Ian McNeely: Institutions and the Pursuit of Knowledge
These days, the word institution looms large. In rapidly changing times, experiments in the re-patterning of institutionally constrained interactions – leading, eventually, to institutional transformations – are fundamental to effective social action.
Across a variety of writings, I've been working with colleagues to examine the intertwined relationships between institutions, organizations, knowledge, values and mental models.
Our projects have largely followed the definitions put forth by economic historian Douglass North:
Institutions are the humanly devised constraints that structure human interaction. They are made up of formal constraints (rules, laws, constitutions), informal constraints (norms of behavior, conventions, and self imposed codes of conduct), and their enforcement characteristics. Together they define the incentive structure of societies and specifically economies.
Recently, I discovered the book Reinventing Knowledge, by historians (and fellow Oregonians) Ian McNeely and Lisa Wolverton. Although they take a narrower view of the word institution – their history includes just six: the library, the monastery, the university, the republic of letters, the disciplines, and the laboratory – and although I don't agree with all their conclusions, I find their institutional approach to the history of knowledge informative and helpful.
These notes are transcribed from Ian McNeely's 2008 Authors@Google talk (available on video):
Institutions … structure the way we pursue knowledge, what we do in order to obtain knowledge to pass it down, (and) why we pursue knowledge: what goals we hope to achieve out of so doing.
And my argument is that each institution has been associated with a particular historical epoch, and that the beginning of each of these epochs was a sort of window of opportunity, when small groups of people, even individuals, could cast a prototype, a model from which later instances of that institution were cloned, even if they did change many of their basic features.
And this would happen over and over again throughout an epoch of history, until a new institution, obeying a different logic and purpose, came to reinvent what it meant to pursue knowledge.
You’ll notice that the Internet is not one of these institutions. Far be it from me to come to the belly of the beast and tell you that what you are doing is not creative. That is not at all what I’m saying. Einstein doesn’t even make it into this book, because his contributions happen to fit within the institution of the laboratory.
What I believe is that the Internet – Google, YouTube, Facebook, all the things that we now rightly perceive as a revolution of some kind in knowledge – those things don’t amount to a reinvention. …
A new institution changes the practices of pursuing knowledge. …
Each institution not only provides new ways or practices of knowing but also a new purpose for knowing. …
New institutions of knowledge coalesce only in response to epochal, historic, major social changes. They respond, in other words, to the needs of society, and not to the needs of scholars themselves. …
Each institution has superseded its predecessors. Each old institution continues to exist … but whenever a new institution comes along, it reforms and reshapes the practices of knowing and learning so that all the others become subordinate to it.