of institutions. Traditional institutions are based on custom, while modern institutions are based on instrumental rationality. Yet because tradition and modernity are viewed as developmental stages, it has not always been fully appreciated how both patterns of institutionalization can be simultaneously at work in many “modern” institutions.30 One dynamic of institutionalization is a process of increasing context-dependence. (p.35) Institutionalization occurs through a process of pinning down institutions in a certain local context—embedding them in local understandings and social relations. The other dynamic of institutionalization, by contrast, is a process by which institutions become increasingly context-independent. The influential work of John Meyers, for instance, regards the institutionalization of science as a process whereby it becomes increasingly independent of any local context (Meyer, Boli, Thomas, and Ramirez 1997).

Context-independence is equivalent to treating institutions as free-floating concepts, while context-dependence is equivalent to treating them as densely grounded in experience. Gouldner’s (1955a) classic description of a gypsum plant illustrates both forms of institutionalization working at cross-purposes. He describes an “indulgency” pattern of management rooted in customary notions of work and supported by dense social relations. This highly context-dependent pattern of institutionalization creates a tangle of special social relationships, roles, and cultural practices. After the death of the chief executive “Old Doug,” a new management team brings a different dynamic of institutionalization to the plant. They seek to bureaucratize the management relationship, substituting formal for informal relationships and codified rules for customary understandings. As illustrated by Gouldner, context-independent institutionalization works by destroying context-dependent institutionalization.

Pragmatism, as you might now expect, would reject the dominance of either context-independence or context-dependence. Instead, it sees evolutionary learning as a productive transaction between the local and the cosmopolitan. The introduction of the Balanced Literacy Approach into school reform in the United States offers one example of how this relationship can be productive. Balanced Literacy is a theory of learning that can be taught to teachers. As a codified method, it is independent of the context of any specific classroom. The term “balanced” is the key to understanding the method. It refers to the balance between “mutually reinforcing ways of supporting students’ development as readers: reading to them, reading with them, and supporting them as they learn to read by themselves” (Stein, Hubbard, and Mehan 2004, 179). However, successful application of the balanced literacy approach is highly context-dependent. It requires teachers to tailor the method to specific student needs and classroom contexts, which can be difficult and require a mastery of certain skills. As Stein, Hubbard, and Mehan observe: “For most teachers, learning to implement programs such as Balanced Literacy involves shifting from a practice grounded in routine demonstrations of decontextualized, often low-level skills to a practice that incorporates improvisation within a loosely structured overall plan” (2004, 176). The production of this loosely structured improvisation actually presupposes much contextual scaffolding to be successful, as school reformers learned when they tried to extend the (p.36) method from where it was successfully developed (District #2 in New York City) to a larger school district (San Diego School District).

This example points directly to a fundamental tension in contemporary institutionalism about whether institutions can be rationally designed or whether they are so intricately embedded in the historically rooted experience of particular communities (“congealed taste”) that attempts to “design” them are doomed to failure. A rational design approach tends to treat institutional elements as context-independent technologies (and hence as modular units easily transported from one context to another), while the congealed taste approach sees them as thoroughly embedded in and dependent upon local cultures (and hence neither modular nor transportable). Experience with the balanced literacy approach shows that it is modular and transportable, but that successful implementation requires attending to the contextual scaffolds that support or hinder successful implantation.

Although rational choice institutionalism is the most explicit version of rational design, the assumption that institutions can be intentionally, consciously, and explicitly designed for specific purposes is widespread in the planning and policy professions (Pierson 2004). From this broader perspective, rational designs are essentially ideal forms. The assumption is that they can be described, specified, and evaluated in ways that are independent of specific contexts. It is this ability to describe institutions as ideal forms that allows the rational design approach to think about institutions as being subject to comprehensive engineering and reengineering. Design choices are understood to be synoptic: they are made at a particular moment in time and are comprehensive. An ideal form allows rational designers to conceive of how to optimize designs. Institutions are seen as concepts that exist independently of any social context. Although rational design may be quite successful, the limits of the rational design approach are suggested when we think of institutions as “congealed taste.”

