The School as Institution

The School as An Institution: An Examination of Oundle School’s Organisation, Power Structure and Politics

Weber, whose ideas inspired me in this enterprise, discussed power, and more particularly political power, in reference to ‘a political association, and hence . .[to] a state.’1 I wish to use some of Weber’s ideas to analyse an institution, namely Oundle school.

The Concept of an Institution & Weber’s Analysis of the State and Legitimacy

But what about an institution. What is an institution? First an institution is an abstract entity, it exists as a mental entity like a corporation. It has physical embodiments: bureaucracies, ownership of material objects, members etc. and most importantly a set of rules which govern how its members behave and some system of enforcing these rules. Institutions also have some specific role within society, they do something, and their importance to us as sociological entities is not their role within wider society but the way institutions work internally. Particularly how institutions regulate their members behaviour through rules, how those rules are enforced, why members accept an institution’s authority. And most importantly how does politics (the control of power) work in an institution? To begin to answer these questions we will first examine Weber’s analysis of the state to which an institution is analogous.

For Weber the defining characteristic of the state is ‘that it (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force [italics added]‘, ‘the state is considered the sole source of the ‘right’ to use violence’. Thus the state has two significant attributes. First it can compel obedience from its members ultimately through force. Second this compulsion is considered legitimate, the state’s authority is consensual, its members accept its power to enforce rules and compel individuals. Power within a state consists of the ability to compel (not necessarily through violence, perhaps just through use of conformity etc.) members of state, to have control over the machinery of the state, most simply power is the ability to do things (but by legitimate means). Politics then is ‘any kind of independent leadership in action’ directed towards the acquisition of power or influencing its distribution. Weber then asks how the state gained legitimacy for its power, ultimately legitimacy for those who wield the power. Weber describes three ‘inner justifications’ which he calls legitimations for domination.

A) Authority of tradition and the ‘habitual orientation to conform.’

B) Authority based on charisma of the leader.

C) ‘Domination by virtue of legality.’ By virtue ‘of the [individual’s] belief in the validity of legal statute and functional competence [of the system] based on rationally created rules.’

D) Less categorizable and more short term motivations. ‘I might as well do what I’m told because its more effort to resist’ attitude or simply short term self interest of fear of punishment or hope of material reward.

Politically dominant powers in the modern state then create an organised continuous administration to help run it. They also need two things. First ‘that human conduct be conditioned to obedience towards those masters who claim to be bearers of legitimate power.’ Second, ‘organised domination requires control of the personal executive staff and the material implements of administration [the army, police, bureaucracies etc.].’ With these two criteria satisfied the dominant powers will have a significant degree of legitimate power.

Weber’s analysis is obviously relevant to institutions. Although not obviously based on the use of physical force, ultimately an institution’s authority will have to rely on its ability to either forcibly exclude a member or to carry out a physical punishment (the reliance on caning for many years as the major disciplinary measure in schools for example). Again fitting Weber’s paradigm the institution has only a monopoly on legitimate force not force per se. One would have to be a fool to maintain that there was no use of physical force between pupils at schools, but it is only the school’s use of force that is legitimate. Weber’s answers to the question of how the state (and the dominant powers in the state) maintains its authority also apply to institutions. An institution like a state must gain its authority somehow, it is not inevitable, as episodes when authority is defied show. However Weber only deals with one side of the issue. His paradigm only tells us the essential basis of a institution and how it maintains its legitimacy and therefore power. The other side to an institution is how authority is organised, power delegated, punishments and rewards decided upon and carried out. These two areas are closely linked, if power is abused by those in authority then the institution as a whole will lose legitimacy which could lead eventually to a total breakdown in the institutions control over its members. This relationship is very complex, theoretically the institution’s (and thus its agents’) authority is based upon the members’ consent, their willingness to obey. Moreover one would expect a direct feedback mechanism between the agents’ (of the institution) behaviour and the amount of authority/legitimacy accorded to the institution by the members. By this I mean that if, for example, an institution appoints to a powerful position someone who then does a lot of stupid and unpopular things this will mean that the members have less respect for the institution, and accord less authority to the agents. Or a club appoints as treasurer a man who then makes off to the south of France with the treasury, this will lower the legitimacy of the institution, perhaps the members will kick out the agents in power. There are several problems with this theoretical analysis. The most significant of which is that it is far too rational, the members accord legitimacy to the institution in direct proportion to the extent that the institution satisfies what they want from it. This rational according of legitimacy is only one of the four that Weber had (see above), and the other three are probably as important in giving legitimacy. This makes the feedback mechanism very messy and it is further complicated -as I said above- by the fact that the relationship between agents and institution is very variable. In some cases those in authority (the agents) are very closely identified with the institution (e.g. a headmaster) while in other cases this is not true (e.g. the army). All of this means that when we discuss institutions in general, there is little we can say. The essentials are:

