By Camille Steens
Mahoney and Thelen address the challenges of explaining change in institutions. If the idea of persistence is virtually built into the definition of an institution, they challenge us to think, then how can it change? Well, the authors of Explaining Institutional Change provide us with an intriguing answer. They argue that institutions instead of being completely self-perpetuating are subject to varying interpretations and levels of enforcement.
According to Thelen and Mahoney power is the driving force for change. Institutions can create certain power-distributions, some rules or the way they are enforced or applied benefit some and disadvantage others. Let us turn to a practical example to illustrate this idea.
An example from our own University Campus is the no smoking in the building rule. The Student Handbook clearly states, “smoking in any indoor location including your room and common room is not allowed. From the start of my time in the building however, I have smelled cigarette smoke all across the residential areas, especially during social events in the common rooms. Clearly, this is an example of a rule that is not enforced and therefore does not have its intended effect. Instead, an informal rule came about that smoking was allowed in all the residential areas.
However, slowly more voices started protesting against this informal rule. People who have a problem with cigarette smoke felt severely limited in their freedom to go to social events in the common rooms. As more and more people complained about the non-enforcement of the no smoking policy, it became clear that the informal rule had to change. A struggle over the meaning, application and enforcement of this rule ensued. Smokers felt that they were severely limited in their freedom to smoke in their own room. Therefore smokers did not comply with the rule. This created a gap between the rule and its interpretation and enforcement.
Consequently, the institution had to be changed to make it effective again.
The official rule itself is stable, in order to change the rules of the building and in the student handbook, many parties have to officially agree. However, the enforcement can be changed. At LUC, in order to create a rule that is closer to the desires of both the smokers and the non-smokers, enforcement now only happens in the common rooms, smoking in the private rooms of students is still, unofficially, allowed.
Therefore, at LUC institutional change took place in the ‘gap’ between the rule and its interpretation. All this happened because compliance with the institution changed over time.