Culture: an informal institution in disguise?

By Lauke Stoel

In their article, Helmke and Levitsky stipulate what should not be considered an informal institution (2004). Out of the four distinctions they mention; weak institutions, informal behavioural regularities, informal organisations, and culture, the latter is heavily contested.  In class we discussed how it is very intuitive that culture in fact is an informal institution, since so much of our behaviour seems to be dependent on the culture we grew up in. For example, people in the Netherlands typically give each other three kisses on the cheek when they greet each other, whereas 2 such kisses are common in France. This rule is nowhere written down, but still enforced through the public - since it is practical to have one universal way of greeting - and everybody abides by it; it seems to follow that culture can constitute an informal institution.

As logical as this may seem, I would like to make a case for Helmke and Levitsky’s argument, namely that culture plays a big role in shaping informal institutions, but cannot be equated with them.

They describe informal institutions as “shared expectations rather than shared values”(2004). This is in line with North’s conception that institutions shape human behaviour (1990), because expectations are more directly indicative of behaviour than values, since society places a filter between holding certain values and acting upon them.So, informal institutions are not the values that people hold, but the expectations we have of people’s behaviour, based on those values. Now, culture is defined as “the beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time” (Merriam-Webster), and seeing as ‘beliefs, customs and arts’ are shared values rather than expectations, it follows that culture as such cannot be an informal institution, but merely shapes informal institutions, that have a practical function within the context of that culture.