Institutional analysis is that part of the social sciences which studies how institutions—i.e., structures and mechanisms of social order and cooperation governing the behavior of two or more individuals—behave and function according to both empirical rules (informal rules-in-use and norms) and also theoretical rules (formal rules and law). This field deals with how individuals and groups construct institutions, how institutions function in practice, and the effects of institutions on each other, on individuals, societies and the community at large.
Since institutional analysis is focused on the systematic study of people's collective behaviour, its ability to explain major political, social, or historical events is sometimes contrasted with the use of conspiracy theory to explain such events, since the latter focuses on explaining such events by a secret, and often deceptive, plot by a covert coalition of small numbers of powerful or influential individuals rather than by the systematic, regular, publicly documented behaviour of groups of individuals.
Use in various disciplines
The term institutional analysis is used by several academic disciplines, and has several meanings and connotations.
One meaning of institutional analysis refers to actual formal institutions. In the biomedical sciences, “institutional analysis” often refers to analyzing data coming from concrete institutions such as health authorities, hospitals networks, etc. Similarly, in the fields of education and public administration and governance studies, the term usually refers to how school boards and governmental agencies implement policies.
Another meaning refers to institutions as ways of thinking that have a direct impact on behaviors. Under this approach, there are several variations and usages of institutional analysis. In economics, it is used to explain why economic behaviors do not conform to the theory of supply and demand. This is a relatively old school of thought that has its roots in the work of early 20th-century economists like Pareto. One of the most prominent contemporary figures of institutional analysis in economics is Douglass North, who received the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1993.
Sociology has also used institutional analysis since its inception to study how social institutions such as the laws or the family evolve over time. The foundational author of this approach is Émile Durkheim, also founder of sociology as a discipline.
Since the 1980s, however, there are cross-pollinations between the sociological and economic traditions in institutional analysis. A new focus is to explain how organizations and individuals within organizations make economic and managerial decisions, particularly by investigating the non-rational, non-economic, and non-psychological factors. This movement produced what is known as the New Institutional Analysis. The neoinstitutional approach has several variants. One of them tries to improve economic models based on the theory of public choice, and one of its applications is known as the institutional analysis and development (IAD) framework developed by Elinor Ostrom 2009 Nobel Prize for Economics.  Another variant is influenced by organizational sociology and seeks to integrate Max Weber’s work on bureaucratic mentality.
There is also a French school of institutional analysis influenced by the Durkheimian analysis of social institutions, and the anthropological school of thought established by Marcel Mauss. This approach to institutional analysis is also influenced by thinkers such as Cornelius Castoriadis and Michel Foucault. The main thrust of this approach is the identification of hidden forms of power that institute behaviors and organizational procedures.
- Center for the Study of Institutions, Population and Environmental Change. (2005). Institutional Analysis at CIPEC. Retrieved 2009-11-19.
- Chomsky, Noam (2006-10-06). "9-11: Institutional Analysis vs. Conspiracy Theory". Z Communications. Retrieved 2007-04-17.
- Albert, Michael. (date uncertain). Conspiracy Theory. Z Magazine. Retrieved 2009-11-19.
- For example, Christian, C. K., et al. (2006). A multi-institutional analysis of the socioeconomic determinants of breast reconstruction: A study of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network. Annals of Surgery, 243(2), 241–249.
- For example, Trent, Allen, et al. (2003). Problems and Possibilities in the Pursuit of Diversity: An Institutional Analysis. Equity & Excellence in Education, 36(3), 213–224; also Henriksen, Helle Zinner H. H. and Jan J. D. Damsgaard. (2007). Dawn of e-government: An institutional analysis of seven initiatives and their impact. Journal of Information Technology, 22(1), 13–23.
- Pareto, Vilfredo. (1935) . The Mind and Society. New York: Harcourt.
- See, among others: Davis, Lance and Douglass North. (1971) Institutional Change and American Economic Growth. London: Cambridge University Press; and North, Douglass and Robert Thomas. (1973). The Rise of the Western World: A New Economic History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Durkheim, Émile. (1995)  The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. New York: Free Press; and (1983)  The Division of Labour in Society. London: Macmillan.
- Ostrom, Elinor. (1990) Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. New York: Cambridge University.
- Weber, Max. (1978). Economy and society. Berkeley: University of California Press; and (1976) . The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. London: Allen & Unwin.
- Di Maggio, Paul J. and Walter W. Powell (Eds.). (1991). The new institutionalism of organizational analysis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- See among others, Lapassade, Georges. (2006) Groupes, organisations, institutions. Paris: Anthropos; and Authier, Michel and Rémi Hess. (1994). L’analyse institutionnelle. Paris: Presses universitaires de France.
- Marcel Mauss was the nephew and close collaborator of Durkheim. Mauss is one of the founders of cultural anthropology, and his well-known for his work on the institutional dimension of gift giving in pre-modern societies. See Mauss, Marcel. (1969). The gift: forms and functions of exchange in archaic societies. London: Cohen & West.
- Castoriadis, Cornelius. (1975). L’institution imaginaire de la société. Paris: du Seuil.
- Foucault, Michel. (1972). Histoire de la folie. Paris: Gallimard, and (1975). Surveiller et punir: naissance de la prison. Paris: Gallimard.