Understanding How Institutions Become Radicalised and What Can be Done

When societal peace is considered as the management of the precursors and preconditions of conflict – a more realistic proposition than being the absence of conflict – the vital role that social institutions play in its establishment and maintenance is obvious. From that perspective institutional stability and how conflict is managed within social institutions is a critical factor in both societal cohesion and social peace and may even contribute to peace between nations. Stable institutions give a society resilience against both external and internal shocks. On the other hand, dysfunctional institutions pave the way for, and may even be a source of, conflicts. The most serious type of dysfunction is ideological capture, when the essential function of an institution changes. In this essay the nature of institutions, conditions for stability and their vulnerability to ideological capture will be considered, as well as some thoughts on the aftermath of institutional loss to ideological capture.

Institutions function in a society as both the embodiment of its culture and, simultaneously, as a source of cultural continuity and even regeneration. Nonetheless, at critical point in a societies’ decadent phases, institutions lose this function and become, instead, purveyors and instruments for the propagation of ideology. There are numerous examples of this: the attempted sovietisation of every institution in communist Russia under Lenin in the 1920s, including the family, the Nazification of Germany in the 1930s, the implementation of Arab Socialism (Ba’athism) in the Middle East from Nasser to Saddam and Ghaddafi and the Islamification of majority Muslim nations after the Iranian revolution of 1979. It was long thought that the West with its democratic traditions was immune to such phenomena; however, the rapid rise of identitarianism, predominantly in the Anglophone nations, in which political parties, the civil service, the judiciary, universities, schools, charities, civil rights organisations, corporations, churches, clubs, and all branches of the media have adopted a new orthodoxy of social justice, equity and diversity based on a victimological hermeneutics, has brought that assumption into question.

The phenomenology of ideological capture is markedly similar in all cases, though varying in route, extent and in intensity: the institution largely abandons its primary raison d’être and becomes a tool in the struggle for power between factions; it abandons subtle forms of persuasion and defaults to coercion (in the worst cases, force); a climate of fear and suspicion is created in which people censor their actions, speech and thought; untruths are propagated and knowingly assented to; dissenting opinion is supressed and dissidents eliminated; the institution becomes clogged with bureaucracy and becomes increasingly ineffective, surviving only under the oversight, control and support of the state, the final authority, which overrides and undermines individual, local and regional autonomy, suppresses popular resistance, the right to free speech and even limits the right to assembly, by use of the instruments of state force.

The exploration of the role institutions play in social cohesion and peace, and how their integrity can be compromised, should start with a definition of what an institution is. According to Scott (1995, p.235):

“Institutions are social structures that have attained a high degree of resilience. [They] are composed of cultural-cognitive, normative, and regulative elements that, together with associated activities and resources, provide stability and meaning to social life. Institutions are transmitted by various types of carriers, including symbolic systems, relational systems, routines, and artifacts. Institutions operate at different levels of jurisdiction, from the world system to localized interpersonal relationships. Institutions by definition connote stability but are subject to change processes, both incremental and discontinuous.”

Scott’s view of institutions is very general and comprehensive, and clearly applicable across a very broad range of social structures. The deontological character of institutions is clearly captured in the application of “cultural-cognitive, normative, and regulative elements”. Scott understands both the stability and adaptability of institutions; adaptability is part of what gives them their resilience. Stability in this case does not mean unchangeability, but evolution within the social ecosystem. But to understand how this ‘dynamic equilibrium’ is sustained, what dysfunction means in this context and how a dysfunctional institution becomes an ideological multiplier, it is necessary to explore the nature of institutions in far more detail than just this general description.

The first consideration of any institution is that they have a product, which is the reason they exist. The term ‘product’ is used in preference to something like ‘purpose’, with which it is clearly consonant or closely consonant, because purpose is overly abstract or metaphysical; product grounds the institution in the real and is connected with another aspect to be considered, that of wealth. However, the product of any particular institution is particular to itself or of its type and is not limited to a singular item. Product can also be thought of as the particular output of that institution, being at the end of a process of multiple inputs. Product is also not limited in its extension; while it has social tangibility and even economic fungibility, it can be in the form of goods, services or some desirable and realisable social, cognitive or ethical state.

Concomitant with the centrality of the product to the institution are the differential roles that social agents implicated in the institutional structure play in the production of the product. The role that the social agent plays qua role-player in the institutional deontology is determined solely by the interest of the production of the product, though, as stated, such roles are typically highly diverse, determined by the requirements of institutional productivity, that is relating to the production of the product. Such social agents characteristically perform in different roles in different social settings, the role in each case determined by the product particular to that institution. In a functional institution these roles are coordinated highly effectively on realising the product in line with the requirements of the larger social context, such as the market, the law, social norms, the state of knowledge, and so on.

