both detailed institutional analysis and holistic critique

In our Introduction to Civic Studies course, we have been discussing how to analyze institutions–“analyze” in its root sense of dividing things into smaller components. Our major theorist is for these sessions is Elinor Ostrom, and we are learning from her how to think about the specific types of goods, actors, incentives, rules, and other aspects in play in each situation.

Our goal is not (merely) academic. I believe that institutional analysis helps people to support good institutions, to change or even subvert imperfect or bad ones, and to design alternatives.

Some of our students push back against this fine-grained analysis, because they want to interpret all the specific components of particular institutions in much larger contexts. For example, the police or the schools may manifest white supremacy, and that is the issue.

Meanwhile, they are working on a published case, “The Montgomery Bus Boycott.” In class, I suggested that Martin Luther King, Jr. and his colleagues were good at both interpreting specific circumstances in holistic terms and analyzing the details.

Starting the day after Rosa Parks’ arrest, King described the segregated bus system of Montgomery as part of at least three very large and deep histories: the global history of European colonialism and slavery, the struggle to create an American democracy, and a providential story of sin and redemption. These are debatable interpretations, but he offered all three explicitly.

Yet he also said, “But we are here in a specific sense, because of the bus situation in Montgomery. We are here because we are determined to get the situation corrected.” He and his colleagues realized that the privately owned and segregated buses depended on fares, and that by properly organizing an alternative system for getting Black workers to their workplaces, they could defeat this company. Their strategy required both analyzing the existing institutions of Montgomery to reveal a vulnerability, and also very cleverly designing a new institution, the boycott, that transported 17,500 people to work for many months.

I think each of us must decide which of these approaches to social problems we will develop and employ more. This is a personal and even existential choice, and I wouldn’t offer an answer for anyone else. But I do believe that our skills of holistic social critique have probably improved, thanks to the flourishing of several important schools of critique–of which Critical Race Theory is just the most controversial example at the moment. At the same time, I think our skills of institutional analysis have tended to weaken, mainly because too few Americans get hands-on experience leading associations.

Therefore, I would advocate for everyone to at least experience detailed institutional analysis so that we know how it works and form our own views of it. And I would argue that it’s better to put holistic interpretation aside while analyzing institutions, or else the crucial details will be lost. For instance, if you read everything as “neoliberalism,” you will not be attentive to the significant differences among firms, markets, and goods–differences that might create openings for action.

See also Complexities of Civic Life; civic education and the science of association;  a template for analyzing an institution; the legacy of Elinor Ostrom and the Bloomington School.

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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.