The congealed taste perspective also has a long history in the social sciences as well as its own popular expression.31 It is colloquially expressed whenever someone says, “That’s not the way we do it here” or when cynics call reforms like the balanced literacy approach “fads.” The congealed taste perspective perceives institutions as resulting from the gradual accretion of action that establishes institutions on a habitual or customary basis. By contrast with the rational design perspective, the congealed taste perspective can scarcely conceive of institutions based in custom and habit outside of their social context. Congealed taste institutions are nearly synonymous with informal culture and tradition and part and parcel of the lifeworlds of people who inhabit them. Congealed taste institutions may be functional and they may be greatly valued, but it is difficult to conceive of them as objects of conscious design. They accrete in (p.37) response to a variety of local situations and are evaluated by the test of time. They are chosen, but not designed in the sense implied by rational design, and the choice is never comprehensive or synoptic. Moreover, they are part of a skein of practices, values, and loyalties that are essential to the very meaning of the institutions. To abstract a social object from these practices, values, and loyalties is to commit an error of reification. The danger of reification is that rational designers will believe that abstract social forms are self-actualizing, when in fact they depend on values and understandings accreted historically.

Pragmatism does not reject either perspective but instead seeks to harness them together. Dewey uses the metaphor of posture to make this point. He argues that we cannot simply will ourselves to stand up straight (i.e., rational design), if we have not developed the basic set of muscles (i.e., congealed tastes) that allow us to exercise good posture. However, it is possible to consciously improve our posture (i.e., rational design) over time through the conscientious development of these basic muscles (i.e., congealed taste). This posture metaphor for dynamic institutional evolution can be taken further. Consistent with Dewey’s philosophy of the environmental grounding of action, the posture metaphor suggests that higher-order skills (posture) are scaffolded by the refinement of lower-order skills (muscles). This skein of lower-order habits can easily become a constraint on higher-level performance. We can develop bad habits. Thus, the development of lower-order skills must be guided toward the achievement of higher-order purposes. They must be guided by a conscious (rational) image of posture as a desirable state. The general point of this Pragmatist perspective can be stated in terms of the metaphor of “scaffolding.” First, there is upward scaffolding, in which broader and more ambitious institutional goals can be conceived and institutionalized on the scaffolding of more basic institutional competencies. And second, there is downward scaffolding, in which more general or more comprehensive concepts guide the development of specific concepts and practices.

If the rational design perspective regards institutions as subject to comprehensive, planned change, the congealed taste approach regards change as an incremental affair that lacks an overarching design. The key to the Pragmatist position is to appreciate that lower-order institutions (concepts and dispositions) become scaffolds for higher-order institutional change. Thus, a Pragmatist might be skeptical of comprehensive, planned change because it often removes existing scaffolding without introducing sufficient scaffolding to support the reformed institutional design. On the other hand, a Pragmatist might be equally skeptical of incremental change as leading to either directionless drift or to reinforcing the status quo. The Pragmatist position on institutional reform is that reformers must first build the institutional scaffolding to support more comprehensive change. To give direction to this change, however, the direction (p.38) has to be envisioned (e.g., envisioning better posture), and this envisioning will occur via concepts that are somewhat independent and autonomous of existing practices. But with the end point of comprehensive change envisioned, the change strategy is approached more incrementally, building toward more comprehensive change by focusing on building up the necessary scaffolding.32

Institutional change in the Finnish system of labor protection inspections can partially illustrate this dynamic interaction between congealed taste and rational design. As described by Virkkunnen and Kuutti (2000), Finnish labor protection inspectors found the traditional inspection system unable to adequately cope with the task of inspecting firms (the problem). A close analysis of inspections identified the limits to inspection as arising from the individualized division of labor, where each inspector was assigned a set of firms to inspect using standardized inspection procedures. The analysis led to a rational design for a team-based inspection system to replace the individualized division of labor along with a priority-setting tool to replace the standardized inspection procedure. These new concepts were then tested in a particular context: one inspection district. But this was not the end of change, because the success of the new inspection system had to be supported by changes in management structure (new scaffolding), which in turn required a series of other institutional changes. These changes came into conflict with some of the supporting elements of the prior system of inspection (prior scaffolding). “What we see here,” Virkkunnen and Kuutti write, “is not a unified learning process of an organization but interacting learning processes in a network of dependent activities” (2000, 313). Change, in this case, was a combination of the incremental and the systemic.


