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.

War and State making; Child’s play?

By Lauke Stoel

While discussing Tilly’s main argument about war- and state making and their similarities to organised crime, the comparison with the mafia came up in class. Tilly argues that, much like the organised crime methods the mafia employs, the process of state making involves the ‘double-edged sword of protection’. His argument entails that, leading up to the emergence of nation-states, warlords created a credible threat of violence and sold protection against that very threat. With these ‘taxes’, wars were fought, protected territories were created and so the nation-state emerged. Yet, whereas in class, a link was made to the mafia, I associated it with the way children play on the playground and how this way of establishing hierarchy seems to be human nature.

Developmental psychologist Piaget, who researched the role of play in the development of children, found that as soon as there are no parents present who exercise their authority to settle children’s disputes, kids argue it out amongst each other, and find that rules of a game are malleable. This notion of malleable rules can explain the social dynamic of how one group of kids can make up the rules of a game they and their classmates play. Sometimes, they add or change rules if something does not go in their favour and often, the other children will play along. The credible threat for non-compliance to these new rules, however, is seldom violence, but social exclusion; not being allowed to play the game anymore. Like this, a social structure emerges, which it is more beneficial to be part of than to be excluded from, and it is based on an almost arbitrary establishment of authority. This illustrates how the emergence of our most common mode of governance, ironically, can be traced back to how children play.


By Lauke Stoel

In our class, we established that history and therefore time matters and that path-dependence accounts for a large part of this. However, we can scrutinise this conception further by looking not only at how time matters, but also at the influence of the sequence in which events take place. In his second chapter, Pierson argues that there are two main themes that feature path-dependent sequences of development, namely filling up political space and developing social capacities. The case of the sudden success of a small, single-issue party in the Netherlands called the 50PLUS party is one that can be explained by combining aspects of both themes.

The Netherlands is coping with severe ageing of the population. With the proportion of elderly growing, it has become increasingly hard to provide for them and many find themselves in a particularly disadvantaged position. This process has been slowly but surely developing over the past couple of decades and has created a certain ideational social capacity within the voting population that remained unexploited.

The 50PLUS party originates from the ‘OokU’ founded in 2009 and changed its name in 2011. Until 2012, 50PLUS did not run for positions, but the first parliamentary elections after their change of name, which directly addresses this disadvantaged part of the population with their single-issue approach, they swooped in and now in fact occupy two seats in the First Chamber, one in the Second Chamber and are represented in all-but-one Province. Naturally, other parties had policies concerning the elderly as well, but because of the first-mover advantage the 50PLUS party made use of, alterations in other party’s elderly policies hardly affects the rank and file of 50PLUS. The sudden success of 50PLUS is thus a combination of the use of developed social capacity and the well-timed filling of political space.