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Institution ( Latin institutum "establishment") is a term that is not uniformly defined in economics and social sciences . In general, including a regulatory and control system is understood as the social behavior and actions of individuals, groups and communities formed in a way that stabilizes and guides it in the results for other interaction is expectable participants. Often it is understood as fixed social institutions such as authorities , courts , universities and schools (analogous to English usage). Sociologically, however, such structures could be more precisely described as institutionalized social organizations .

The definition of institutions most frequently used today comes from Douglass North , who describes it as the formal and informal rules of the game of a society that determine the incentive structures for political, economic and social interaction.

The effects of institutions ( institution building ) and their structures are diverse and comprehensive. For example, modern explanatory models for the growth and success of communities and states point out the importance of long-term, continuous institutional framework conditions such as legal security (low corruption rate, effective courts, contract and register security ) or public security .

To the conceptual history

Institutions are the subject of various social science disciplines. The most overarching definition of the term is that an institution is a system of rules that creates a certain social order . According to a representative sociological dictionary, institution refers to “any form of consciously designed or unplanned stable, permanent patterns of human relationships that are enforced in a society or supported and actually 'lived' by the generally accepted notions of order.

The consideration of political institutions goes back at least to Jean-Jacques Rousseau . However, the early political theories saw political institutions merely as arenas in which political action takes place, but which are determined by more fundamental forces. Comparative government studies dealt with the institutional basis of the constitutional order, especially in the (today) western world . It was about formal institutions.

In their classic sociology of knowledge, The Social Construction of Reality (1966), Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann presented an influential but also broader definition of the term institutional, which regards institutions as sedimentations of dynamic social processes: “Institutionalization takes place as soon as habitualized actions occur Types of agents are typified reciprocally. Every typification that is carried out in this way is an institution ”. This includes predetermined, standardized sequences of action (such as greeting and introduction) as well as ceremonial processes (such as baptism and funeral).

Arnold Gehlen's philosophical anthropology ascribes institutions “an almost fundamental importance” for human activity. It understands institutions as instinct substitutes and compensation for the instinct-reduced equipment of the human being; through them the “quasi-automatic habits of thinking, feeling, valuing and acting” are habitualized and thus stabilized. According to Gehlen, institutions emerge from people's “thinking and acting” among one another and “become a power that enforces their own laws right into their hearts”.

A new institutionalism developed from the mid-1970s . This was a countermovement to conventional behavioral theoretical approaches and the theory of rational decision , which are largely considered to be "institution-blind". In sociological and economic neo-institutionalism, in contrast to classical institutionalism, non-formal institutions are also considered alongside formal institutions. How broad the term “institution” is to be understood remains a matter of dispute. Scientists inspired by economics define the term more narrowly than scientists who are sociologically inspired, who also view cognitive rules of human behavior as an institution.

Differentiation from the concept of organization

The term is used in economics , within the framework of institutional economics , to explain the formation of companies and company boundaries - often because of the inadequacy of the organizational concept that is often developed there (and in business administration ). Organizations are groups of people who share a common goal. The characteristic “organization” is then the formally defined membership. Each member has to submit to the specific rules of the organization - or to choose the always available "exit option". Institutions, on the other hand, are rules that apply to entire societies or their subsystems.

The New Institutional Economics as a paradigm of economics, however, understands institutions as a rule that serves to reduce uncertainties. On the one hand, institutional rules limit the possibilities of human action and thus shape the incentives in the exchange of goods; on the other hand, social rules enable certain - civilized (here) barter transactions - behaviors by forbidding others - initially violent ones, here: robbery, theft.

The institution is a system of interlinked, form-bound (formal, i.e. legally fixed, i.e. state sanction-reinforced) and form-independent (informal, i.e. factually accepted in society) rules. An institution has the function of steering individual - and thus social - behavior in a certain direction. Some believe that this controls the so-called incentive structure of a society , although no helmsman can be identified and although incentives suggest reactions guided by individual interests that cannot be observed with the mostly cooperative rules - institutions. Institutions are self-organizing systems of rules. Institutions bring order to everyday actions and thereby reduce individuals' uncertainty about what other individuals will do in certain situations.

Institutions thus lay out the social rules of the game for the strategic games of the individual organizations that follow their private interests. However, the institutional rules of the game do not necessarily encourage cooperation between the actors. There are also institutions that decisively restrict the efficiency and creativity of human or organizational interaction and with serious negative effects on economic development. Just think of the typical for many institutions exclusion effects, such as to the Indian caste system . Attempts to limit the excesses of this institutional system through affirmative action , namely the targeted inclusion policy of the state towards the lower castes, turned out to be just as problematic . This led to the elimination of a part of the Brahmins' educational elite from highly qualified activities and thus to new efficiency losses in private organizations and administration.

