The second definition of “institutionalized” in the dictionary is, “Given the character of an institution or incorporated into a structured and usually well-established system.” The first definition as an adjective states “Officially placed in or committed to a specialized institution.”

Institution – “An organization founded and united for a specific purpose.”

Therefore could it not be said that our daily lives are immersed and utterly intertwined with various institutions which are officially sanctioned by the overriding institution which is the government of the land in which we live?

Thus are we not all to some degree institutionalized?

If we describe someone as “institutionalized,” in the common usage or parlance, it usually refers to an inmate or mental hospital patient who has become so accustomed to the environment that they will suffer acute mental distress should they be removed from their environment.

It is not absurd to say most people of any nation would feel distressed should they be forced from their home country and made to live somewhere else. I assume a very small percentage would be able to adapt, while others would seek out areas which replicate their former land to the highest degree.

Our daily lives are basically comprised of interacting with some sort of “institution” or another whether it be a job, a church, a society, etc. If any of these were to be suddenly removed from our lives, it is not a stretch to say that many might feel more than a modicum of stress. Is it not possible that we as humans prefer order in our lives than the chaos which would prevail without institutions to tell us what do do, how to behave and what to believe?

Institutions in my opinion are restrictive in that they limit our room for movement, in the sense they instruct us to act and think within limited parameters. As we have no basis for comparison we accept these parameters without hesitation.

The picture I am painting is that of “reverse culture shock,” after an extended period of stay abroad. When one lives in a foreign country, familiar institutions are often gone and we learn that another group has constructed their own institutions albeit with foreign influence, but that things are not necessarily done as they were back in our native lands. We learn to compare and contrast and that which was quickly accepted before are now questioned.

As we grow and develop from childhood we learn how institutions work and do not question “why” since it is the way it has always been. Even if we become educated, it is very difficult to break from that to which we are accustomed. However, I have come to believe that it is those who question “why,” as the two year old child does, understands the world better than most.

To grab this post out of the heights of theory and philosophy, I simply must provide a few examples in our daily lives from simple to the complex.

1. Banks

When we are in our teens, we feel as though we are reaching adulthood because we start to understand how a checking and savings account work. If there are fees associated with keeping your own money in an account we automatically accept it because we have known no other way. Should the bank decide to raise the fee we might make a protest because we now have a basis for comparison.

But how many of us have questioned the need for banks at all? No living human has been around before there were banks. Most of us have never even considered keeping our money at home under the mattress since it is not the way we were taught.

However, for those that have lived in a poor, unstable country we find that much of the population does in fact keep their money under the mattress. As our peers in the foreign land are doing it we might even consider doing it even though it seems absurd from the perspective of our native mentality.

How many people even know how banks came into existence in the first place? Perhaps it was safer than keeping it home under the mattress. Perhaps it was the convenience of being able to write a check or a note which would be safe carried even long distances and exchanged for money when the destination is reached. In modern times, perhaps it is just convenience. I myself feel that my apartment is pretty secure and I could even buy a safe which eliminates the need for a feeling of safety. However, it would be a pain to physically take my money to pay all my bills when it can be done over the internet. But it is possible to do so.

Yet, how many people have considered this as a way to pay your bills? I’m guessing very few as most are “institutionalized” enough by the institutions called banks. Could it be that institutions limit our ability to think freely without being instructed or persuaded by societal norms?

Coming back to the USA I have become very shrewd and questioning of all these fees I am being charged for a bank to hold my money. I get strange looks when I ask if the teller can waive my monthly checking access fee since it is quite possible no one has ever asked her that question before.

A feeling of control comes from challenging the status-quo. However, this confidence to ask these questions is rare and usually only comes from those who have traveled, or inherently astute.

2. Work

The corporate (or not) culture is something discussed only in business schools to my knowledge. Professors try to teach us to question or in the cliche (think outside of the box) , but this does not come naturally and how much of the population actually does it? Shame of asking something stupid might be a reason or perhaps is it we want to appear as though we already understand everything.

For me, there is no greater sense of control in life than being able to unabashedly ask “why” until I understand the explanation. It is either the explanation is not good or my counterpart is trying to fool me. What gives me this confidence is that I have a basis for comparison due to my experience abroad. I am no longer afraid of ridicule from my peers (or a feeling of inadequacy) because due to my experiences can offer an example of why the thing in question just might not be true.

3. Authority

It would seem that only during our teenage years do we often question authority. However, I feel this is only a need to be disobedient for a short while but most come back into the fold. Is it not true that most people follow the law because it’s the law without questioning the reason for the law itself? Common sense dictates for example that murder is against the law for obvious reasons. But now we have various freedoms being taken away due to a terrible atrocity which happened to our country. Many accept it because the President and Congress made it a law. Others accept it (or not) because their peers do. But how many think of the ramifications “down the road” and sacrificing one benefit for another. How many consider that such atrocities wouldn’t have even occurred and put us in the situation if foreign policy had been different?

Most just understand the situation as it is, in the present, and not the events or policies which led up to the current situation, or the results of trying to quickly rectify the current situation.

The most interesting people I have met and the most stimulating discussions I have ever experienced have been with people who have escaped their native institutions which begat (past of beget?) their former mentalities. They are the ones who are not afraid to question “why” even when popular opinion is contrary.

By Mateo de Colón

Global Citizen! こんにちは!僕の名前はマットです. Es decir soy Mateo. Aussi, je m'appelle Mathieu. Likes: Languages, Cultures, Computers, History, being Alive! (^.^)/