Routines, Institutions, and Unintended Consequences

Much of our time is spent acting within institutions without even thinking that our actions are being driven by a lot of rules and resources. From the moment of our birth, we are embedded within the structures of many intersecting institutions, and much of our time awake we act according to the peculiar structures that constitute them. The first of such institutions virtually all of us encounter from birth onward is family.

Institutions are human creations. We create them by establishing their structure and keep them in place by re-embedding the structure through the actions that reflect that structure. Anthony Giddens has elaborated a model for institutions in his classic text, The Constitution of Society, about how societies are formed and maintained. Giddens argues that such institutions are constituted by four structural elements:

  • rules of signification (sense making)
  • rules of legitimation (normative actions)
  • authoritative resources (power ordering)
  • allocative resource (the equipment used in institutional activities)

All sorts of familiar settings fit this categorization. All games, say chess, are institutions. They have their rules and equipment. Professions are another large class of institutions. To be a doctor requires that you have a particular configuration of the four structural elements. And these are going to be quite different from those of a teacher, etc. The institutional identity of games and professions is pretty clear, but it also applies to larger and more diffuse entities like family, school, religious organizations, companies, and stretches all the way to the level of society.

Institutions can be said to be structures that have been created to guide intersubjective behaviors, and reflect the inherent social aspect of the human species. They form a large part of the normative framework for our lives. Most of us move in and out of many institutions during our quotidian activities. They are all parts of our social being. Coherence, not rigid compliance, allows us to be creative and make choices as to our actions, so long as they conform to the rules and norms. Flourishing depends, in one of the two aspects, on cohering to the rules within and among the institutions we encounter daily and over the course of our lives. What I have called routine behaviors in the table in the last post take place in institutional settings.

Giddens’s four categories of structure are plucked out of the experience of acting within an institution by the left brain, first, during the training that one gets in order to become familiar with the facts about the institution, and, subsequently, during the routine enacting of those facts/rules. These facts/rules become embedded in the left hemisphere and form the “world” of that institution. The stability and permanence of institutions, in part, can be related to the left brain’s “assigning” equal ontological status to two kinds of facts. It does not distinguish between what John Searle, in his book Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization (2009), calls “brute” facts and “institutional” facts. Both contribute to the apparent reality of inner world of the left brain in the same way. Here are a few paragraphs I have extracted from my book about these two types of fact.

Brute facts are statements about the existence and properties of objects in the material world. That my house has three stories and is made of wood is a brute fact. My pen contains black ink. The Earth is about 93,000,000 miles from the Sun. The words fit the part of the world at which I am pointing. That is all the words do. . . . Brute facts about things that [appear in a familiar context, like my house] reside in the right-brain. When I talk or think about my house and describe it, I am drawing on the right side, but, when I talk similarly about objects in the abstract, that is, houses in general, I am drawing on the left-brain.

Unlike brute facts that exist prior to being talked about, institutional facts only appear when someone’s words imbue a common object with some status or power. The social world within which humans exist is unlike that of other creatures and is constituted by such language. Humans can impose “[status] functions on objects and people where the objects and people cannot perform the functions solely in virtue of their physical structure”. The amalgamation of these functions establishes the structure of institutions that range from those involving a few people to whole societies. Order in the institutions is maintained by an explicit or implicit agreement of all individuals to acknowledge the legitimacy of the functions and the authority of institutional actors, whether humans or artifacts, to perform them. Judges, parents, chess pieces, private property, or bosses are a few familiar examples of such actors.

Status functions are imposed on objects simply by saying that this or that function now exists, but only if spoken in a special linguistic manner. Neither any old speaker nor any old words will do. The words have to come in the form of a particular speech act, a Declaration. Declarations create a new reality, that is, they change the world in the act of uttering them. When a Professor says, “You failed,” you have, in fact, failed. Your future is different now from what it has been. . . Declarations alter reality merely by stating that something new now exists, and simultaneously causes it to actually exist. . . .

