Posted by: MandyS | December 20, 2011

When is an institution not an institution?

I struggled with Chapter 11 (Seale, 2006) initially as I was unable to see the difference between ‘institution’ and ‘organisation’. There is a lot to be said for leaving difficult concepts and coming back to them at another time. On second reading, I wrote at the side of North’s (1993) interpretation of an ‘institution’ akin to constitution. This is simply because in public law, a constitution is made of formal rules (statute, case law), informal rules (conventions, quasi-legislation) and the enforcement characteristics of both (judicial review, elections). Having established this similarity, I then found it much easier to see where North and Seale were coming from. In public law the rules of the game are embodied within the constitution, with the State and the electorate as the players. The driving force for changes to the rules can be society itself; as society changes, so too do the rules e.g. women being given the right to vote, same-sex marriages etc. or changes in other societies. It is probably the latter which initiates  the ‘competition’ envisaged by North and stimulates the ‘rate of institutional change.’ Whatever the driving force, change will be subject to opposition. North suggest this is dependent on the ‘number of rules changes’ but I also think the extent of the change is just as important e.g. introduction of the Poll Tax. Ultimately, any change to the rules is dependent on the support of the players and as most governments know, lack of support from its electorate leads to failure.  

Applying this in the context of accessibility the ‘institution’ referred to by North is in fact ‘accessibility.’ In an educational context, the main players are universities, colleges etc. (the State) and its disabled students (society). Both directly impact on the rules; the plight of disabled students initiating the rules and the plight of the economic situation of universities etc. initiating the competition which stimulates the change. As with the constitution, any rule change is dependent on mutual support from the players, but here ends the similarity, as it is the universities etc. who appear to be the opposition, although the end result would appear to be the same.


Seale, J. (2006) E-Learning and Disability in Higher Education: Accessibility Research and Practice, Abingdon, Routledge; also available online at mod/ resourcepage/ view.php?id=569013&direct=1 (accessed 15 December 2011)

North, D C. (1993) Douglass C. North – Prize Lecture Nobel [Online] (accessed 15 December 2011)


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