Pragmatist institutionalism has a rich heritage largely overlooked by contemporary institutionalism. Institutional economists inspired by Veblen and Commons (Hodgson 2004, 2006, 2007; Bromley 2006) continue to argue that Pragmatist philosophy and psychology provides useful foundations for institutional economics. Dewey and Mead also remain an important touchstone for symbolic interactionists (Strauss 1988; Maines 2001) and for political institutionalists (Chisholm 1995, 2001; Whitford 2002; Berk 2009; Berk and Galvan 2010). In organization theory, there is also an increasing recognition that Pragmatism offers some distinctive contributions for understanding how organizations work (Sabel 2006; Cohen 2007; Ansell 2009).

This chapter tries to provide foundations for a more extensive conversation among these groups. It argues that Pragmatist institutionalisms share at least four common premises. First, a Pragmatist institutionalism is rooted in a (p.39) Pragmatist model of social psychology. Second, a Pragmatist institutionalism understands institutional formation and change as the interpretation and elaboration of meaning. Third, a Pragmatist institutionalism understands institutional life as a dynamic “going concern.” Fourth, a Pragmatist institutionalism adopts a naturalistic stance toward institutions, emphasizing “lived experience.”

Another way to build a broader platform for a Pragmatist institutionalism is to begin with common definitions. This chapter argued that institutions are relationships between the symbolic artifacts that mediate social life and people’s experience of those artifacts. The key symbolic artifacts are concepts. These concepts become institutionalized when they are grounded in experience, when they develop ecological associations with other concepts, and when audiences form around them. This definition of institutions as grounded conceptual ecologies with audiences provides a useful orienting framework for analyzing the potential for institutional evolution and learning.

Pragmatist philosophy steers us away from seeing institutions as static “things” (e.g., “objective” rules in rational choice institutionalism; “subjective” taken-for-granted beliefs in sociological institutionalism). Instead, it encourages us to think about institutions transactionally as dynamic, ongoing interactions between concepts, experience, and situations. This approach suggests that we can understand each institutional transaction as a form of active inquiry, which is deductive, inductive, or abductive. The abductive, hypothesis-generating aspect of inquiry adds an important element of creative action to institutionalism.

Finally, Pragmatist institutionalism rejects the extreme views that institutions are either straightforwardly the product of rational design or the result of a process of historical sedimentation. Instead, based on the definition of institutions as both conceptual and experiential, evolutionary learning arises from a dynamic tension between context-independent concepts and context-dependent experiences. From this perspective follows an emphasis on both the upward and downward scaffolding of institutional change. Rational designs are necessary for guiding purposeful institutional evolution, but successful design requires attention to its scaffolding by context-dependent dispositions. Thus, Pragmatist institutionalism calls attention to both the progressive and the conservative aspects of institutional change.

Excursus on a Pragmatist Definition of Institutions

This chapter advances a definition of institutions as grounded conceptual ecologies with audiences. This excursus unpacks this definition, providing a more detailed justification for each of its key terms.

(p.40) The term “conceptual” anchors the definition. The term is used to give more specificity to the phrase “symbolic artifact.” From a Pragmatist perspective, we want a term that points to how symbols are related to knowledge, inquiry, communication, cognition, categorization, and action. “Concept” is a good term for doing that. Concepts are mental representations that are abstract categories.33 Philosophers of concepts often use examples like “dog” or “red” to illustrate concepts, but “judge” or “court” serve as better examples of how concepts might form the basis of institutions. Concepts are fundamental building blocks of knowledge and are the key element in propositional statements, including rules (if concept x, then concept y). Mead called propositions that mediate social interaction “social maxims” and he liked to use the rules of baseball as an illustration—for example, “four balls and you walk” (Athens 2005, 312). “Balls” and “walks” are concepts that create a rule when linked together.