1) An institution is a body of people called members. An institution has power over the members in that the members will do what institution wants them to do. An institution will have a power structure though which actual people (or groups) use the institution’s power (or authority)2. An institution will have legitimacy, that is that the use of power (and in particular the use of physical force) by the institution and its agents will be accepted by the members as acceptable. The members acknowledge the right of the institution to compel them.

2) An institution gains and maintain its legitimacy through five factors. First, tradition, in the past the institution has had authority, thus it should continue to do so. Second, the charisma of those in authority (note this touches on the issue of the extent of identification between the agents and the institution itself). Third, rationality, members consider in their interest for variety of reasons for their to be an institution which can override specific individuals. Fourth, conformity, the general fact that human beings in groups will tend to try to behave like everybody else. Fifth, apathy, the fact there is premium on action, by this I mean that even if you do not like the status quo, you will not change it because you cannot be bothered, the end payoff for action is less than the effort involved in acting. Sixth, short term factors of reward or punishment.

3) The institution will have an executive section which is made up of those who have power. Power ultimately, is exercised through physical force (this includes excluding someone from the institution), but it does not have to rest directly on it. The executive section controls punishments and rewards and how the institution is organised. Note also that the relationships between the members and the institution’s agents is depersonalised. Personal feelings should not be of prime relevance to the performance of punishments etc.

This summary only provides a rough outline and to answer any of the specific questions posed at the beginning we must look at a specific example. The example is going to be a school and Oundle school in particular.

Oundle School: Organisation and Power Structure

In the institution of the school the members are the pupils. Authority/power can be demarcated into those members who get given it (prefects) and those who are part of the institution solely through there position in the power structure. It will be useful in further analysis to have classified different forms of power. Power in general is the ability to get other to do what you want them to do. This may not necessarily consist of coercion, in fact usually it consists of persuading people that it is in their interest to do what you want them to do. Power can be classified for the purposes of this essay in two ways. There is material power, which is the ability to impose in an objective sense on others, for example deprive them of money and food, restrict there freedom, expel them. And there is abstract power, which is the ability to influence how others behave because of your social importance, your status. For example at Oundle, rugby players get no direct material power from being rugby players, but they get abstract power, their opinions about what things are right and wrong will be considered more important in general than the opinions of others. It is very difficult to measure abstract power or even apprehend who has it but it is highly significant. In the situation of a school the concept is also important because it relates to the social stratification that takes place. Here we come to a fundamental of sociological investigation, namely the concept of class.

A class is usually a group whose members all share one or several characteristics. In the social sciences the concept originated with Marx and denoted primarily an economic class, that is a group of people all sharing the same economic characteristics (e.g. for Marx proletariat only possess their labour as commodities, while capitalists/bourgeoisie possess means of production, raw materials etc.) However one could demarcate classes by ideology, education, access to power etc. Today the general concept of class tends to denote a vague socio-economic status (lower class, middle class, upper middle class etc.) Classes are also either latent or active. Latent classes are defined as above, namely as people grouped together by some objective characteristic. Active classes are the same as latent classes except that the members of the class are class conscious - they are aware of their membership of that class. Rising class consciousness among the proletariat was central to Marx’s Communist revolution, and class consciousness is significant to us because group identification (class consciousness) at school is important in influencing conformity to authority and thus the legitimacy accorded to the institution.