The importance of this capacity to create what Searle calls “status functions” is that they endow the target object with what he calls “deontic power(s).” Deontic, in linguistics or moral logic, refers to rights, entitlements, duties, obligations, and so on. A metal slug with a special pattern stamped on it becomes “money,” constituted by the powers that have been given to it, by Declaration. A fifty-cent coin obligates others to accept it in exchange for goods and services. A Professor has been endowed with duties like teaching, maintaining decorum, and assigning grades. All institutional facts are associated with ordinary objects or persons. The fifty-cent piece entails some legitimating stamping on a slug made of an alloy of copper and nickel; the Professor is an ordinary human being who has been given a title and powers by a university. In some places, Professors are distinguished from ordinary adults by the robes they wear.

Without the (deontic) powers, both the money and the Professor are merely brute facts: a piece of metal or and a human being, respectively. The winner of a chess match, the game of soccer, students, credit cards, banks, The U.S. Treasury, spouses, hospitals, and CEOs are all examples of institutional facts. On reflection, most of us would recognize that we exist in a veritable sea of such facts and the institutions that afford them such power. Searle argues that these status functions and their deontic powers are the “glue that holds human civilization together.” [This feature is entirely consistent with the social coherence aspect of flourishing.]

Institutional facts are abstract and reside in the left-brain. They cannot be perceived by the right-brain because they have no material reality. The artifacts associated with institutional facts, however, are material and can enter the view of the right-brain, but hold no special meaning for it. For example, a chess-board is a material object with physical properties that the right-brain could capture, but would have no idea of what to do with it. [The left knows the rules that make it a “chess board.”] Institutional facts are the guiding principles for undifferentiated behaviors.

Everything necessary for guiding routine behaviors is captured in the left-brain’s structure. It is a complete world. All (perhaps, but this may oversimplify the process) that is needed for the execution of a particular routine is a signal from the right that indicates what institutional setting constitutes the external, present world. Again, perhaps oversimplifying, the right is open to the instructions coming back from the left and transmits them to the proper parts of the body to be enacted. The right side continues to observe and transmits the new state to the left which, if it is consistent with its inner world’s expectations, sends the instructions for the next moves back to the right, and the process repeats itself until either the routine is finished or something interrupts the flow.

The above paragraph describes what might be a mechanical analog to the actual neuronal and other physiological processes that actually run the human body, but I think it is close enough for the purposes of an overall understanding of the divided-brain model (DBM). For those who believe that synchronicity strengthens the connections of what might be two independent happenings, this way of explaining fits the way that Martin Heidegger describes what being is all about, with one important difference. Heidegger’s being-in-the-world notion needs to be bifurcated to match the distinctive worlds presented by the two hemispheres.

The DBM has us behaving differently, depending on which of the two worlds being presented to us is, metaphorically, running the show. When the left is the master, the world in which we are planning and evaluating the success of our actions is interior, disconnected from whatever external reality we are immersed in at the moment. Conversely, when the right side is master, our intentions and evaluations reflect that outside world to which the right is connected. I will again to include the table that I showed in the previous posts, just in case you have not read them. (I would advise you to read these linked posts as a continuum.)

Basic Behavioral Modes

Master Hemisphere

External World

Mode of Being

Behavioral Type

Left

Institutional

Undifferentiated

Routine

Left

Familiar

Inauthentic

Habit

Right

Familiar

Authentic

Caring

Neither

Anywhere

Occurent

Curiosity–Learning

Neither

Laboratory

Occurent

Scientific Study

Right

Anywhere

Pure Occurent

Wonder

The mode of behavior, I label routine, fits his mode of “undifferentiated,” his choice to distinguish it from two other modes: authentic and inauthentic. His entire analysis of being, that is, the way we show up in the world through our modes of behavior rests on the notion of everydayness. The first three rows in the table circumscribe what are everyday behaviors. Heidegger sometimes seemed to refer to the second and third rows as variations of the first, and sometimes as distinct. I think this organization is less confusing. I will focus on the rest of the rows in subsequent posts.