The Brockhaus defines the institution as a "social, state or church institution in which certain tasks, mostly in a legally regulated form, are performed." However, this definition is outdated in the modern sense and in particular does not correspond to the current distinction between institution and organization.

More recent sociology avoided referring to complex issues such as the family or the Bundestag as an “institution”, since they encompass both aspects of the institution and the organization and seem to pose fewer fundamental problems in terms of organizational sociology . (The institution of marriage , taken in this way, is an organization whose members are the respective wife and the respective husband.) However, Michael Wildt took up the term of the institution again in 2003 as "fruitful" to explain the Reich Security Main Office in the time of National Socialism .


Examples of institutions are any rules and norms such as the legal system , DIN / ISO standards, corporate principles, the national language , rules of behavior as well as customs and traditions . Reference should be made to the sociological debate on ritual , which is often concerned with parallel social processes .

Many social structures can be described as both an organization and an institution. The university is an educational institution, but the specific university, e.g. B. Freie Universität Berlin, is an organization. The church is a religious institution and at the same time it has a complex organization .


Institutions guide the actions of people, limit the arbitrariness (the voluntary will ) of individual action, define the common framework for action and the obligations associated with it. Associated legitimation strategies and sanction mechanisms are developed for this set of rules . Institutions thus exercise a relieving function by ensuring a collectively organized satisfaction of needs and releasing the individual from elementary activities. On the other hand, they protect society from individually arbitrary actions and transform them into socially well-ordered processes.

According to the philosophical anthropologist Arnold Gehlen , institutions replace what is available to animals as instincts . Dieter Claessens criticized and differentiated this biosociologically (concept of the “instinct stumps”). According to Gehlen, they are necessarily inscrutable and alienated, but thus offer the possibility of greater freedom of action.

Institutions create clarity for the individual in the fundamental areas such as social reproduction , family ( kinship ), upbringing , education and training , food procurement, commodity production and distribution ( economy ) and the maintenance of a social order ( law , politics ) and culture (see Bernhard Schäfers 1995, pp. 134-137). They are “proven solutions to problems” for everyday life, which can also be imagined as a complex of patterns of action and relationships. Institutions can find their image in organizations , but must be clearly distinguished from them. While institutions provide guidelines for action, organizations formally define goals, membership and organizational processes.

In order to be effective, institutions must be observed.


Institutions are often brought into a hierarchical order according to the degree of restriction of design freedom. The further down the level, the more specific the associated institution is.

The first level
represents the social anchorage. At this level, informal institutions such as tradition , worldview and culture are particularly important. The institutions at this level develop very slowly through an evolutionary change. The theoretical basis is given by sociology .
The second level
is represented by fundamental formal rules of the game, such as a constitution and rules of law . The theoretical basis is given by the theory of rights of disposal .
The third level
is the control and incentive system. Private contracts are the basis . The theoretical basis is given by transaction cost economics.
The fourth level
Finally, it concerns the allocation of resources . The theoretical basis is given by the principal-agent theory .

Risks and opportunities from institutions

Total institutions such as prisons , psychiatric institutions, ship crews, monasteries , homes for the handicapped or boarding schools control all expressions of life of their members, so they can severely restrict the freedom of the individual, prevent social developments and thusviolatethe human rights of the inmates. That is why the European Association of Service Providers for Persons with Disabilities (EASPD, German:the European Association of Service Providers for People with Disabilities)pursues theconcept of de-institutionalizing the range of services for people with disabilities in Europe.

On the other hand, processes of “deinstitutionalization”, such as those in phases of social change , harbor the risk of relapse into risky, reckless behavior that is only concerned with asserting one's own wishes. The institution of trust is an indicator of the stability of a political system.

Mechanism of action

Institutions develop their effect through incentives , especially content- related requirements and sanctions . In this way, expectations , decisions and actions of individuals can be influenced. Ultimately, this has an impact on collective, i.e. macroeconomic, results.