My analysis of school society focuses on the fact that the classes in a school are defined by social status, which corresponds closely with my concept of abstract power. School is not stratified on economic, ideological, political bases, although these all contribute to overall social status. But what is this status? The most significant fact about status is that it is entirely a function of your relation to others. Status consists of what others think of you, the degree to which what you think influences others in a community. The bases of status are normative and therefore highly variable, anything from your ability at chess to your prowess at a sport can contribute to or define your status. In society at large status does not necessarily coincide with class in the senses in which it is defined, an aristocrat who even possessed material power may not have high status. My point is that status, which is the basis of abstract power, does not flow directly from the same sources as material power (which comes from possession of economic resources, physical strength, institution/state authority etc.). If class (social stratification) is defined by status, and that status to a great extent defines abstract power, what it is important to discover, in a given community, is on what criteria status is evaluated.

Before we investigate the exact basis for status at Oundle, we should make several general observations. On account of the nature of schools all its members (the pupils) are not adults, they are all under 18. This means that adult concerns like money do not contribute so much to evaluating status, although even for children at a young age having things like the ‘right’ trainers or football shirt (which are money dependent) becomes a major status issue. Moreover it is only when the pupils become teenagers that status becomes so important. At earlier ages the children form themselves into groups (gangs etc.) and exclude people, but this is simply tribalism and there is no clear way of dividing up groups, it may simply be I live on the same street as my friend for example. What happens at puberty that is moves status to centre stage. The answer is simple: sex. Puberty marks the stage when sexual matters becoming the overriding personal concerns. Suddenly one’s attractiveness to the opposite sex becomes paramount. There is an intimate connection between the top status group and attractiveness to girls (Note that attractiveness is not necessarily physical as we shall see.) Puberty also marks a substantial increase in the strength of the desire to conform, this stems from the importance of sexual (and hence emotional) concerns. The insecurity accompanying the desire to attract the opposite sex creates a desire for general acceptance, which in turn leads to conformity to the group values. The following extract illustrates this. It refers to the pupils of a private girls’ boarding school in Cleveland, but it could apply equally well to Oundle.

‘The ‘popular girls’ formed a clique that offered companionship and social approval in return for complete subservience to their views on every subject. In particular, they told other girls whom to like and whom to dislike, and so exercised an impressive emotional tyranny. Thinking that emotional relationships really are the most important things in the world reinforces the power of adolescent cliques.’3

The extract shows the ‘popular girls’ possess high status their approval matters more than others. However the extract only shows how the top social group enforces its high status and abstract power, but does nothing to tell us how they got that status. This is what we wish to discover in relation to Oundle.

At Oundle (and probably elsewhere) status stratifies society into three classes. The victims, the cool group, and the middle ranks. This is of course very general and there are further demarcations -particularly in the middle ranks- which may not be on the basis of status. Nevertheless this division is adequate for our analysis. Being a member of the cool group conveys attractiveness. Because teenagers desire attractiveness, people want to be members of the cool group. To become a member of the cool group you have be approved of by the members of the cool group. You have to conform to their value systems. Thus the cool group possess great abstract social power and status. But on what basis does the cool group approve of people. There are two bases. First there is connectivity. If you are a friend of a member of the cool group, this implies approval by that member of the cool group, and since the cool group share common criteria for approval, you will become a member of the cool group. Membership of the cool group is also based on general criteria, which vary by gender. For girls, physical attractiveness to boys is a major basis for membership. For boys it is physical prowess demonstrated at sports and in particular Rugby -which at Oundle is a semi-religion. These general criteria for membership are self-perpetuating. Because being good at sports leads to approval by the cool group, being good at Rugby conveys high social status which means being good at sports becomes a basis for membership of the cool group and approval. If you could convince people that being intellectual engendered high social status, then eventually being intellectual would become a criterion for membership of the cool group. This point is fundamental, since it means that the general basis (Rugby, physical attractiveness) for membership of the cool group is not defined internally by the group. Once defined it will self-perpetuate as just shown, but the basis of high social status can be shifted through external influences on the value system of members of the institution. My point is that status and abstract power derive from membership of the cool group and that because certain general criteria contribute to approval and membership those general criteria convey status on their own and thus lead to a self perpetuating system and set of criteria; but originally the criteria must have been defined by some external agency (it is a chicken and egg situation), and moreover that this external agency could even now influence the self perpetuation cycle. My thesis is that it is the power executive of the institution which defines the ideological/general bases of social status. How this is done is what I will now discuss.

