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Institutional analysis

It is important to realise that we use ‘institution’ quite differently than the word ‘organisation’. Institutions refer to cultural values, legal frameworks, market mechanisms and political processes: the ‘rules of the game’.

There is no widely accepted framework for analyzing institutions. The multiple perspectives and lack of practical tools makes it difficult to understand how institutions influence a particular situation, whereas numerous tools exist for stakeholder, problem and power analysis. Yet thinking critically about institutions is key to social change-focused development.

People are rarely concerned with any single institution. Whether our focus is on education, market access, health or the environment, we must consider a messy web of many interacting institutions. Figure 2 shows a simple framework for asking critical questions about different types of institutions and how they interact. It deliberately takes a very broad perspective, including organizations and regular patterns of behavior alongside the more narrow view of institutions as merely ‘rules’.

The framework is based on four institutional  domains – meaning, association, control and action – which connect to structure social interaction. Each of the four domains has two sub-domains.

Formal and informal institutions are equally important, and often reinforce each other. Figure 2 shows that each domain considers both sides of the coin. Institutional analysis often focuses too much on formal rules, such as policies and laws. This framework shows the importance of asking questions about a wider set of factors that interact to shape the incentives for actors to behave in particular ways.

Consider the current concern about food quality and safety. Consumer beliefs (‘meaning’) – perhaps about the health risks of genetically modified organisms – and buying behavior (‘action’) have a significant role in shaping business strategy and government policy making (‘control’). A framework for scientific understanding and research (‘meaning’) underpins food quality and safety regulation and procedures. Organizationally, government agencies are responsible for food safety issues, and many different businesses interact along the value chain (‘association’). Government food safety agencies are mandated to develop policies and establish rules and regulations, while the agrifood industry independently develops its own policies, standards and rules to meet consumer demands and legal requirements (‘control’). These arrangements lead to the institutionalization of supporting actions, such as regular monitoring of imports by a food safety authority, or agribusinesses introducing bar coding and tracking systems (‘action’). Some behaviours (‘action’) by different actors, including corruption, may disregard the formal rules and be driven by informal customs and rules (‘control’).

Institutional analysis framework

In summary, institutional analysis framework incorporates attention for four main functions of institutions, namely:

  1. Institutions as ways of making meaning of our lives and the social and natural world we inhabit.
  2. Institutions as the associations we make to work together to achieve social, economic and political objectives.
  3. Institutions as the basis for control over what individuals and organisations should or can do.
  4. Institutions as reoccurring action carried out by individuals or organisations in social, economic and political life.

This model can help participants in charting the institutional context underlying a problematic and therefore can help them (with the actors involved) to identify action paths, focus and develop clear objectives at this level of change.

Group work instructions for Institutional Analysis 


  • Use 1 flip chart.
  • One person should facilitate the group work: encourage everyone to contribute
  • One person should create the analysis on the flip chart.

 As a group you will continue working on the analysis of case.

Objective: to analyse the relevant institutions for the specific topic around your case; identify some key institutions that would need reinforcement or change within the case.

Outputs: 1) an institutional analysis of the topic; 2) a list of 3-5 concrete institutions that would need change within this topic.

Step1: Brainstorm relevant institutions in the four aspects of institutions.

  • Write the central issue in the centre of a flipchart.
  • Brainstorm the key institutions influencing (positively or negatively) the issue of the topic: values, norms ; laws, policies ; organisations, groups, structures, networks ; services, citizens demands, actions etc. Write them in 4 aspects of institutions (meaning, control, association, action: see example handout)

Step 2: Reflect: What are implications for the case? Which positive institutions do we need to re-enforce and build on? Which should we try to change? – mark them on the analysis sheet.

Step 3: What are the strengths/weaknesses of the tool? Where can you apply it?




**This tool is taken from courses of CDI, and Jim Woodhill (2008) Shaping Behaviour: How institutions evolve; The Broker.

Aim of the tool To analyse the relevant institutions for the specific topic around your case; identify some key institutions that would need reinforcement or change within the case.
When to use it? This tool can be used in different stages of an MSP, but particularly at a moment when strategies for change are discussed.