Formal versus informal institutions

By Anique Zwaan

Helmke and Levinsky state in their article a basic definition for institutions: “rules and procedures (both formal and informal) that structure social interaction by constraining and enabling actors’ behavior”. However, defining informal and formal institutions are fairly more difficult and many give different interpretations to the definitions.  One way of defining them is by explaining that informal institutions are cultural traditions, and formal institutions are state-enforced rules.

As becomes clear by the statement above, there is a certain gray area around the definitions of formal and informal institutions. One example, where it is difficult to decide whether a rule is formal or informal is the case of women wearing hats in the Dutch Reformed Church (Dutch: Gereformeerde Gemeenten in Nederland).

This church requires women and young girls to wear a hat, thus covering their heads when they attend a service. If they do not wear a hat, they are denied access to the church. The question here is: is this a formal or an informal institution? You could argue it is informal, because it is a rule within a church, and it is not stated in the Dutch Law that women have to cover their heads when they attend a church. Thus, this particular rule could be seen as a “cultural tradition”. On the other hand, the church is an organisation, with its own rules, which it enforces upon its members. When you become member of a particular church, you agree to follow its rules and abide by them. This makes you question: is this or is this not an informal institution?