It is common in contemporary institutionalism to equate institutions with rules. “Concept,” however, better captures the communicational and constitutive role of institutions than does “rule.”34 Concept also better captures the “categorical” nature of institutions, as described by Mary Douglas (1986), and the central role of institutions in naming. Institutions start as named objects, to which more complex propositions like rules are then attached. It is difficult to imagine central bank rules without first naming the “European Central Bank.”

“Concept” is also more elemental than “discourse” or “narrative,” which are typically complex bundles of concepts. But like these terms, “concept” calls attention to the linguistic aspects of institutions. It is through this linguistic (or Peirce would say “semiotic”) view of institutions that we understand how they are linked to meaning and interpretation. Concepts enter into our communication and reasoning.35 Thus, understanding institutions as concepts, and not simply as habits or rules, allows us to appreciate how institutions become part our reflexive intelligence.36

A concept itself is not an institution. A concept that mediates social interaction becomes institutionalized when it becomes grounded in concrete human experience. Concepts are grounded to the extent that there is an accumulation of emotions, values, meanings, and habits oriented toward them or triggered by them. An experiential view sees institutions as products of concrete historical events; institutions are “inhabited” or “lived in.” Note that the definition of institutions advanced here does not define them in terms of habit, as do some Pragmatists. As learned behaviors, habits are a critical aspect of institutions, but the term “habit” is too narrow to define institutions. Experience is a wider term, around which James, Dewey, and Mead developed a considerable philosophical framework.37 However, consistent with the idea of habit, we can refer to the action-oriented attitude that derives from experience as “dispositions,” a term that Dewey often used interchangeably with the term “habit.” (p.41) Given their past experience (accumulated emotions, values, meanings, and attitudes), people have a disposition to interpret concepts and situations in a particular way in the present. A “disposition” implies a nondeterministic tendency to respond in a particular way.38

Institutions are grounded in a second sense. Dispositions link concepts to specific situations and hence to particular contexts. The meaning of a concept is not inherent in the concept itself or in the object it represents (Gabora, Rosch, and Aerts 2008). Nor can an institution be fully described by the generic dispositions associated with a concept, though this may be a reasonable and useful approximation. Rather, consistent with a Pragmatist view of action, dispositions are triggered or “fixed” (to use Peirce’s term) by other contextual information.39 Hence, we can say that an institution is really an interaction between concepts, dispositions, and situations. A certain disposition toward a social concept is invoked by a certain situation. From a Pragmatist perspective, a problematic situation (for Peirce, a situation of doubt) leads to reflection on both concepts and dispositions.

To focus on how institutions are concepts and experiences is to try to overcome a deeply rooted dualism. Put in the language of cognitive science, the Pragmatist definition of institutions advanced here is both representational (conceptual) and associational (aggregating upward from sensory experience).40 To put it in the language of epistemology, it is both rational (stressing the importance of a priori concepts) and empirical (concepts as generalizations from sensory experience). Some paradigms similar in spirit to Pragmatism, like ethnomethodology and some versions of cognitive science, see action as preconceptual (Garfinkel 1967; Suchman 1987).41 But Dewey’s model of action emphasizes the interaction between the experiential and the conceptual.42

Finally, institutions are ecological in the sense that grounded concepts form patterned relationships. Socially mediating concepts do not exist in isolation, but in broader ecologies of concepts and experience from which they take part of their significance and function and through which they create human environments. The term “ecological” implies that institutions are bundles of grounded concepts that exist in some interdependent relationship with one another. The term is largely interchangeable with the term “institutional field,” though “ecology” calls more attention to relationships while “field” calls attention to the landscape.43

One of the important implications of an ecological perspective is that it focuses our attention on the intersections and interpenetrations of social life. In their important work on “boundary objects,” Star and Griesemer (1989) advocate an ecological perspective on institutions. As they point out, one of the advantages of an ecological perspective is that it allows us to focus on the (p.42) intersecting character of social worlds. An ecological perspective also suggests that we think about institutions as embedded in at least three specific senses. First, webs of grounded concepts typically develop within specific spatial-temporal environments (which, however, are not easily bounded by space or time).44 Second, an ecological approach means that the formation of new institutions typically assumes and builds on the existence of other institutions. Thus, any use of a particular concept typically invokes and depends on the existence of other concepts. The concept “court” often depends on the concepts of “judge,” “lawyer,” and “law.” Third, an ecological approach suggests that the use of institutions will link a specific set of people together (recall the point that institutions are “inhabited”).