The second consideration of any institution are its values and these are highly constitutive of its deontology. A base concept of a value is what Rokeach (1973, p.4) refers to as “an enduring belief that a specific mode of conduct is personally or socially preferable”, though I propose a more institutionally bi-functional idea of a value as linguistically transmissible through normal communicative means and symbolically cohesive within a social grouping (Trubshaw, 2014; 2017). Within institutions values are corralled around the central function of productivity. However, unlike roles, which are functionally aligned with productivity, values have an institutional ‘excess’ which has to do with the institution as a site of social association and belonging as well as productivity. All institutions exist at the complex intersection of multiple social relations, forces and values, but these can be simplified to three levels: that of the individual social agent and their social circumstances and particular identity; that of the institutional infrastructure and ethos; and that of the political and legal culture in which it is embedded.

This promiscuous value legacy in which all institutions exist is reconciled in two ways within the institution, through the route of core values and through the route of shared values. These are fundamentally different value systems, though they may overlap to a lesser or greater degree. However, their divergence is a source of potential instability in any institution and the potential incompatibility must be managed. The source of this conflict is located in the origin and transmission pathways of these value systems. Core values originate high up in the hierarchy of an organisation, although they can be instituted at the historical founding of an institution. They are subject to control, though, whatever their origin, by powerful agents within the institutional hierarchy. Shared values, by contrast, as the name suggests, are found in the intersecting interests between all – or certainly all sectors – of an institution, regardless of the roles played in the institutional hierarchy.

The difference in these value systems is manifest in their institutional phenomenology. Core values are set top-down by a controlling clique within any institution. They constitute one of the main experiences of the manifestation of power in any institution in all roles subservient to the dominant clique. Core values in a functional institution are strongly targeted on the product and the productivity of the institution overall and of its constituent roles. This enables the institution to function smoothly and adapt rapidly and flexibly in a changing environment. Shared values are markedly different. To say they are bottom up is slightly to mischaracterise their nature, as they are only incipient in the institutional deontology. They must first be discovered, although many of them can be deduced with a little imagination. Unlike core values, they are localised, dependent upon the institutional constituencies found at each locus. They are also overwhelmingly conservative, meaning that they exemplify local and specialist interests, which can act as a brake on fashionable (or unfashionable) eccentricities and risk-taking that emanate from high up in the hierarchy that may threaten the core product.

A well-functioning institution brings these two value systems into an equilibrium of sorts; it has to be accepted there is likely to be some areas of conflict and adjustments will need to be continually made. Those whose role it is to manage at a local level have a three-fold responsibility in regard to this process: awareness (through a process of discovery) of the values shared among all constituencies; incorporation of shared values and core values into an institution-wide message at the local level; and resistance to the exercise of arbitrary authority and risky initiatives emanating from the controlling clique, through feedback of local success.

This process is made easier by the fact that many, if not most, of the shared values will align with the core values. For example, most participants have a stake in institutional success, certainly to the degree that they are reasonably satisfied, as institutional success is a marker of their own contribution and a contributory factor in their own survival and prosperity. For the most part shared values will simply decode and contextualise the core concerns around productivity based on specialist concerns of roles and on social and environmental concerns, e.g. working conditions.

The third aspect of institutional ontology, one not frequently considered in institutional theory, is institutional wealth. This is normally considered the purview of the economic disciplines and focused on specific types of organisations such as businesses. However, in order for an evaluation of the success of any institution to be made, its wealth must be taken into account, not as an independent measure but as a fundamental aspect of its ontology. It is easy to see why this is the case; all human activity is suffused with economic concerns, that of survival, freedom to act and the means to achieve goals, and the same is true of all social institutions that humans create and participate in.

The concept of wealth employed here is not understood as an absolute, opposite to, for example, poverty, but a relative term appropriate to the institution under consideration and a measure of its functionality and efficiency in terms of its own productive self-understanding. On this count it can be considered to consist of three categories: its aggregate holdings, properties, assets and inventory; its talent bank in terms of intellectual achievement, practical skill sets and general human capital; and its money flow and access to financial resources. Wealth should not be thought of as only liquid financial wealth or as capital wealth (assets), but also as potential contributions to institutional productivity, underlain by a concept of individual human and social value and benefit. There is a huge disparity in purely financial terms between an investment bank, a school, a typical family and a local charity, but all have required (monetary) wealth relative to their institutional intentionality and are judged effective only on their productive outcomes, which does correlate with wealth in the terms defined above.

