Institutions and Behavior

The Duke Political Science Department is not organized around the traditional disciplinary subfields of comparative, international relations, and American. While we do retain political theory, political economy, and political methodology, the three research areas above are re-arranged (with varying levels of correspondence) into security, peace, and conflict studies; political institutions; and political behavior. This has been a positive transformation both for the department and for myself as a new student, but I have had the lingering question, “isn’t it all about behavior?” (And I don’t mean this as a subfield chauvinist–my first field is SPC and the second is methods–but it may reflect my guidance by professors at my previous university.)

Last night in class with Guillermo Trejo we came one step closer to solving this conundrum. We put forth the tentative definition of an institution as “an actor who codifies constraints upon his/her/its own behavior.” This could apply to a state’s constitution, a subnational group’s manifesto, or the UN charter. It may need further refinement to avoid overgeneralization, but for now it seems helpful.

Today I came across this example, which helps point to the role of narrative, theology, and hermeneutics in defining religious institutions:

Goldman grew up in New York City as an orthodox Jew for whom religion was a central focal point of everyday life. He saw religion as a communal force and a public issue, and he has spent a career following those principles.

He teaches through tales. In his courses, he uses the great stories of the Bible and the Quran to illustrate the ways and beliefs of Christians, Jews and Muslims. His master’s thesis compared the story of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba as it appears in the Quran and the Hebrew Bible.

(The Hebrew version is more about power and international relations, Goldman reports. The Quran presents a more strictly religious version of events.)

A religion’s stories — like Moses, and the Garden of Eden — are good teaching tools because they’re well-told and compelling, and thus, broadly influential, Goldman says.

“These texts govern behavior for many people,” he says. “So the way these stories are told influences behavior.

I will leave it to readers to reflect upon and argue for or against any of the points I’m making here (either the definition of an institution as self-restrained behavior, or the role of religious rhetoric in defining its own institutions). It does seem to me, however, that Goldman’s interpretation of the Hebrew account of Solomon and Sheba as political and the Quranic account as religious is more reflective of the modern flexibility in interpreting Jewish and Christian testaments that does not yet extend–for various and sundry reasons–to the Quran. For more on this point, see the poorly-titled writings of Ibn Warraq.

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  1. Pingback: Religious Texts as Political Documents | You Study Politics, Right?

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