Finally, an “institution” is not simply a bilateral relationship between person and concept or even simply an interaction between two persons mediated by a concept. Pragmatism’s triadic logic suggests the importance of third parties—audiences. An audience is the collective third party that looks on as a person uses or evokes the meaning of a concept. The idea of “institutional audience” builds on Mead’s discussion of the “generalized other,” in which socialization occurs when people “take the perspective of others.” Though the audience may be a silent partner in any transaction, it can become an arbiter in the ongoing attempt of parties to create intersubjective alignment around concepts. The audience’s role as arbiter is crucial for understanding what the Weberian tradition calls “legitimacy.” An audience with a strong disposition toward a particular interpretation will bestow a strong legitimacy effect. However, just as there is no presumption here that an institution is based on shared values and meanings, there is no presumption that audiences are monolithic or that they will converge on the same dispositions. Conflict in institutional transactions may be reinforced and sustained when the parties take the perspective of others with different expectations.


(1) . For a view of Dewey’s thinking about technology, see Hickman (1992).

(2) . In fact, this has been a major point of divergence in the burgeoning institutionalism literature. Sociological institutionalists typically stress either the normative or cognitive aspects of institutions, while rational choice institutionalists emphasize how institutions are deployed instrumentally.

(3) . For the influence of Pragmatism on institutional economics, see Ayres (1951), Mirowski (1987), Pickens (1987), Bush (1989), Liebhafsky (1993), Albert and Ramstad (1997, 1998), Twomey (1998), Webb (2002), Bromley (2006), and Hall and Whybrow (2008), The Chicago School of Sociology and symbolic interactionism were strongly influenced by Dewey and Mead (Blumer 1969; Shalin 1986; Maines 2001). For the influence of Pragmatism on Follett, see Stever (1986), Mattson (1998), and Ansell (2009). On Selznick, see Selznick (1973).

(p.202) (4) . Arguably, there is also a political science tradition of institutionalism that could be associated with Charles Merriam and the “Chicago School” of political science, which strongly influenced Herbert Simon. A case might also be made for a pluralist institutionalism associated with Arthur Bentley, who co-authored Knowing and the Known with Dewey.

(5) . See Twomey (1998) and Kilpinen (2004) on Veblen’s social psychology; see Albert and Ramstad (1997, 1998) on Commons’s relationship to Dewey’s and Mead’s social psychologies. See Kilpinen (2003) for a more general discussion of Pragmatist psychology and institutionalism.

(6) . See Twomey (1998) on Veblen and Herranz (2003) on Cooley.

(7) . A habit, for Peirce, was a tendency to act in a repeatable way and was related to his larger search for a middle ground between chance and determinism (Hausman 2008). Habit is also connected to his idea of synechism, or continuity. As Miller describes Peirce’s view of habits as follows: “Habits are rooted in other habits, imply further habits, and are ramified in their interconnections (1996, 71).” For James, habit had the distinctive feature of being plastic and hence moldable (see his chapter on habit in Principles of Psychology). For Dewey, the distinctiveness of habit was its disposition to action and the connection it made between mind and body (see especially his Human Nature and Conduct). Building on Pragmatist and Veblenian traditions, Hodgson has recently defined habit as “a disposition to engage in previously adopted or acquired behavior or thoughts, triggered by an appropriate stimulus or context” (2006, 6).

(8) . The Chicago School of Sociology actually had a rather ambivalent stance toward the concept of habit and symbolic interactionism largely dropped the idea of habit altogether (Camic 1986; Baldwin 1988). For a broad overview of the use of “habit” in sociology, see Camic (1986).

(9) . Webb writes that: “Ayres’ favorite analogy made the choice of the appropriate wrench by a skilled mechanic analogous to the instrumental choice of a public policy to deal with a social problem” (2002, 991).

