Institutions are generally considered to be the rules that organise society. I like to split these into two major types, just to help make them seem more real. My first type is ‘hard’ institutions and my second type is ‘soft institutions’. Some authors split power in this way between hard and soft but I don’t actually feel that splitting power like that works for me, it’s too big and interrelated. Like most things is social science, it is not a binary but a gradient between soft and hard power. Some institutions could have elements of both. Institutions do not occur at one scale either, there may be smaller and larger installations and these may be embedded with each other or interlinked.
So ‘softer’ institutions are the rules and structures that organise society but these rules are not written down or as firm. These are things like culture, consider for example shaking someones hand, not something you legally have to do but something business people would often do when meeting. To refuse to shake the others hand would be considered rude. But this behaviour is geographically specific, in Morocco you kiss, in Thailand you place your hands together and bow. Admittedly this is a very small scale institution around greeting and institutions can be much larger, for example lunch could be considered a soft institution (he says preparing for a steak lunch (on a Sunday)).
‘Harder’ institutions could be considered as consisting of written rules which often have legal consequences if they are broken. These may consist of laws and regulations as well rules. The legal/parliamentary system could be considered as the hardest institution in the UK and it is often laws that are central to energy policies. These hard institutions can also be considered as license conditions, price controls, network codes all of which are central to the working of Ofgem. For gas this may also include safety issues such and clearly the gas safety institution is a large one which is linked to organisations like ‘Gas Safe’ and the associated rules and procedures.
When I consider institutions in the gas/heat system, it becomes clear that most institutions involve a combination of hardness and softness though this is actually mostly hard. The image below (not finished) shows what I see as the main institutional relationships in the gas regime in the UK. I considered three main institutional areas, safety (yellow), laws (green) and regulation and Uniform Network Code (blue and red).
So why is this important for heat transitions? Well, new institutionalism is a large and growing literature that suggests that, as my colleague Oscar explained ‘institutions are very important’. Its also worth noting that there are major synergies (often implicit) between the power literature and that around institutions. Helen Arendt suggested that intransative power (the power of actors working together to reach a common goal) often resulted in the fixing of that power be it in a harder or softer form. Thus the fixing of power can be considered as institutionalisation.
These institutions can therefore have power embedded within them and it is this existing institutional power in the current gas system which I am interested in. Does this power exist? Does this slow down or increase the likelihood of a transition? I think these are all interesting and original questions and massively important for the politics around energy transition.
NB. You may have noted I have been careful not to confuse the words ‘institution’ and ‘organisation’ and this is a common mistake made by authors and I find it quite annoying. Institutions are the rules, they are not actors. Because they are not actors, some argue that they can’t have their own power – this is a discussion for another time. Organisations are actors and as well as operating withing institutions, they may have power to change institutions. Organisations are however not institutions themselves.
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