Formal Institutions in Historical Perspective

By Redmond, William H. | Journal of Economic Issues, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Formal Institutions in Historical Perspective


Redmond, William H., Journal of Economic Issues


Formal institutions play a prominent, indeed a predominant role in human societies. Such was not always the case. Modern humans (Homo sapiens) are thought to have evolved from precursor variants of the Homo species about 100,000 years ago (Bogucki 1999; Mithen 1996). By contrast, evidence of formal institutions in human society dates from less than 10,000 years ago. In other words, over 90% of modern human existence was guided exclusively by informal institutions.

Anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists believe that modern humans came equipped with an evolved mental capacity for social organization by way of informal institutions, such as norms. Formal institutions are not natural in the sense of being an evolved part of our genetic heritage, thus formal institutions may be regarded as artificial. (1) This paper is exploratory in nature, seeking to identify possibilities, which may account for this sea-change in human institutional environments. That is, the paper seeks to outline a plausible explanation for the introduction of a powerful and consequential institutional form in the (relatively) recent past.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of institutional research is that it starts with a question, not an axiom (Atkinson and Oleson 1996). For the present paper, the focal issues involve formal institutions and the central question is what was it that stimulated the appearance and widespread use of formal institutions out of an historical background, which had contained only informal institutions. (2) Here, the term formal refers to an institution in which a recognized elite has appropriated the power to control the rules and other meaningful content of the institution.

The Historical Context

Based on observations of contemporary hunter-gatherer societies, anthropologists believe that prior to the dawn of "civilization" humans were organized as hunter-gatherer bands of about 100-150 individuals (Mithen 1996). These bands were highly mobile, possessed little in the way of individual property and were thought to have been governed by strong norms of egalitarianism and sharing. Anthropologists further believe that the informal norms of egalitarianism and sharing were not simply present, but were actively monitored and enforced by group members in order to suppress the ability of one individual to exercise control over others (Bogucki 1999; Boehm 1999). This ethos of informal governance includes a moralistic suppression of status rivalry, consensual decision-making, and curbing of free riders (Boehm 1997). These norms of conduct have survival value for groups living in an environment of variable munificence and with members of variable skill at obtaining food. Although limited in terms of material goods, it is not thought to have been a particularly harsh or mean existence. (3)

That way of life began to change with the nascent development of agriculture, 8,000-9,000 years ago. This corresponds to the transition from the era, which Thorstein Veblen termed the primitive (or savage) stage to the predatory (or barbaric) stage. The primitive stage was characterized by a peaceable disposition and limited ownership of property, while the predatory stage was characterized by exploitation, class differentiation and extensive ownership of property (Veblen [1899] 1965). The egalitarian ethos that had prevailed throughout previous human history was a casualty of the formalization process in the predatory stage.

Population and Economic Dynamics

Changes in social behavior, hence in customs, usually have their origin in some significant alteration in life conditions (Murdock 1971). After the last major ice-age episode, there was a significant warming of the environment, starting about 12,000 years ago, resulting in new flora and fauna variants that were more amenable to domestication. Subsequently, an increasing number of hunter-gatherers experimented with and adopted an agricultural way of life. …

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