An Introduction to Extitutional Theory

By Jessy Kate Schingler and Primavera de Filippi

Extitutional theory is an emerging field of scholarship that provides a set of conceptual tools to describe and analyse the underlying social dynamics of a variety of social arrangements, such as communities, companies, organisations, or any other types of institutions.

Extitutional theory posits that the institutional framework is just one specific lens through which we can make sense of social behaviour. Social dynamics that are not part of an institution are not unstructured, just differently structured. Specifically, institutions focus on the static and inert elements of social structures — the aspects that persist over time — whereas extitutions focus on the dynamic and mutating elements of social structures — the aspects that continuously evolve over time. Both serve as filters to observe different aspects of the underlying social arrangements. This means that if we look at structured social dynamics only and exclusively through an institutional lens, we are only seeing one part of the larger picture. Extitutional theory provides an alternative lens — and the choice to use it is a normative decision to look at another part of the picture.

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It is important to note that the extitutional lens is not claiming that there are social dynamics “outside” of an institution, in the Here be Dragons sense of extrapolated but as-yet-unexplored territory; it simply observes the same social dynamics of an institution from another conceptual angle. By relying on the idea that institutions and extitutions are two different interpretations of the same set of social dynamics, we can formalize the characterization of each lens, and begin to examine the underlying structuring logics that distinguish them. Since they represent two different points of view into the same social arrangement, we can also explore the structural relationships that link these two lenses. Extitutional theory attempts to formalize these different ordering logics and the interplay between them.

For instance, a company is generally composed of a structured set of roles: a board of directors, a series of shareholders, a CEO, a treasurer, etc. — each with their corresponding rights and duties. Instead of these formal roles, the extitutional lens focuses on the social dynamics that animate this structure, which necessarily evolve over time as individuals join or leave the social structure, and as their reciprocal relationships change. The hiring of a new CEO doesn’t mutate the structure from an institutional perspective, yet it could have a significant impact on the social dynamics of the company as whole, because of the different capacities and relationships that the CEO will establish with the other company members. These extitutional dynamics are crucial to the life of institutions, and may impact operational behaviour through culture and more informal principles and values.

Given that both lenses are looking at the exact same social arrangement — although focusing on different aspects of it — a proper understanding of the underlying social dynamics requires a holistic view, combining both the institutional and extitutional perspective. Indeed, one does not exist without the other: while the operations of a company or organisation are ultimately constrained by the specific rules and roles that constitute the institution, they are fundamentally fueled by the individuals assuming these roles and the corresponding relationships that make up the extitution. Accordingly, the interplay between institutions and extitutions is all the more crucial to explore in the context of complex social arrangements because the two are constantly shaping and influencing each other.

Extitutional theory is interested not only in the ways that individuals interact and engage with one another through relationships and rhythms, but also in how different practices of institutionalization can create conditions that stabilize and amplify, or erode and suppress, certain extitutional dynamics — and vice versa. Central to the process of institutionalisation is the concept of enclosure: the mechanism through which an institution implements increased control (or coding) relative to a particular domain. Conversely, extitutional theory contrasts enclosure with the concept of exclosure, which recognizes that certain types of enclosures appear to play a different role — that of protecting the activity within it from control and coding. Providing tools to better understand the interplay between these two mechanisms is one of the key contributions of Extitutional theory.

Extitutional theory does not assign any moral value to institutions or extitutions: neither are good or bad; yet, because of the performativity of these lenses, choosing to look at a particular social arrangement as an institution or an extitution will impact the way we interact with it, as well as the manner in which it will evolve over time. Networked technologies in particular have created dramatic new exclosures giving rise to extitutional dynamics which can’t be understood through the institutional lens alone. Hence, extitutional theory is important not because it is better than institutional theory, but because extitutions are an under-studied phenomena. Understanding extitutional dynamics, and their interplay with the more familiar tools and logics of institutions, can help us respond to the specific, unprecedented demands of human coordination in our era.

Berkman Klein Center Collection

Berkman Klein Center Collection

Insights from the Berkman Klein community about how technology affects our lives (Opinions expressed reflect the beliefs of individual authors and not the Berkman Klein Center as an institution.)

Jessy Kate Schingler

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Human settlements on Earth & the Moon. Political philosophy, networks, governance & global policy. https://jessykate.com

Berkman Klein Center Collection

Insights from the Berkman Klein community about how technology affects our lives (Opinions expressed reflect the beliefs of individual authors and not the Berkman Klein Center as an institution.)