Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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core definition

Institutionalisation is the process of locating a person, a social group, an event, or an academic subject within an institutional context.

explanatory context

As applied to people, institutionalisation may refer not only to the incarceration of individuals in prisons, mental hospitals, etc., but also to the development of a set of traits or state of mind which ill-fits such people for a life outside the institutional context.


The institutionalisation of an academic discipline involves setting up academic departments in which research is undertaken in the subject and the area is taught to students. This usually means giving the subject an air of respectability and taking it out of the hands of amateurs. For example, social research was institutionalised in the United States early in the 20th century while the study of unidentified flying objects has had considerable problems being institutionalised.


Institutionalisation also refers to the embedding of processes so that they become part of, for example, participatory decision making. 'Institutionalisation is all about "building in" these new participatory decision-making processes so that they become, for all stakeholders, the normal "way of doing things".' (Polytechnic of Namibia, 2001)


In the art world, there is an ambivalence towards institutionalisation with some artists regarding institutional 'acceptance' as detrimental to creativity.

analytical review

Women's Centre for Health Matters (2009–2011) states:

The term institutionalisation is used to describe the adverse psychological effects on individuals who have spent long periods living in institutions such as prisons, remand centres, juvenile detention centres, aged care/nursing home facilities, psychiatric units, detoxification/rehabilitation centres, children’s homes and refugee detention centres.

Hogwood (undated) provides a different perspective on institutionalisation in her discussion of 'Institutionalising sustainability':

This theme concerns the role of institutionalisation in creating and developing sustainability as a new policy domain. A ‘policy domain’ can be defined as ‘an institutional field of actors, rules and practices associated with governmental efforts to address a particular category of social issues and problems’.

As a way of conceptualising a wide range of political activities, Institutionalisation offers a flexible and comprehensive framework within which to address government efforts to achieve sustainability. It offers an entry point for the study of a policy domain both at times of stability and crisis. Linking concepts of institutionalisation and policy domain promises to go beyond 'metaphor' frameworks such as ‘Europeanisation’ and ‘multilevel governance’ to offer potential for meso-level predictive theorising that will help to explain specific aspects of political behaviours and processes within or across different applications.

Institutionalisation is a multi-faceted and fluid phenomenon. It may be effected through legislation, authorisation by a competent body or individual, or by mutual agreement of interested parties. It may be expressed in the creation or change of decision-making structures, formal or informal conventions and modes of communication between decision-makers and stakeholders. It may be intended as a ‘permanent’ or as an ad hoc solution. It may fail to entrench; may unexpectedly outlive its intended purposes; or may expand and develop beyond its anticipated form.

The institutionalisation of sustainability may prove to be a double-edged sword, combining potentially beneficial effects for the policy domain of sustainability with potentially restrictive or stultifying effects.

Institutionalisation can be approached in several ways: on the one hand, as a stabilising mechanism, institutionalisation can help to define and entrench a policy domain, consolidating a set of values and decision structures and thereby maintaining the domain. Institutionalisation may tame potentially volatile and conflictual encounters between decision-makers and other stakeholders through the routinisation and transparency of decision making. On the other, as a constraint on innovation, institutionalisation may be expected to entrench a particular hierarchy of interests, biasing policy outcomes in favour of specific actors over others. This in turn may stifle innovation and undermine efforts to meet new challenges which will inevitably arise in the field of sustainability.

Machnio and Skwarczynska, (2011) comments on the institutionalisation of art:

According to Michael Asher, the institutionalization of art is not limited to the practice of forcing works of art into the organization of a museum or another art institution; it is also integrated and embodied in the recipients themselves: in their competence and models of art perception, in the very contact with the work of art, and in the way of responding to it. Institutionalization is an attempt to keep things, activities and people in their respective places, and a way of identifying and defining what art is and what it is not. It is the authority of an imposed message, of a specific reception of a work of art, of the reactions and mores among the audience and of an unequivocal way of explaining the world.

associated issues


related areas

See also




Hogwood, P., undated, Institutionalising sustainability'', available at, accessed 9 March 2013, page not available 22 December 2016.

Machnio, E. and Skwarczynska, A., 2011, Prague Quadrienalle', available at, accessed 9 March 2013, still available 22 December 2016, 'not found' 7 June 2019.

Polytechnic of Namibia, 2001, ' Institutionalisation', Section 2: Tools to Support Participatory Urban Decision Making Process, part of the Urban Governanace Toolkit Series, 2001, available at, accessed 9 March 2013, page not available 22 December 2016.

Women's Centre for Health Matters, 2009–2011, 'Women and Institutionalisation', available at, accessed 9 March 2013, page not available 22 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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