(10) . Murray Murphey, in his introduction to Veblen’s Instinct of Workmanship, writes: “A habit, of course, characterizes an individual at a particular time, but when habits are widely shared and become established within a group, Veblen called them institutions. Thus for Veblen institutions were not organizations or objects but habits or complexes of habits. For example, when Veblen said that private property was an institution, he referred not to the objects owned, but to the set of established beliefs constituting prescriptive rights and duties, by which the objects are made to be property. Institutions then are shared established beliefs, and as beliefs change so institutions change” (xxxiii). Murphey goes on to distinguish Veblen from James and Dewey: “It is at this point that one can see how radically Veblen differed from writers such as James and Dewey. In Veblen’s view it was the group—the community—that was important in understanding sociocultural change, not the individual. It was the group that carried the gene pool which determined the instincts or motives of its members, and it was the group that created and transmitted the habits that provided the means for their fulfillment. Individuals are just particular combinations of instincts and habits, and their behavior is explained by their twin heritage” (xl). It is true that James did have a more individualist psychology, but Murphey’s argument is less appropriate for Dewey, who largely subscribed to Mead’s view of socialization (Whipple 2005).

(11) . Bromley (2006) builds his institutionalist model of “volitional pragmatism” on Peirce’s model of abduction. Institutions, he argues, are built on “settled belief.” But he argues that institutional change operates abductively.

(12) . This brings the idea of abduction close to the idea of intuition, tacit knowledge, and sense making. Paavola (2005) argues that abduction is more deliberate than intuition: “A paradigmatic example of abductive reasoning is a detective’s reasoning … where various, and minute clues help to delimit and instigate the search for hypotheses, and (p.203) where the goal is to find such a pattern to which all the relevant information and clues can be fitted.” See Miller (2008) for a discussion of the Pragmatist affinities of Polanyi’s work on tacit knowledge and a comparison with Herbert Simon’s work.

(13) . Note, however, that Helmes-Hayes (1998) regards this situational perspective as distinguishing Hughes from the symbolic interactionists.

(14) . As Webb notes: “Dewey’s instrumental analysis of ethical problems could hardly be further from straight-line instrumentalism. In attempting to fashion solutions to practical social problems, conflicting ends are present from the beginning, and new ends emerge and old ends are modified in the process of inquiry. In Dewey’s view, means and ends interpenetrate and reshape each other. Neither is seen as ‘outside’ or fixed or beyond criticism” (2002, 993).

(15) . See Whitford (2002) for a good discussion of the importance of the continuous interaction of means and ends to Dewey’s philosophy.

(16) . This view of institutions leads to a focus on conditions that allow persistence through time. Paralleling Max Weber’s work on bureaucracy, Hughes focused on the role of functionaries in the organization. Abbot notes that although Hughes is largely forgotten as an institutional theorist, he continues to be remembered and used for his work on occupations and careers (Abbott 1992). And in his defense of the “old” institutionalism, Stinchcombe (1997) points to the value of seeing institutions as “staffed.”

(17) . Stinchcombe describes this link between character and distinctive competence as one of the most valuable features of the “old institutionalism.” In describing Coase’s “old institutionalist” notion of transaction costs, he provides the following example: “Similarly, a university contracts out its janitoring and waste removal tasks, but keeps it research and teaching in-house, because it has a believable commitment to scholarship, and no noticeable commitment to clean buildings” (1997, 12).

(18) . Barzelay and Gallego have recently described an “institutional processualism” consistent with a Pragmatist perspective: “Like both processualism and institutionalism, institutional processualism takes a strong interest in how situated interaction (and, in this way, human agency) can feed back upon context” (2006, 538).

(19) . The broader intellectual influences that support an ecological perspective certainly include Darwin, but they also include James’s defense of relational thinking in his “Essays on Radical Empiricism.”

(20) . According to Stinchcombe, Commons shared this ecological perspective: “What Commons (especially when combined with Schumpeter) managed to do, then, was to jump over the institutionalism of organizational ecology of one population (developed especially by Adam Smith for firms, and theorized differently by Hannan & Freeman) directly to the establishment of an evolutionary ecology of multiple competing species (defined by their working rules and by the opportunities—or niches—those exploit)” (1997, 14).

