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Friday, January 30, 2009

Thinking institutionally

The often disappointing (in part because Bobos in Paradise indicates an ability to do better) David Brooks has a column up that connects with, among other things, interesting work by our own Paul Horwitz (and also with a number of conversations on this and other law-blogs).  A taste:

We are defined by what life asks of us. As we go through life, we travel through institutions — first family and school, then the institutions of a profession or a craft.

Each of these institutions comes with certain rules and obligations that tell us how to do what we’re supposed to do. . . .  In the process of absorbing the rules of the institutions we inhabit, we become who we are.

New generations don’t invent institutional practices. These practices are passed down and evolve. So the institutionalist has a deep reverence for those who came before and built up the rules that he has temporarily taken delivery of. . . . 

The rules of a profession or an institution are not like traffic regulations. They are deeply woven into the identity of the people who practice them. . . .

Institutions do all the things that are supposed to be bad. They impede personal exploration. They enforce conformity.

But they often save us from our weaknesses and give meaning to life.

I think there's a lot to this.  (We might think of the legal profession, and the academy, as "institutions" in the sense Brooks is using the term.)  A few years ago, in a paper about "expressive association," I wrote:

[W]e are who we are, and flourish to the extent that we do, because of the associations in which we’re “nested” and by which we’re educated.  [T]hese soul-making associations are not simply vehicles for self-actualizing choices by autonomous monads.  They might be that, too, but they are more than just that.  That is, while it is true that we speak and express ourselves through associations, we are also spoken to and formed by them and by their expression. . . .

[I]t is not just that we express ourselves by choosing to associate; we who do the choosing are products, at least in large part, of our given—not chosen—“nest of associations.”

Posted by Rick Garnett on January 30, 2009 at 10:12 AM in Rick Garnett | Permalink

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