By Anniek Barnhoorn
You and your friend made dinner reservations for tonight in Amsterdam, but because you were studying all day, you lost track of time and will now be an hour late. Would you call your friend to let them know you will be late for dinner?
The majority of you would most likely call your friend as it is seen as a sign of politeness and respect. Nor would you want your friend to be waiting for you at the restaurant for an hour wondering if you stood them up. But what if you would not call? There are a host of reasons for this, but that is not what is important in this case. What is important is the consequence of not calling, as there would be social implications from your behaviour. Perhaps resulting in your friend leaving the restaurant after half an hour and cancel on tonight’s plans, or waiting in the restaurant and then giving you a long lecture during dinner ruining the mood. Because of social norms and in anticipation of the implications, it is best to call your friend to let them know you will be late.
Hence, because your decision is guided by social norms of behaviour and is not a formally written rule, it illustrates an informal institution. Helmke and Levitsky (2004) define informal institutions as socially shared rules, usually unwritten, that are created, communicated, and enforced outside of officially sanctioned channels. They then clarify that informal institutions are not weak institutions, informal behavioral regularities, informal organizations, nor culture.
We are confronted with informal institutions every day, whether on the street, on public transportation or in elevators. These institutions are however not the same for everyone so should not be generalized, as they vary amongst countries and cultures as well as groups and societies.