An institution is a constructed, persistent organizing practice or relationship within a culture. When most people hear or read the word
institution, they think first of a sort of an organization, somewhat like a firm though typically for some purpose other than pursuit of pecuniary profit. But, really, the scope is much wider, which is how one may, for example, speak or write of
the institution of marriage.
Economists and other social thinkers recognize as institutions a great many practices and relationships that most people don't conceptualize as such. For example, languages are institutions; markets are institutions, and monies are institutions within those institutions; professional codes of ethics are institutions; and so forth.
Any given society is exactly a society, rather than merely some selection of people, to the extent that it is characterized by institutions.
Institutions can be hard to see as institutions; they can be hard to see at all. That which pervasively informs our thinking can be invisible for lack of contrast. The fact that a competent social thinker will recognize institutions that most people over-look does not mean that any given social thinker will recognize all the institutions of the society that he or she observes, or in which he or she participates. Rather, I do not think that any social thinker manages to attain such a profound awareness. If there is a meaning to
most here, then I think that none of us sees most of the institutions. We participate in them, we use them, but we are unconscious of them.
Although one might imagine some outside agency acting to preserve an institution, more typically a practice or relationship will be persistent to the extent that it is self-perpetuating. It might be self-perpetuating in some fairly direct manner, or it might be thus simply by conferring some advantage on those who adopt it. Something that behaves in a self-perpetuating manner can seem to be purposeful. There are, in fact, some who would insist that a thing that behaves in a self-perpetuating manner truly is purposeful, but I don't want to enter into that debate here. Whether it be purpose or something that merely seems like purpose, there may not be any person to whom one could point and properly say that the purpose were his or were hers. Perhaps no individual wants the institution perpetuated — in some cases participants may actually want an end to the institution — but acting through people the institution perpetuates itself.
So my claim is that we live and act within a rich frame-work of practices and relationships, largely unrecognized, that affect and effect events as if with purposes distinct from our own.
This concept may be related to various things.
In Jungian theory, there is postulated a collective unconscious, which is a set of structures of the unconscious mind, shared amongst animals to the extent that they are biologically related. In general, these structures include instincts; in humans, they also include symbols (called
archetypes). Jung believed that the collective unconscious was dormant in the zygote; so that a person whose
biological parents were of one ethnic group but who were raised from birth by members of another would have the collective unconscious of the
biological parents, rather than of the family in which he or she were raised. I assert that this collective unconscious does not exist; but that something rather like it does, with the very important difference that it is transmitted experientially. The actual collective unconscious is the aforementioned unrecognized institutional frame-work.
Evolutionary psychology, also known as
sociobiology, has sought to explain behavior (including human behavior) in terms of some habits leading to more reproductive success than do others. That much is surely part of a proper explanation of human behavior, but these theorists have had a propensity to insist or to presume that the mechanism of transmission is in the DNA of the chromosomes or of the mitochondria. (In this commitment, they have been rather like the Jungians.) After entirely too much delay, some of them acknowledged that cultures as such could be affected by evolutionary pressures. They developed the notion that Richard Dawkins called the
meme, and that EO Wilson grotesquely called the
culgen (or something like that), which was that of a culturally transmitted, self-perpetuating pattern, somewhat analogous to the chromosomal and mitochondrial genes. These patterns are institutions, viewed individually. We would be consciously aware of some of these patterns, but by no means of all.
Some people are convinced that all events are effected to some purpose, a thought typically expressed as
Everything happens for a reason. This claim surely goes too far, but one could see how observing many events that seemed to happen towards a purpose, which purpose was not that of any one of us, could suggest a theory that all reälized outcomes were in some sense intended.
Others do not necessarily think that all events are effected to some purpose; but, perceiving in some events apparent purposefulness that cannot plausibly be imputed to any ordinary person, take this apparent purposefulness as evidence that events have been or are being guided an extraordinary person — G_d. As a metaphor, this works rather well, though the impersonal G_d of Spinoza would be a better fit for the institutional framework; but, in any case, the apparent purposefulness is not good evidence for the involvement of a literal G_d.
Where many believers have been too quick to see the work of G_d, many non-believers have been too quick to see mere chance-coïncidence. But teasing-out the difference between that which is mere accident from that which works to the purposes or quasi-purposes of a frame-work of unrecognized parts is at best extremely difficult, if not impossible. A pattern can be found in any data set, and from it the number of super-patterns that may potentially be extrapolated are infinite. Additionally, most of us want to find significance in our lives, which biases us to see not only purposes but purposes of particular sorts behind events.
[0 (2017:07/07)] A discussion of rather different matters impelled me to recognize that I needed to distinguish institutions from unconstructed, persistent organizing practices or relationships within a culture.
 For example, sub-optimal Cournot-Nash equilibria.
 Largely due to laziness and misunderstanding, this word came thereafter to have its popular meaning of any sort of widely spread expression.
 It's appalling how little philological sense is now had by otherwise educated people.