Good institutional function measured by outcomes, correlated with the optimal appropriate institutional wealth, can be analysed, in sociological terms, at the micro, meso, and macro levels, that is at the level of the individual agent, at the institutional level, and at the socio-economic level. This corresponds well with the above-mentioned sources of institutional values, but the focus now, rather than the value input at each level is an analysis of the contributing factors in the assessed value – in the sense of market viability – of the final product. For this reason, adapted versions of three economic theories are relevant: the labour theory of value, stakeholder theory and classical liberal theory of the free market.

The labour theory of value was developed by Karl Marx as a way to explain how the industrial proletariat were being exploited by being paid less than the monetary value of the labour they had invested in the manufacturing process, the difference being taken by the capitalist as profit (Marx, 1967[1867]). As an understanding of the workings of the economy, Marx’s theory is a dismal failure. However, as a philosophical insight into the creation of wealth, it touches on an important point that is overlooked in mainstream economic theory, that is the role of the individual in the productive process, the expenditure of energy, whether intellectual or muscular, over time in a particular institutional role in bringing the product into the state of completed being. Marx, of course, did not contextualise this within the larger analytic framework being developed here, that not being his intention, which was rather to provide philosophical justification for the proletarian overthrow of the capitalist system.

Stakeholder theory, developed mostly by Edward Freeman at Chicago, is a theory of the connective environment of businesses, which is particularly generalisable to all types of institution. In the traditional business model, great importance is placed on the shareholders. Freeman sought to distribute and rebalance the contributions of the full array of participants in a business, both those internal to the business and those external to it, referred to jointly as stakeholders. These would include not just shareholders, managers and employees, but also suppliers and customers and banks, for example. Freeman used as his criterion ‘happiness’ or ‘satisfaction’. For a business to prosper all stakeholders must be satisfied, a task which largely fall to the managerial class. If one of the stakeholders is not satisfied, the business is in danger of failing (Freeman, Harrison, and Zyglidopoulos, 2018). All institutions are not only integrated wholes of interrelated component parts, but are connected to others in a web of relations in the social and economic ecology, relations which must be maintained in order to achieve functional productivity.

Classical liberal economics of the free market, derived from Adam Smith and Alfred Marshall, established the basic principles of supply and demand (Smith, 1776; Marshall, 1920). There are refinements that can be made to this based on quality, rarity and desirability, which are variously changeable or manipulable. While desirability is intrinsically linked to quality and rarity, it can be decoupled to a certain extent by advertising, peer-pressure and the sort of influencing seen on social media. The productive output of institutions, including the broader market of ideas, is heavily influenced by cultural trends and, in some cases, by government policies.

These three socio-economic theories have direct relevance to institutional efficacy, not just from the perspective of institutional wealth, but with some adaptations enable a picture of a stable and effective institution to be built up. Every institution consists of the individuals that make it up, including those who work tangentially to it, the institutional structure focused on the product that creates the roles that individuals fit into, and the socio-economic and cultural ecosystem and market in which the institution exists, in cooperation and competition with others. A complete model of the institution and of its institutional effectiveness can only be realised by taking into account these three levels of analysis and the feedback loops that exist between them. That is to say an effective institution is one in which productive effort is nurtured and recognised, the institution in both its internal and external relations is well-coordinated, and its product has a viable place in the socio-economic ecology.

At the heart of this is the dynamic balance between the core and shared values in the productive process. Each social agent has their own value system, based on things such as identity and experience. The institution, though operates in a social and economic context with its own values or sets of values. The institution effectively narrows this panoply down to those which are efficacious in the productive process and in the social relations which foster productivity, eliminating or sidelining those which are peripheral to the central productive task or are likely to give rise to conflict. It is this equilibrium between core values and shared values that enables an institution to be responsive to change and also to preserve its essential culture. It is the dynamic heart of the institution which is also its most vulnerable aspect to ideological infiltration. A properly functioning institution is always a compromise between competing viewpoints, competing priorities and different skills, but while there might be ideological sallies into any institution, they cannot gain a foothold when institutional reason, defined by the three aspects of institutional stability, holds sway.

Although this essay focuses on ideological capture, institutions face two other major dangers, which may result in their decline or death, and that should be briefly discussed: loss of long-term viability and susceptibility to risk-taking and manias. Loss of long-term viability occurs when aspects of the integrity of the institutional structure are compromised, usually when systems of communication break down within the institution or with its external partners. Poor quality information, for example about trends in the socio-economic ecosystem, can result in bad decision-making. A lack of compromise between core and shared values can result in declining role satisfaction and a loss of productive motivation, productive quality and productive initiative and the defection of skilled operators. However, this is usually reversible. Risk-taking occurs when the socio-economic ecosystem exerts too much influence on an institution, particularly those in managerial positions. Patterns in the perceived desirability of the product, due to feedback loops in the socio-economic ecosystem, often referred to as ‘manias’, cause an alteration in the institutional focus. This can cause major institutional damage, frequently rapid onset and catastrophic, and be terminal.