The Problem of Legitimacy

In order to answer the question just posed we need to analyse how the school gains legitimacy. How it gets its members to obey the executive -to acknowledge the legitimacy of its authority. Of the six factors (see above), the school would argue that rationality was paramount. The argument is essentially a social contract one and goes as follows: ‘I want an education. In order to gain one efficiently I need to go to a school which has many members because this allows me access to large resources at low cost. For the school to run effectively it must have power over its members to get them to obey rules. Rules are necessary to provide stability and efficiency and some protection of individual members. Therefore in going to school I accept the school’s authority and rules as legitimate.’ There are several immediate difficulties with this line of argument. How far does the school’s authority extend? Do I only accept rules that can be shown to be in the general interest? Oundle, as an institution, claims very strong authority on the basis that it is totally voluntary. The school can do just about anything as long as it is not against the state’s law. However it is by now means clear that they actually have any great consent for this among the members. For example it is entirely unclear that it essential to the school for everybody to do an AS, even if one argued that it weakens the school’s general authority if they change rules because of pressure from members. Also, the social contract argument is based on the assumption of free consent -something which is forced on me has no binding authority upon my actions. When I (or my parents decided to send me) joined the school in the 3rd Form a free choice was being made, but from then on, because of time invested in, for example, a certain syllabus, I can no longer make a totally free choice. As with contract theories of the state, a contract theory of school suffers from the fact that the contract is never a real explicit contract.4 The concept of a contract is simply a convenient analytical tool, and because it is never formalised it is impossible to determine exactly what the ‘contracting’ parties have agreed to. Clearly, by voluntarily entering a school, I have accepted some degree of school authority, but what degree?

We can determine the degree to which pupils accept the school authority on rational terms to an extent in the following way. Rational legitimacy is unusual in that it means that the members not only accept the authorities power, but accept it as fair. In obeying rationally accepted authority and rules, one not only obeys because of fear of punishment but out of some moral sense. I turn up to the school’s lessons not only because if I do not I will be punished but because I consider it both right, and my duty, to do so. Just as in society as a whole I refrain from murder not just because I may be caught but because I consider murder a wrong thing to do in some way. Of course in an institution, just as in society, not all will obey the rules, but this does not mean that the majority to not accept the legitimacy of authority on a rational basis. However, at Oundle (this is probably true of elsewhere), such a huge section of the member population disregard major school rules that it makes it unlikely that the school’s legitimacy stems from any rational basis. The vast consumption of alcohol and cigarettes, which under school rules is illegal, would not take place if the school legitimacy was rational. Moreover, not only do pupils actually break the rules in several major areas, but they clearly do not consider many school rules to be either fair or even necessary (e.g. Chapel).

Thus, we can conclude that it is unlikely that the school’s legitimacy has any rational basis. The extent to which school rules are broken, the whole system (including the executive) considered unfair, the difficulties anyway in determining the degree of rational acceptance, all lead one to this conclusion.

