In preparing the first draft of this paper, Connie Yowell, Program Officer at the MacArthur Foundation, asked us to think about developing a succinct definition of "institution" that would help us all collectively to think about the potentialities of institutions rather than the obstacles--a Web 2.0 redefinition of "institution."

In response, we propose the following: "Institutions are mobilizing networks."

That definition is deliberately provocative, intended to undermine both the traditional solidity of "institution" and the utopian fantasy of the Internet as a non-institutional place of free-flowing choice. Indeed, we would argue, drawing here upon Foucault, that even the most powerfully repressive institutions (monarchies, prisons, the military, etc.) themselves admit of both determination and choice, constraint and flow, hierarchy and resistance. And networks do as well.

We have begun with a definition of "institution" as concise as that of Avner Greif's magisterial yet quite different definition of "institutions" as "equilibria of rules, norms, and beliefs" (Greif 2006). His definition arises from economic game theory. While appreciating Greif's metaphor of constant retuning, adjudicating, counterposing, and balancing, we would switch to the more active and agentive metaphor of "mobilizing." Networks need mobilizing--they certainly neither occur nor can be sustained "naturally," of their own accord, without effort--and in turn, they mobilize the interactive to effective purpose or ends. We use "networks" not to signal egalitarianism (we do not subscribe to the notion that networks are purely or simply egalitarian) but rather to gesture toward the complex, multiple, sometimes self-generating and sometimes contradictory connections, linkages, and flows that occur in all institutions.

Numerous scholars (at least as far back as Plato's exegesis of the state and justice in the Republic) have argued that institutional structures that seem permeable in their delineations as well as institutions that appear to be draconian and powerfully linear in their organization and administration all admit and (sometimes inadvertently) foster counter-forces and counter-tendencies. Yet, interestingly, historical definitions of "institution" have tended to privilege the foundational, static, formal, and regulatory aspects rather than the human flows within, into, and out of institutions.

Our modification of classic definitions of "institution" (including Rational Choice definitions) is intended to elicit discussion concerning the differences between traditional and peer-to-peer or virtual institutions. What would it mean to start with a definition that emphasized social networks and the processes of creating those networks? In any new definition, something is gained and something is lost. In ours, we are deliberately building upon and pushing at a classic definition of institution such as that offered by political scientist Robert Keohane (1989), of "persistent and connected sets of rules (formal and informal) that, along with norms and beliefs, prescribe behavioral roles, constrain activity, and shape expectations" (3)12. Our intent is to help rethink the institution in terms of agency and movement as a way of making visible continuities and discontinuities between "traditional" and "virtual" institutions. The definition also helps us find points between the poles of organization and chaos--a way of thinking in institutional terms of what Howard Rheingold calls "smart mobs" (2002).13

Below, we offer an elaboration of our working definition of "institution" as a "mobilizing network." Practicing what we preach, we have called upon over a dozen colleagues in as many fields for insights, feedback, and exceptions that interject cautions (and terminologies) from various disciplinary perspectives, and that make clear that we do not believe that institutions, in and of themselves, are intrinsically good or bad.14

Our definition is intended to apply to both traditional institutions and peer-to-peer institutions.


Institutions are mobilizing networks.

They aggregate, coordinate, disperse, balance, and adjudicate complex flows of resources.

Institutions are also social, political, and economic structures prompting a culture of their own.

They embody protocols of governance and varying degrees of control over their members. Institutions validate and impose norms, practices, and beliefs, seeking to ensure orderly interchange through normative interactions. However, intra-institutional conflict and complexity are not always susceptible to being managed by such norms.

Institutions sometimes disseminate products to a larger public.

Institutional distribution of goods may be prompted and promoted for reasons of profit, influence, policy, institutional self-perpetuation and power, or the public good.

Institutions may occupy a primary site and exercise jurisdiction over constituents.

Institutional sites may be concrete or virtual, and jurisdiction may be legal or social and ideological.

An institution is differentiated from other looser forms of affiliation by duration.

Institutions are expected to include mechanisms for continuity over time, often seeking to provide an archive or repository of their own collective processes and history.

This working definition has been especially useful in helping us (again by way of collaborative means) to think through the full implications of what a peer-to-peer institution might look like. Of key importance is its motivational premise pointing to the institution's role as a "mobilizing network." As we think about building the field of digital media and learning, for example, we need to think about forming the kind of institutional base that will be responsible to its members in its role as a purveyor of cultural norms and protocols for wise decision-making. We also need an institutional base that will be a responsive builder of a common language and a set of creative translation functions capable nevertheless of being modified, riffed upon, improvisationally put to practice. And we need an institutional base that is an arbiter of social practices, an honest broker of financial resources, a resource for credentialing and reputation, and a repository or an archive of its own practices--while maintaining its core innovative function as a mobilizing network.

In other words, corporatizing the institution or even reverting to a conventional institutional model subverts the self-organizing operations of the field--those that we most wish to encourage, that are the most like the Linux-model of self-motivated collaboration and creativity (Boyle, 2004) or the industrious and even playful collaborative operations that Yochai Benkler ascribes to Coases's penguin (Benkler 2002). These kinds of peer-to-peer institutions are what promise to be most responsive to issues of innovative pedagogy and most suited to a field whose goal it is to rethink the future of institutions for young and older people alike, teachers and learners, often the same person--whether civic centers, community centers, libraries, museums, schools, and colleges for a digital age.

