decoding institutions

Today I presented at Tufts’ Science, Technology & Society lunch seminar series on how knowledge and power interrelate. My basic thesis was that knowledge is produced by institutions, which are fields of power. Assessing knowledge therefore requires analyzing institutions (not claims about facts by themselves).

The general model I am assuming works like this.

Actors can be individual people or (at larger scales) such entities as firms, bureaus, or even nations. They have goals; mental constructs such as philosophies, identities, or ideologies; and relations with each other.

They interact in an Action Space, such as a market, a democratic election, or a scholarly publication. Their interactions vary, but actors always make choices shaped by rules, norms, and goods.

A “norm” is a shared expectation that has a positive moral valence. For instance, Robert K. Merton’s CUDOS Norms for science are values that are widely expected. An actual “rule,” on the other hand, structures outcomes but may not have a positive moral valence. Merton also coined the phrase “Matthew Principle” for the general rule that, in science, the person who is already most famous gets the most credit. That rule conflicts with the CUDOS norm of Universalism.

Action Spaces affect, and are influenced by, biophysical conditions, general social circumstances (e.g., poverty), and other institutions.

The institution as a whole has Inputs and Outputs. Insofar as the institution involves knowledge, Inputs may include ideas, opinions, and knowledge-claims and it may produce new ideas, opinions, and knowledge-claims.

We can assess the whole process in terms of value criteria, such as justice. Such assessments not only influence institutions; they are also shaped by institutions. In fact, we don’t have information or values that we can use for assessment except for those that have emerged from institutions. The interaction is reciprocal.

Each element of the whole system is a target for power. To use Stephen Lukes’ Faces of Power framework: one “face” involves actors influencing other actors within an Action Space; a second “face” involves changing the rules of the Action Space; and a “third face” involves changing either norms or the actors’ mentalities, or both. But we could add many more “faces” as we consider each element in the diagram.

We rarely assess knowledge directly, because we are rarely in a position to have justified true beliefs all on our own. Instead, we must assess knowledge as the product of institutions. But that is not a relativist claim, because some institutions are better than others. Assessing the value of an institution requires taking it apart and assessing its components.

See also: adding democracy to Robert Merton’s CUDOS norms for science; is all truth scientific truth?; tools for the #resistance; and a template for analyzing an institution

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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