The interesting fact then is that such a great majority of the school’s members seem to accept the school’s authority and therefore, to consider the school legitimate. If this legitimacy is not based on rational acceptance, it must rest on the other four factors. Of these conformity and apathy are much the most significant. Apathy ensures that although pupils may consciously oppose the school’s authority or more usually some school activity or rule they will do nothing about because the effort required to protest or do something is too great as compared to the end result for the individual. It is ironic that the school executive (namely the teachers and in particular the headmaster) often complain about Oundelians apathy as this general apathy is so important to maintaining order and the school’s authority. Apathy can be increased by making it difficult to do anything, for example having no easy method for formal complaint, and by ensuring that the majority are not annoyed too much. A good example of apathy in the school is in the area of Wednesday afternoon lectures. They are usually of poor quality, and platitudinous. There have been several intelligent attacks on them over the years and the majority of Oundelians consciously dislike them and feel them unnecessary5. Yet nothing happens. Because the lectures do not always occur every week and only take up an hour on Wednesdays, the general attitude is ‘I might as well turn up.’ The effort required to protest, is too much compared to what may be gained from protesting. This apathy is closely connected to conformity, since one form of protest would be to refuse to go. For this strategy to be successful you need many people not to go, since the school will shy away from punishing a large group, if a single person doesn’t go it is easy to punish them. Conformity is essential to ensuring that there is a general tendency to obey authority, to go along. Stripping away the apathy there is still a feeling of ‘Oh I might as well do what they say.’ Thus apathy is instilled by the school by making the effort too great compared to the result achieved and by ensuring that there is general conformity.

Conformity is the fundamental. On conformity rests the school’s legitimacy, its ability to function. There are two separate, sometimes even antagonistic, strands to conformity. Obedience to physical authority, that is an institution’s or state’s actual power executive, those with physical power (see above). Obedience to abstract authority or power, conformity to the group’s norms. In both cases what it is important to emphasise is that conformity consists not of obedience (since all bases of legitimacy will result in obedience) but of unquestioning obedience. Conformity’s essence is that it is almost instinctual, the peasant’s obedience to the master is unquestioning, the master’s power is accepted as a given.6 The unfortunate problem for the school is that obedience to physical authority, to the school power structure (teachers etc.) is not very strong among the pupils. This is in part to do with the age of the pupils. The teenage period being a particularly strong period of anti-adult, anti-authority feeling. However, at this age pupils’ tendency to conform to their peer group (obedience to abstract power) is conversely much stronger (see above). Thus the school’s solution to the problem of how to gain conformity and hence legitimacy, is to incorporate pupils into the power structure and to try and ensure that there are few occasions where conformity to peer group conflicts with conformity (or even just obedience) to the school’s authority.

Now the question arises of which pupils the school should incorporate into the power structure. Pupils are incorporated mainly by being made prefects. Prefects possess some physical power and get some rewards. The whole point of making someone a prefect is to gain the abstract power which that person possesses and convert into legitimacy for the school. The prefects become part of the institution, and in doing so their prestige is transferred to the institution. Thus obedience is not just to the institution but to those in one’s peer group. Prefects who gain power and even status from their close association with institution will be much more likely to be obedient to the institution (school). Because of apathy and conformity within the peer group the prefects’ conformity will induce others to conform, and eventually almost all will do so. However the school cannot appoint anybody as prefects. To appoint someone who will attack the school as a prefect is obviously counter-productive, and to appoint someone who has no abstract power, will be a waste, since that person will not influence others’ behaviour to any large extent. Thus those appointed prefects should be both conformist and have abstract social power. Ultimately conformity will be of more significance since the mere conformity of large numbers of prefects irrelevant of their influence over others will probably be enough to ensure the conformity of the whole population of members.

This analysis provides the basis in which to deal with the question posed at the end of the last section. The question was what external force shaped the objective criteria for social status and why it chose the criteria it did. The answer to the first part was that the external force was the school power executive along with the ideological currents of general society. At Oundle the 1st XV rugby pitch sits in a central position to the houses. Huge attention is paid to it by the teachers. This heightens rugby’s status among the pupils, and as pointed out before once something conveys status a positive loop sets in so that that activity will probably retain high status. But why does the school as an institution choose to emphasise sport in general and rugby in particular rather than, for example, debating skills. The answer lies in the fact that activities like rugby (and the CCF) encourage conformity. They emphasise unthinking obedience, and strong group loyalty. Intellectual activities tends to encourage critical thinking, and a questioning attitude. Is it a simple coincidence that almost every head of school plays for the 1st XV and is involved in CCF? One must of course beware of too great generalisation, the social status mechanism is highly complex, and the school’s direct input is difficult to determine. However it is possible to say that the school tends to appoint to power those members who are conformist, and that several high status activities in the school select for and promote conformity. To an extent the school also converts abstract power into physical power but this is probably unintentional on the part of the executive. It is doubtful that the executive has enough understanding of the precise status stratification to consciously act on it.