(21) . Dewey saw character as the interpenetration of habit. This is an ecological conception at the individual level.

(22) . As a model of institutional evolution, this Pragmatist view has some clear affinities with Nelson and Winter’s (1985) model of evolutionary learning in organizations. Building on Herbert Simon’s model of organizations as a bundle of routines, they view institutional evolution as the process of natural selection of routines.

(23) . Hall and Whybrow (2008) have argued that Veblen’s theory of institutional evolution was derived from Peirce’s idea of continuousness.

(24) . To stress the artifactual character of institutions is to draw a connection with the work of Vygotsky and activity theory. For a good discussion, see Miettinen and Virkkunen (2005).

(25) . The approach here is similar to that elaborated by Mead in his critique of Cooley’s “mentalistic” view of social action, though Schubert (2006) argues that Mead misinterpreted Cooley.

(p.204) (26) . As Garrison writes: “An event has no antecedent fixed meaning or essence; instead, meaning and essence emerge as a consequence of transactional processes” (2001, 286). He also points out that Dewey and Bentley have a specific transactional understanding of situation: “Thinking about ‘situation’ transactionally reminds us that environment and organism, or context and actor, are methodological distinctions within a single, unified, ever-evolving subject matter” (2001, 288).

(27) . Nonaka (1994) summarizes Bateson’s argument about how abduction is related to concept formation: “According to Bateson, concepts are created through deduction, induction, and abduction. Abduction has a particular importance in the conceptualization process. While deduction and induction are vertically-oriented reasoning processes, abduction is a lateral extension of the reasoning process which centers on the use of metaphors. Deduction and induction are generally used when a thought or image involves the revision of a preexisting concept or the assigning of a new meaning to a concept. When there is no adequate expression of an image it is necessary to create completely new concepts” (1994, 25). Carr et al. rely on Boje’s description of abduction: deduction verifies a priori theory; induction generates theory from observations; and abduction relies upon intuition and ongoing inquiry where researchers “have a more spontaneous creative insight they speculate may be tied to their data.” (2004, 84).

(28) . The Pragmatist notion of community, however, is transactional rather than essentialist. As Seigfried writes: “If communities exist in virtue of what their members have in common—preeminently aims, beliefs, aspirations, and knowledge—then there are few intact communities in contemporary postindustrial societies. Dewey recognizes that only through communication can a common understanding in the sense of similar emotional and intellectual dispositions be reached” (1999, 208). See Follett’s essay “Community as Process” for additional thoughts along this line (Follett 1919).

(29) . I see this point as consistent with Dorothy Smith’s idea of “institutional ethnography.”

(30) . Of course, this point has been emphatically made by some scholars (Rudolph and Rudolph 1984).

(31) . For example, recall Burke’s critique of the French revolution. Congealed taste is equivalent to the idea of sedimentation described by Berger and Luckmann (1967).

(32) . For a Pragmatist, envisioning the end point in a sequence of institution-building moves is a powerful way to prevent directionless drift or the reinforcement of the status quo inherent in incremental moves. As best described by Dewey, however, ends and means are in an endless cycle of coevolution. The envisioned plan—which Dewey called the “ends-in-view”—must also be adapted to these incremental adaptations. Like incrementalists, a Pragmatist does not regard it as simple and straightforward to predict the changes that will arise from design interventions. Therefore design strategies need to be revised as the institutional scaffolding for change is built.

(33) . To focus on concepts is not to assume that they necessarily work as imagined by classical logic. They often operate more like Wittgenstein described them in his idea of language games. Concepts are polythetic (Needham 1975)—people may attribute many, often contradictory, meanings to a concept (as suggested by the definition of “institution”!). The idea of concept that comes closest here is that suggested by the work by Rosch, Lakoff, and Johnson on the relational and embodied character of concepts. (See Johnson [2006] for a discussion of the affinities between this embodied view of mind and the Pragmatist view of mind.) This polythetic, embodied view of conceptual meaning allows us to appreciate the metaphorical quality of institutional action. For a discussion of the relationship between metaphor and concept formation in Peirce’s semiotics, see Sorenson and Thellefsen (2006).

