Culture and ethnic profiling

By Hugo van Lent

Nathan Nunn argues how cultural norms and values have to be taken into account when studying institutional development in time. Different cultures, which are essentially different heuristics or rules of thumb, may therefore be used to explain institutional divergence in time.

Racial or ethnic profiling – singling-out individuals on the basis of their skin colour – is a widespread and institutionalised practice in the United States; the American police is often accused of racism and many consider racial profiling a violation of human rights if not of the American constitution. Others, however, argue that, because African-Americans have a higher-than-average crime rate, racial profiling is simply the most effective way to reduce crime, and that reasonable suspicion might be warranted when one sees a black man stalk one’s car at night. In any case, American popular support for racial profiling tends to be high.

In Germany, on the other hand, racial profiling as a policy is not as widespread and often disputed; in fact, racial profiling was declared unlawful in 2006. Instead of in the United States, where racial profiling is used often and is even defended by officials as if it were official policy, ethnic profiling in Germany is considered improper. Indeed, comparing such policy to that of the SS was decided legal.

The latter ruling is key; it explains why racial profiling is not institutionalised in Germany, even though it would arguably be more effective there than in the US, which have a much larger population of non-whites. Unlike in Germany, because of how blacks were traditionally disadvantaged in the US, being black has been associated with poverty and crime as a heuristic – a rule of thumb. Instead, Germans have a heuristic tendency to associate profiling with their national-socialism because of their past and are therefore vehemently opposed to it. Hence this example of institutional divergence can be understood as the product of cultural differences rather than efficiency.

Corruption: the break down of informal institutions

By Laura Ombelet

Singapore consistently ranks as one of the least corrupt countries in the world. While the word ‘corruption’ is virtually antonymous with ‘good government’, tackling corruption continues to remain notoriously difficult even for strong modern states. 

By definition, corruption is an informal institution. Under Helmke and Levitsky’s framework, corruption is a competing informal institution that directly violates the formal rules that exist within government. Informal institutions are often considered highly resilient to change, and this could be why corruption proves to be so difficult to eradicate. However, as countries like Singapore demonstrate, corruption networks can be weakened. So, how is this possible?

Singapore is one of the most well known examples of corruption eradication and today considers itself one of the ‘cleanest and corruption free countries in the world’. If we view the eradication of corruption as informal institutional change, then according to Helmke and Levitsky, this could be the result of changes in formal institutional strength or effectiveness. Before 1959, Singapore was controlled by the British and The Prevention of Corruption Ordinance was not strictly enforced due to weak laws, an uneducated public and underpaid public officers. Consequently corruption was rife. When the new government took over, administrative measures and preventative guidelines were established to reduce corruption. Court punishment for corruption was strengthened and so the costs associated with corruption increased. Therefore committing corruption became a far less viable option than before and with time, levels of corruption decreased. As stated by Helmke and Levitsky, ‘these costs will induce actors to abandon the informal institution’, which is exactly what happened in Singapore.  

If we focus on Singapore, eradicating corruption appears to be rather straightforward. However, Singapore has the added advantage of being a small state; less hindrance to communication makes implementing policy change far easier. Therefore, although we can conclude that the emergence of strong formal institutions aids the eradication of corruption, it is not always the only reason. 

Trading favors. A note on informal institutions and culture

By Camelia Vasilov

Helmke and Levitsky (2004) propose a research agenda on informal institutions based on their interaction with the formal ones. They start their analysis by saying what informal institutions are not – and one of the things they are not is culture. In contrast, for Nunn (2012) informal institutions are, at their core, culturally determined heuristics, or “shortcuts” for decision-making.

In this post I will explore the tensions between the two views using the example of the informal exchanges of goods and services that arose under the Communist regimes in Soviet Union and China: blat and guanxi, respectively.

Helmke and Levitsky give blat as an example of accommodating institutions, which according to their definition are “often created by actors who dislike outcomes generated by the formal rules but are unable to change or openly violate those rules” (p. 729). In both the Soviet Union and China, informal exchange performed the same functions: it was needed for maintaining the livelihood of people unable to support themselves only on the basis of the received wages, and for meeting the impossible targets of state planning.

