‘New institutionalism’ describes regular patterns of behaviour and the rules, norms, practices, and relationships that influence such behaviour. This influence can range from direct enforcement by the state to an individual’s perception of a need to conform to norms.
Institutions can be formal, well understood, and written down (such as when enshrined in a constitution, legislation, or regulations).
They can also be informal, unwritten, and difficult to identify or understand by people outside of an organisation. They ‘exist in the minds of the participants and sometimes are shared as implicit knowledge rather than in an explicit and written form’ (Ostrom, 2007: 23). Therefore, the rules followed implicitly may contradict the rules described explicitly.
Feminist research helps us understand the relationship between such institutions and power, to advance ‘the empowerment of women and transformation of patriarchal social institutions through research’.
If we understand institutions broadly as formal rules and informal norms, we can find many ways in which to explore the existence and enforcement of inequalities, such as by:
- Directly excluding women from participation in public life, or otherwise restricting their opportunities in the ‘core executive’
- Categorizing masculine and feminine roles and assigning higher value/ more rewards to the former
- Treating feminist issues as private matters for individuals rather than public policy issues for the state (see also privatizing v socializing issues)
- Excluding Women of Colour from political debate and intellectual history
- The everyday and taken-for-granted rules and assumptions that can seem innocuous but reflect immense inequalities of power and outcomes.
In other words, such action can involve the direct and visible exercise of power, often reflected in the formal rules of political systems. Or, it can be part of the ‘hidden life of institutions’ that requires much more analysis and effort to see and challenge.
Such insights help to advance other common variants of new institutionalism, including:
- Historical. The well-established dominance of elected positions by men is maintained via ‘path dependent’ processes (such as the incumbency effect).
- Rational choice. Men and women may adopt the same ‘calculus’ approach to action, but face very different rewards and punishments.
- Discursive. The use of discourse to reinforce ‘racial or gendered stereotypes’ may help maintain social inequalities.
- Network. The ‘velvet triangle’ describes the policy networks of ‘feminist bureaucrats, trusted academics, and organized voices in the women’s movement’ that develop partly because women are excluded routinely from the positions of power.
Crucially, these insights also help us understand the expectations- or implementation-gaps that arise when people try to reform political practices and policymaking in complex or multi-centric systems. A policy change such as gender mainstreaming may seem straightforward and instant when viewed in relation to formal institutions, such as a statutory duty combined with a strategic plan adopted across government. However, it also represents the first step in a highly uncertain and problematic process to address the informal, unwritten, ill-understood, everyday, taken-for-granted (and often fiercely guarded) sources of inequality that are reflected in policy and practice as a whole.