The secret to social forms has been in institutional economics all along?

by Sebastian Benthall

A long-standing mystery for me has been about the ontology of social forms (1) (2): under what conditions is it right to call a particular assemblage of people a thing, and why? Most people don’t worry about this; in literatures I’m familiar with it’s easy to take a sociotechnical complex or assemblage, or a company, or whatever, as a basic unit of analysis.

A lot of the trickiness comes from thinking about this as a problem of identifying social structure (Sawyer, 200; Cederman, 2005). This implies that people are in some sense together and obeying shared norms, and raises questions about whether those norms exist in their own heads or not, and so on. So far I haven’t seen a lot that really nails it.

But what if the answer has been lurking in institutional economics all along? The “theory of the firm” is essentially a question of why a particular social form–the firm–exists as opposed to a bunch of disorganized transactions. The answers that have come up are quite good.

Take for example Holmstrom (1982), who argues that in a situation where collective outcomes depend on individual efforts, individuals will be tempted to free-ride. That makes it beneficial to have somebody monitor the activities of the other people and have their utility be tied to the net success of the organization. That person becomes the owner of the company, in a capitalist firm.

What’s nice about this example is that it explains social structure based on an efficiency argument; we would expect organizations shaped like this to be bigger and command more resources than others that are less well organized. And indeed, we have many enormous hierarchical organizations in the wild to observe!

Another theory of the firm is Williamson’s transaction cost economics (TCE) theory, which is largely about the make-or-buy decision. If the transaction between a business and its supplier has “asset specificity”, meaning that the asset being traded is specific to the two parties and their transaction, then any investment from either party will induce a kind of ‘lock-in’ or ‘switching cost’ or, in Williamson’s language, a ‘bilateral dependence’. The more of that dependence, the more a free market relationship between the two parties will expose them to opportunistic hazards. Hence, complex contracts, or in the extreme case outright ownership and internalization, tie the firms together.

I’d argue: bilateral dependence and the complex ‘contracts’ the connect entities are very much the stuff of “social forms”. Cooperation between people is valuable; the relation between people who cooperate is valuable as a consequence; and so both parties are ‘structurated’ (to mangle a Giddens term) individually into maintaining the reality of the relation!


Cederman, L.E., 2005. Computational models of social forms: Advancing generative process theory 1. American Journal of Sociology, 110(4), pp.864-893.

Holmstrom, Bengt. “Moral hazard in teams.” The Bell Journal of Economics (1982): 324-340.

Sawyer, R. Keith. “Simulating emergence and downward causation in small groups.” Multi-agent-based simulation. Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2000. 49-67.

Williamson, Oliver E. “Transaction cost economics.” Handbook of new institutional economics. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg, 2008. 41-65.