Ledeneva (2008) notices that there are differences between these practices that fulfill essentially the same goal, namely the reciprocity considered moral, their legitimacy and their incipient codification. She argues that these differences are rooted in the culture. For example, while blat was pervasive in the entire Soviet Union, few could articulate when asked what its rules were. On the contrary, “the code of guanxi is derived from the kinship ethics and popular Confucianism” (p. 127), and this new practice was thus planted into an old cultural field, thus increasing its stability and even legitimacy.

The separation between culture and informal institutions evident in this case seems to support Helmke and Levitsky’s argument. However, one could make the case that Confucianism itself, taken here as culture, was also a set of informal institutions that shaped the decision-making of people for so long that it became the norm. Nunn might point out that although blat and guanxi performed the same role, their came about in society in a rather distinct ways, which would make them historically different practices. 


The Rule of Silence versus Social Norms – Competing (in)formal Institutions

By Geerte Verduijn

Being a frequent disturber of the desired silence on our second floor, this recently launched student-campaign is making me feel increasingly uncomfortable. This post is no complaint nor, I am afraid, a definite promise of behavioral improvement. What it might be however, is an apologetic explanation of why this theoretically utopian study area – quiet, but surrounded by friends – is often failing to fulfil that goal.

Now, when real work has to be done, many people move to one of the public libraries nearby. For some reason these buildings – less socially attractive, but all the more effective – seem to escape the pitfalls of our second floor. When solely looking at the formal descriptions of both places, this does not make sense – they are practically equal. As the student campaign indicates however, contrarily to the public library’s instruction, LUC’s rule of silence fails to have effect. Accordingly, the problem must be sought outside its formal establishments.  

In their analysis of informal institutions, Gretchen Helmke and Steven Levitsky explain how they can influence their formal companions, dependent on the effectivity of those formal rules and the degree of differing informal goals. In the case of the public library, socially shared ideas about politeness perfectly complement the official request for silence. In our LUC-building however, this institution seems to be overruled by conflicting norms: differing opinions about ‘‘real’’ silence, adolescents’ ideas on group-appreciation (publicly speaking about your alcohol-involving weekend), and a general indifference towards less enforced rules, spoil every attempt.  

If Helmke and Levitsky ever decided to trade their current employer for LUC, they would sadly conclude that the formal and informal rules of our second floor are continuously competing: following the latter often resulting in a violation of the first. I am sorry, fellow students, and will try to improve my behavior. But please do not forget - I am also just an actor, surrounded by social temptations, trapped in a weak formal institutional environment.

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?

The Mafia and informal institutions

By Kristy Charlton

According to Helmke and Levitsky, an informal institution has three specific characteristics: the first is that the ideal of the institution is socially shared, the rules are unwritten and the ideals are enforced outside official channels.

Corruption might be an example of informal institutions, such as that displayed by the Italian Mafia.

The Mafia is a criminal and entrepreneurial economic organization that runs in different locations within Italy. It is an organization that deals within the Italian economic system in the form of loan sharking and extortion, an illegal form of business. The Mafia also runs in economic circles such as “textiles, transport, tourism, construction, and waste management” and selling of drugs. The groups make an estimated annual profit of €100bn – about 7% of Italy's GDP.

The rules of the group are unwritten in the sense that the way their business works is illegal in the form of extortion. An example of extortion is seen by telling a business they need to pay $100 to be protected from criminals, and by paying the money the Mafia will take care of them. There is also a sense of honor within the mafia that is stronger than any law that could be written down. This is socially accepted within Italy: you pay to not be killed by the people who are supposedly protecting you. The functioning of the Mafia works as an illegal political system: there is a leader and from there it is divided into smaller groups, doing different jobs. There work is not legal within the economic and political framework of Italy, and the Mafia rules are enforced on a completely separate entity to the government. They govern themselves and have their own laws and punishments that are enforced within their groups.