(34) . In attempting to revive a Pragmatist institutional economics, Bromley (2006) and Hodgson (2006) both equate institutions with rules. As Hodgson writes: “Hence an institution is a special type of social structure that involves potentially codifiable and (evidently or immanently) normative rules of interpretation and behavior” (2006, 4). (p.205) While sympathetic to their larger project, this focus on rules is too narrow. A number of Bromley’s examples actually illustrate the more foundational role of concepts. For example, he uses the following illustration: “Official categories define who we are and what we may do. The terms husband and wife are legal concepts, and so the state sets the minimum age (even the gender) for which individuals may acquire those appellations” (2006, 37). And elsewhere, he provides the following example: “We see, therefore, that the concept of income (and of profit) is itself a social construct. If this is doubted, engage an accountant with good knowledge of American and European accounting protocols in a conversation. You will quickly learn how the concepts of profit and loss differ under two distinct social, economic, and political settings” (2006, 42).

(35) . But this is true not just of Selznick but also of the Durkheimian tradition of institutional analysis, which sees conceptual distinctions as developing sacred meaning. Yet the advantage of a Pragmatist theory of institutions over a Durkheimian approach is that Pragmatism rejects any strong distinction between psychology and sociology.

(36) . See Mary Douglas’s How Institutions Think (1986) for a powerful reflection on how institutions enter into our thought processes.

(37) . “Experience” was arguably the most central concept in Dewey’s philosophical work and he wrote three major books exploring the idea: Education and Experience, Experience and Nature, and Art as Experience. These works built on James’s pathbreaking work on experience in Varieties of Religious Experience and Essays in Radical Empiricism. Although the term “experience” may have been less central to Mead’s work, Mind, Self and Society can be interpreted as specifying the social and communicational basis of experience.

(38) . This emphasis on “disposition” is quite consistent with the meaning Peirce gave to habit. Peirce sought to find a middle way between “chance” and “determinism” and his emphasis on habit reflected this middle path.

(39) . This idea builds on Peirce’s triadic analysis of semiotics. As in his model of semiotics, context may be other concepts or dispositions.

(40) . D’Adderio’s (2008) discussion of the continuous interaction between formal rules and SOPs and behavioral routines develops a very similar argument.

(41) . Miettinen (2001) discusses the meaning of practical reason for new sociological institutionalism, which draws on Garfinkel’s notion: “Ethnomethodology studied the preconscious ‘practical reason’ (knowledge without concepts) governed by rules that are recognized only when they are breached.”

(42) . For a good discussion of this point, see Miettinen (2001). The parallel being drawn here is between institutions as grounded concepts and Dewey’s discussion of reflexivity and habit. Concepts are analogous here to reflexivity. Concepts, while grounded in context, always have a decontextualized aspect. They are, in Peircean terms, “generals.” By contrast, my discussion of the grounding or funding of concepts in experience is parallel to Dewey’s idea of habit. The institutional process is therefore, following Dewey, a continuous interchange between the grounding of concepts in experience and the reflexive use of concepts to reconstruct experience. (Note the discussion by Morris [1999] on the way that Pragmatism is “theory centric,” which focuses on how theories are used to reconstruct empirical understanding).

(43) . “Ecology” is also a close cousin of the term “system.” Both terms tend to imply some interdependence between parts that make up a larger whole. However, the term “system” implies that the parts play some specific functional role in the maintenance of the whole. This may be true, but often is not. The term “ecology” assumes interdependence and interconnection but does not assume functional relationships. Ecological relationships are as likely to be competitive and conflictual as they are functional. The term “system” also implies that the broader institutional logic of interdependence is somehow independent of how people use and create this interdependence. By contrast, the term “ecology” signals the environmental groundedness of institutions and (p.206) suggests that patterns of relationships are created by social interaction and by the use of institutions.

(44) . For a good empirical example, see Mohr and Duquenne (1997). On the idea that concepts often hang together as systems see Dewey (1910, 180).