Unlike an institution, an ideology is – is asserted to be – complete, morally unassailable and, therefore, incapable of entering into a compromise. Ideologies, unlike institutions have no ontology or deontology; they have no productivity, except their self-perpetuation; they are pure idea governed by a single value or small set of values. It is through their values, however, that they are able to infiltrate to the heart of institutions. The process may be gradual, but once the managerial class have been captured, it is very difficult to avoid institutional capture. At this point the core values are compromised by the ideology and come to dominate the institution. When this happens, three things occur: what was peripheral becomes central; the equilibrium with shared values is abandoned and the ideologically-compromised core values become the sole source of values, by fiat; gradually, the historical and teleological productivity is abandoned and replaced by a function of ideological multiplication.

This process does not happen in isolation. The forces acting on an institution are multiple. If the socio-economic ecosystem is captured, such as government takeover by an ideological power, institutional takeover is almost inevitable. When that happens, there is a certainty of institutional degradation and a strong possibility of institutional collapse. In theory, there is no way back from this, as the institutional structure has assumed a lower-energy stable state of dysfunction. Paradoxically, this lower-energy state corresponds with a rise in inter- and intra- institutional conflict. There are several reasons for this. One is that ideologically-compromised institutions become power centres for authoritarian rule, with people out-competing other to assert superior ideological purity. Another is the loss of the art of compromise among the managerial classes. The loss of institutional productivity leads to widespread diminution of wealth and scarcity of resources, both within the institution and in the wider ecosystem, a potential source of competitive conflict.

Ideological capture tends to be a one-way street; it is a very difficult state to return from and usually requires institutional replacement. It is an illustration of the universality of the second law of thermodynamics in that, whereas complex systems take time to build up, they are always vulnerable to failure and can be destroyed rather quickly. The management of conflicting views and priorities, necessary to build and maintain institutions, takes time. The ability to compromise is an acquired habit, necessary for both democracy and institutional stability, and is a habit that can also be lost, as the present era of polarised politics amply demonstrates. It is clearly far better to instil these practices as part of an institutional ethos, along with the values of tolerance and scepticism of certainty, and an openness to learn, which fairly inoculate people against ideological indoctrination and thus reduce considerably the likelihood of ideological takeover.

There are some grounds for optimism in the long run. The overwhelming majority of people detest authoritarianism, seeing rightly that it only advantages those in powerful positions. This suggests that in practice institutional capture could be reversible, under certain conditions and certainly it is a battle that can be won. We have the example of the late 1980s and early 1990s when former communist states in Eastern Europe underwent a spontaneous reversion to democracies, although for many their experience of democracy had been short and their subsequent development as democratic states variable. It is unlikely that the universities, the gestational sites of so much of the current ideological crop, will reform themselves; academics are not held accountable for, nor generally bear the consequences of the ideas they promulgate, so there is little to auto-regulate their increasingly radical output. The best hope is that central and regional governments remain free of ideological capture, are capable of passing laws to restrict the takeover of institutions and are willing to preserve the freedom of citizens to take the fight to local institutions where they see these tendencies taking root.


Freeman, R.E., Harrison, J.S. and Zyglidopoulos, S. (2018). Stakeholder Theory: Concepts and Strategies. Cambridge: CUP.

Marshall, A. (1920). Principles of Economics; An Introductory Volume. London: Macmillan.

Marx, K. and Engels, F. (1967[1867]). Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. New York: International Publishers.

Scott, W.R. (1995). Institutions and Organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Smith, A. (1776). An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. London: W. Strahan and T. Cadell.

Trubshaw, D.M. (2014). Modelling Institutional Values Transmission through a Comparative Case Study of Three Schools (Thesis). University of Derby. Available at: https://derby.openrepository.com/discover

Trubshaw, D.M. (2017). Values’ Dual Modality and Functionality in Social Transmission, Part 2: A Phenomenological-Semiotic Theory of Values. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/307601384_Values’_Dual_Modality_and_Functionality_in_Social_Transmission_Part_2_A_Phenomenological-Semiotic_Theory_of_Values

By Don Trubshaw

Don Trubshaw is a co-founder of the website Societal Values. He has a PhD in the philosophy and sociology of education and teaches in Higher Education.

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