His notions of present-at-hand and ready-to-hand fit this schema. The facts, both brute and institutional, that lie within an institutional world get their meaning from their involvement in the whole world and become transparent in the hurly-burly of routine behaviors. They are ready-to-hand. The material properties of these factual objects I would recognize when they are taken out of their routine, everyday, institutional context (present-at-hand) are not similarly apparent to the institutional actors. They are just part of the “equipment” available to be used. This category fits the humans as well as other equipment facts, which way of being apprehended accounts for some of the inhumanity humans may suffer in institutional settings.

I am going to continue to follow Heidegger’s phenomenology for a while because he has essentially invented a series of “modes of being” that virtually perfectly describe what I am defining as these left-brain dominated, institutional behaviors. The first case, that of unconscious, successful actions, that occur transparently without stoppage fit his mode of ‘availableness,” and is the primary mode involved in the social coherence half of flourishing. This mode of action is, fittingly, labeled “absorbed intentionality.”

Heidegger also argues that there are three kinds of disturbances (breakdowns) that occur when the intended action fails to work as planned. They also fit the divided-brain model. All change the mode by which we both encounter the world and act within it, and each corresponds closely to a different combination of left/right hemispheric dominance. The first form of disturbance is “malfunction” or “conspicuousness” and occurs when the equipment being (Heidegger’s word for the resources involved) used malfunctions and action is interrupted. Heidegger’s example is a hammer that is too heavy for the job at hand. If the left-brain has already stored knowledge about an alternate means of coping—say, picking up a smaller hammer—it can restore action without effectively breaking stride. The left brain remains in charge.

If there is no such already available alternate, the second mode of unavailableness, a temporary stoppage, “obstinacy”, may occur and the action shifts from absorbed intentionality to practical deliberation. Heidegger’s example is a hammer that loses its head. Computer use is full of examples, for example, when a pop-up ad appears in the course of reading a page on a browser. The right brain becomes active and takes in the scene, deliberates, and, in conjunction with the left, plots out and initiates an alternate way of coping, that is, completing whatever action had begun. The left side gives the right a role to play, but it (right side) remains largely dominant. The right, contrasted to the left, seems to be more of a pragmatist, trying new ways to solve problems, based on observations and connection to the situation than on categorical theories.

The third kind of disturbance, permanent breakdown or “obtrusiveness” occurs when no alternate can be discovered. The actor remains involved with the action, but is helpless to do anything to move the action forward. The institutional setting in which the action was taking place loses its transparency. The right-brain is now more fully engaged, but the actor cannot continue without help.

Because the left-brain is disconnected from the external world, it cannot “see” another type of breakdown that may accompany what appears to be successful actions; unintended consequences. These are impacts attributable to an action, but that occur outside of the institutional arena. Inequality is one example. The structure of political economy of the United States largely assumes that the market mechanism will allocate goods in the optimum way, given the initial conditions, but its functioning also results in widening the wealth gap. So each of us who participates in the economy (a major institution) is contributing to the growth of inequality. Climate change is another big unintended consequence of our employment of energy-consuming devices in out pursuit of institutional objectives at home, work and a myriad of other institutional activities.

Trying to get rid of or mitigate unintended consequences by attacking them directly is, in general, a non-solution because their causes lie unseen by the left-brains of the actors that produce them. Structural racism is another unintended consequence of institutional behavior. Racism may also be built into the structure itself in the form of rules and norms that favor or disfavor different races. This cause is easier to eliminate than that arising from unintended consequences, much of which can be traced back to the contents of the left brain’s of the actors traceable to their history in and outside of institutional settings. Failing to recognize this source of unwanted outcomes will interfere with efforts to deal with structural bias of all sorts. This limitation is valid for both routine, institutional behaviors and individual habits, the category I will discuss in the next post in this series.

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