See also


  • Peter L. Berger, Thomas Luckmann: The social construction of reality. A theory of the sociology of knowledge , 21st edition: June 2007, Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag.
  • Cornelius Castoriadis : Society as an Imaginary Institution. Draft of a political philosophy , Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, ​​1984
  • Mary Douglas : How Institutions Think. London, 1987 (German: How institutions think . Frankfurt am Main 1991).
  • Hartmut Esser : Sociology. Special basics . Volume 5: Institutions . Campus, Frankfurt am Main / New York 2000.
  • Arnold Gehlen: Man . Wiesbaden: UTB 1995.
  • Arnold Gehlen: About the birth of freedom from alienation . Complete edition vol. 4, Frankfurt am Main 1983.
  • Erving Goffman : Asylums . Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1972. (To total institutions)
  • Friedrich Jonas: Arnold Gehlen's institutional theory . Mohr (Siebeck), Tübingen 1966
  • Birgit Jooss: Art Institutions. On the emergence and establishment of the modern art business . In: History of the fine arts in Germany. From Biedermeier to Impressionism. Ed. by Hubertus coal, Munich / Berlin / London / New York 2008, pp. 188–211.
  • Douglass C. North: Institutions, Institutional Change, and Economic Performance. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge et al. 1990 Cambridge, ISBN 0-521-39416-3 (translated into German by Monika Streissler as: Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance (= The Unit of Social Sciences. Vol. 76). Mohr, Tübingen 1992, ISBN 3-16-146024-3 ).
  • Stefan Nowotny / Gerald Raunig: instituting practices. Fault lines of institutional criticism. Vienna: Turia + Kant 2008, ISBN 978-3-85132-513-3 .
  • Birger P. Priddat: Structured Individualism. Institutions as economic theory, Marburg: Metropolis, 2004.
  • Bernhard Schäfers (ed.): Basic concepts of sociology . 8. revised Edition, Opladen 2003.
  • Robert Seyfert: The life of institutions: Towards a general theory of institutionalization . Weilerswist: Velbrück 2011, ISBN 978-3-942-39321-8
  • Stefan Voigt : Institutional Economics . 2nd edition, Fink, Munich 2009, ISBN 978-3-8252-2339-7 .

Web links

Wiktionary: Institution  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wiktionary: facility  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Anette Auberle (Ed.): The dictionary of origin - Etymology of the German language . 3., completely reworked. and exp. Edition Dudenverlag, Mannheim, Leipzig, Vienna, Zurich 2001, ISBN 978-3-411-04073-5 , pp. 365 .
  2. See Hartmut Esser, Sociology. Special Foundations, Vol. 5. Institutions. Frankfurt a. M. 2000, pp. 12-14.
  3. cf. Jürgen Stark "On the importance of institutions in economic and financial development" in public. Inaugural lecture at the Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen on June 1, 2005, page 6. North's book Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance was published by Cambridge University Press in 1990 and has been reprinted many times. A translation into German was published by Mohr Siebeck in 1992 ( ISBN 978-3161460241 )
  4. cf. on this in detail Douglass C. North, "Institutions, institutional change and economic performance" (1992); William Easterly (2005), "National policies and economic growth: A reappraisal", in: Philippe Aghion, Steven Durlauf (eds.), Handbook of Economic Growth , Elsevier, chap. 15; Hall, Jones Why do some countries produce so much output per workers than others? in Quarterly Journal of Economics (1999), vol. 114, No 456, pp. 83-116; Rodrik, Subramanian, Trebbi Institutions Rule: The Primacy of Institutions over Geography and Integration in Economic Development (2002), Kennedy School of Government , Harvard University.
  5. ^ Karl-Heinz Hillmann : Dictionary of Sociology (= Kröner's pocket edition . Volume 410). 4th, revised and expanded edition. Kröner, Stuttgart 1994, ISBN 3-520-41004-4 , p. 373.
  6. Peter L. Berger, Thomas Luckmann: The social construction of reality , 2007/1966, p. 58.
  7. ^ A b Arnold Gehlen: Urmensch and Spätkultur. Philosophical results and statements . 5th edition. AULA-Verlag, Wiesbaden 1986, p. 8.
  8. ^ Arnold Gehlen: Man. Its nature and its place in the world . 13th edition. AULA-Verlag, Wiesbaden 1986, p. 79.
  9. ^ Douglass C. North, Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance , Cambridge University Press 1990, ISBN 978-0521397346 , p. 4 f.
  10. KS Ingole, A Critical Study of Social Exclusion # & its Implication , SNDT Women's university, Mumbai,
  11. Hans Heimes, The Mandal Commission , 2001,
  12. Brockhaus Enzyklopädie Vol. 10 1989, p. 544.
  13. ^ Franz Wolfmayr: The implementation of the UN Disability Rights Convention in Europe. EASPD's strategy for implementing the UN CRPD and its “roadmap for de-institutionalization” . Solothurn, November 7, 2014.