For here is the central question: is there a way to sustain a learning network such as HASTAC without creating fixed rules of organization that, inevitably, replicate exactly the institutional silos we are hoping to diminish as part of the process of re-envisioning learning? The idea of a specific site or a standard organizational model such as the Modern Language Association or the Organization of American Historians seems inimical to the potentialities of Web 2.0 social networking and aggregating that we are advocating. What other models are there?

The concept of "emergence" is key to thinking through the future of learning institutions (Ghosh, 2005). Emergence is the complex process of pattern formation that begins to take shape--and to evolve as a result of--continuous interactions across and among more basic constituent parts or behaviors (Fromm, 2004; Johnson, 2001). We know emergence happens constantly in education. New fields constantly emerge. Are there models or principles for how one creates emergent institutions for an emergent field? Contention and resistance are one (familiar) model for field-transformation. And yet, at least as often, new fields emerge in ways that are taken up by and even substantively change the identities of the institution itself. So are there ways that learning institutions can be more innovative and aggressive in support of this latter process?

Over a decade ago, John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid suggested that the university of the future might not even look like a university. They proposed that higher education might itself become something more flexible, flowing, integrated, networked, distributed, inventive--something that "breaks down the monolith" of university credentialing, training, and disciplinary (in all senses) field-definition (Brown and Duguid, 1996; Cummings and Kiesler, 2005). If one looked at universities from on high, one would, indeed, see many tentacles reaching out in complex new collaborative directions that seem to underscore the validity of Brown and Duguid's prediction. And yet there are other features of universities that resemble nineteenth-century Germany or medieval England far more than they do the networked knowledge-sharing global open learning models of the Net Age. We are not saying the latter are all good, the former all bad. But we ignore the deep changes in conditions and structures of learning--in what and how we learn today, when we learn and with and through whom, by what means and with what interest(s)--at our peril.

Certainly, in its four years of activity, HASTAC has existed as something like an emergent \institution and its constituents and its mission are far from monolithic. We learn with and from each other, we determine in practice and in situ what works and what does not. Mobilizing our institutions as centers of learning--these are inherently collaborative undertakings, experimental ventures, shared failures and productive outcomes. So with the MacArthur Digital Media and Learning Series.

Organizing eighty centers at twelve sites into a coherent year of scheduled, orderly, open source programming--advertised and archived at a central website in order to serve a larger public--is no minor feat. It is also a gargantuan effort to organize the work of ninety scholars into a book series that emerges after a year of individual and collaborative thinking and that addresses pressing topics that contribute to a new "field" (as the MacArthur Foundation has done through its "Digital Media and Learning" series, with its powerful online presence). Major institutions (universities, multidisciplinary centers, foundations) in the traditional sense support each of these developments. Yet the complex, far-reaching, and distributed outcomes of both of these endeavors constitute something like an emergent field, a self-organizing institution.

We need new models for peer-to-peer institutions. At present, there are many routes to stabilization: individual memberships, collective memberships, external grant funding, commercialization, or absorption into a larger, commercially-viable non-profit organization (such as EDUCAUSE). None of these models on its own is a sufficient condition for the creation of a "field." It is possible that a hybrid model will prove productive in cementing and sustaining a field with sufficient flexibility to accommodate the rapidly transforming conditions of digital learning. We hope in this paper to discover what other models exist, which are the most feasible, and what are the true potentialities for the institution as a "mobilizing network."

"What other models are there?" We do not intend that as a rhetorical question but an actual one. We hope, through posting drafts of this paper collaboratively as well as by posing this question at our forums and on the list serves of various networks and organizations, that we will be able to accumulate a wealth of possible models that inventive and adventurous learning institutions can aspire to. By the final draft of "The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age," we hope to be able to present an array of feasible models of collaborative ownership that have the potential to serve in productive and positive ways the digital economy of emergent virtual institutions.


12In our correspondence (9/24/2006) over this definition of "institution," Keohane indicated that he has modified his 1989 definition, inserting the phrase "along with norms and beliefs" into the original (as we have above).

13Our definition complements but is to be distinguished in emphasis from Actor Network Theory. The latter emphasizes the ways in which people interact with one another to individualized ends. Our concept of institutions as mobilizing networks focuses by contrast on the outcomes of interactive arrangements among individuals.

14This definition is itself collaborative and was written with feedback and input from many colleagues. Our special thanks to: Anne Allison (Anthropology), Srinivas Aravamudan (English), Anne Balsamo (Interactive Media), James Boyle (Law), Rachael Brady (Electrical and Computer Engineering), Jonathon Cummings (Marketing), Neil DeMarchi (Economics), Kevin Franklin (Education and Grid Computing), Lawrence Grossberg (Communications and Cultural Studies), Harry Halpin (Philosophy and Computer Science), Andrew Janiak (Philosophy), Robert Keohane (Political Science), Julie Klein (English and Interdisciplinary Studies), Timothy Lenoir (History and New Technologies and Society), David Liu (Religion), Dana D. Nelson (American Studies and Political Theory), Mark Olson (New Media and Communications), Kenneth Rogerson (Public Policy), Kristine Stiles (Art History), and Kathleen Woodward (English).

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