Thus, it is clear that the primary basis for the school’s legitimacy is some form of conformity. Apathy and short term considerations of reward and punishment then become important but conformity is the essential. However Weber’s traditional conformity or a conformity to the institution in itself is not very effective at gaining legitimacy from a school’s members particularly if they are teenagers. In order to gain legitimacy a school has to appropriate some of the peer group conformity. To do this the school absorbs some members into its executive. Those members who have been absorbed are now part of their institution and their abstract social power is transferred to the institution. Moreover the simple fact that there is a significant group attached to the institution who will therefore conform will in itself encourage others to conform (effective protest through boycott needs the participation of most of the group, if a significant section is going to support the school this makes protest all the more difficult.) However the executive will be selective in those whom they appoint to positions of power. The executive (like that of any institution) will appoint people who support their views, those, in short, who conform. To this end, the executive tends to select for power those who participate in activities which encourage conformity and tribalistic group loyalty. Moreover the complex interaction of the executive (i.e. the school institution) with the dynamics of social status (and hence abstract power) means that the school also ties those with high social status to the school. The high status of rugby is in part connected to the behaviour of the executive, and thus those members who are closely attached to rugby and the status it gives are more attached to the school than other sections of the members. I doubt that intellectual endeavours will ever receive the same school support and resultant status for those endeavours as sport and in particular rugby receives because those who are good in intellectual areas tend to have a critical, questioning attitude which is antagonistic to conformity both to the school authority and to the peer group.


In the first section of this essay, I developed a very general analysis of an institution. I then applied this analysis to schools as a type of institution and Oundle school in particular. The central institutional areas of schools are:

1) An executive made up primarily of adults (teachers).

2) A membership who are all children, some of whom participate in the executive.

3) A set of rules, determined with little consultation with the membership, although there is a complex feed mechanism which involves:

4) Legitimacy. The central concern of my essay has been the basis on which schools, and Oundle in particular, gain their power over members. This power is legitimate, it does not come directly from a barrel of a gun. However given the lack of any direct legitimising mechanism like elections, the school’s legitimacy comes from some combination of the six factors mentioned in the first section. After further analysis, in particular of the social stratification of members by status, I concluded that a school’s legitimacy will be primarily based on some form of conformity, with apathy and short term concerns being important as secondary factors.

My conclusions are obviously tentative and I would wish to conduct more research of actual schools in order to provide a more substantial basis for them. Moreover, in some areas, particularly the social dynamics of the pupils, the simplification necessary for my analysis, mean that I have not done justice to the complexity of the subject. Yet overall I do feel that my investigation is of some relevance to an understanding of schools in general, and most certainly of Oundle school in particular.

  1. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Translated etc by Gerth and Mills. (Routledge 1948). [return]
  2. This can called an executive. Thus the part of an instituition involved in the actual exercise of power (through rewards and punishments) is called the executive section. [return]
  3. New York Review. November 6 1997, pg. 51. This is a summary of the a study of adolescent schoolgirls at a school by Carol Gilligan entitled Meeting at the Crossroads published in 1992. [return]
  4. A Companion To Ethics. Ed. P. Singer (Blackwell 1991). Chpt. 15, pp. 186-196. [return]
  5. J. Stainsby in the Laxtonian 1996, pg. 26. J. Scragg in Laxtonian 1995, pg. 38. [return]
  6. It is possible to conform rationally in the sense that one can be conscious that one is conforming. For example when I buy a pair of jeans so as to fit in. But although I am conscious of my conformity, it is still conformity because I am sacrificing my own values so as to be accepted by the group. To an extent I am sacrificing my will. [return]