SOCIAL RULE SYSTEM THEORY:
Universal Interaction Grammars
Tom R. Burns with Nora Machado
December 30, 2013
Most human social activity – in all of its extraordinary variety – is organized and regulated by
socially produced and reproduced rules and systems of rules (Burns and Flam, 1987; Giddens,
1984; Harré, 1979).1 Such rules are not transcendental abstractions. They are embodied in groups
and collectivities of people – in their language, customs and codes of conduct, norms, and laws
and in the social institutions of the modern world, including family, community, market,
business enterprises and government agencies. The making, interpretation, and implementation
of social rules are universal in human societies, as are their reformulation and transformation.
Human agents (individuals, groups, organizations, communities, and other collectivities)
produce, carry, and reform these systems of social rules, but this frequently takes place in ways
they neither intend nor expect.
Social rule systems play a key role on all levels of human interaction (Burns et al, 1985;
Burns and Flam, 1987; Burns and Hall, 2012; Giddens, 1984; Goffman, 1974; Harré, 1979;
Lotman, 1975; Posner, 1989, among others), producing potential constraints on action
possibilities but also generating opportunities for social actors to behave in ways that would
otherwise be impossible, for instance, to coordinate with others, to mobilize and to gain
systematic access to strategic resources, to command and allocate substantial human and
physical resources, and to solve complex social problems by organizing collective actions.
In guiding and regulating interaction, the rules give behavior recognizable,
characteristic patterns2 – making the patterns understandable and meaningful for those sharing in
the rule knowledge. Shared rules are the major basis for knowledgeable actors to derive, or to
generate, similar situational expectations. They also provide a frame of reference and categories,
enabling participants to readily communicate about and to analyze social activities and events. In
such ways, uncertainty is reduced, predictability is increased.
This is so even in complex situations with multiple actors playing different roles
and engaging in a variety of interaction patterns. As Harré and Secord (1972:12) pointed out, “It
is the self-monitoring following of rules and plans that we believe to be the social scientific
analogue of the working of generative causal mechanisms in the processes which produce the
non-random patterns studied by natural scientists.”
1 Social rule system theory (Burns et al, 1985, Burns and Flam, 1987) was formulated and developed in the 1980s
making a modest contribution to the new institutionalism (Powell and DiMaggio,1991).
2 To varying degrees actors collectively produce and reproduce patterns of appropriate or acceptable possibilities.
This can be conceptualized and mathematically developed as an ideal point or collection of "approximations". Thus,
a community of actors sharing a rule complex recognize a wide variety of varying performances of a given rule as a
family of resemblances, or "the same thing." (Burns and Gomolinska, 2000). Both in this sense – and in the sense
that social rules are never learned identically and undergo different rates of adaptation and change over time – our
concept of rule, and of culture generally, is distributive.
On the macro-level of culture and institutional arrangements, we speak of rule
system complexes such as the language, cultural codes and forms, shared paradigms, norms and
“rules of the game”.3 On the actor level these translate into roles, particular norms, strategies,
action paradigms, and social grammars (for example, procedures of order, turn-taking and
voting in committees and democratic bodies).4 Social grammars of action are associated with
culturally defined institutional domains and roles, indicating particular ways of thinking, judging,
and acting. For instance, in the case of gift giving or reciprocity in defined social relationships,
actors display their social and cultural competence in knowing when and to whom a gift should
be given or not, how much it should be worth, or, if one should fail to give it or if it lies under
the appropriate value, what excuses, defenses and justifications might be acceptable. Someone
ignorant of these rules, e.g. a child or someone from a totally different culture would obviously
make (excusable) mistakes. Similarly, in the case of "making a promise," rule knowledge
indicates under what circumstances a promise may or may not legitimately be broken – or at
least the sort of breach of a promise that might be considered acceptable.
Social rule systems play then an important role in cognitive processes, in part by
enabling actors to organize and to frame perceptions in a given institutional setting or domain.
On the basis of a more or less common rule system, key, interaction-enabling questions can be
intersubjectively and collectively answered: what is going on in this situation; what kind of
activity is this; who is who in the situation, what specific roles are they playing; what is being
done; why is this being done? The participating actors – as well as knowledgeable observers –
can understand the situation, even simulate and predict what will happen in the interactions on
the basis of the applied rules. In this sense, rule-based paradigms supply interpretative schemes
but also the concrete basis for actors to plan and judge their actions and interactions. The cultural
complex of rule systems contributes to making social life more rather than less orderly and
predictable – it solves problems of “existential uncertainty” within the group or community
bearing and adhering to the culture (Burns and Dietz 1992; Burns and Flam 1987; Giddens,
1984), although the tension between the regulated and unregulated, order and disorder remains.
Finally, social rules are also important in normative and moral communications
about social action and interaction. Participants refer to the rules in giving accounts, in
justifying or criticizing what is being done (or not done), in arguing for what should or should
not be done, and also in their social attribution of who should or should not be blamed for
performance failures, or credited with success. Actors also exploit rules when they give accounts
in order to try to justify certain actions or failures to act, as part of a strategy to gain legitimacy,
or to convince others that particular actions are "right and proper" in the context.
In the social science literature a standard distinction is made between formal and
informal rules. Formal rules are found in sacred books, legal codes, handbooks of rules and
regulations, or in the design of organizations or technologies. Informal rules, in contrast, are
generated and reproduced in ongoing interactions – they appear more spontaneous, although they
may be underwritten by iron conduct codes. The extent to which the formal and informal rule
systems diverge or contradict one another varies. Numerous organizational studies have revealed
that official, formal rules are seldom those that operate in practice (Burns and Flam 1987). More
3 Lotman (1975) and Posner (1989) offer valuable semiotic perspectives with important (not yet analyzed on our
4 There are not only role grammars but semantics and pragmatics, hence processes of meaning, interpretation, and
adaptation associated with rule application and implementation.
often than not, the informal unwritten rules not only contradict formal rules but take precedence
over them, governing organizational life.
One of the contributions of rule system theory was in conceptualizing universal
interaction grammars (Burns and Flam, 1987). Such grammars are complexes of rules applying
to social action and interaction of individuals, groups, and organizations. These grammars
consist of a finite set of rule types or categories that are identified in section 2.5 A rule regime,
while an abstraction, is carried, applied, adapted and transformed by concrete human agents, who
interact, exchange, struggle, and exercise power within the group, in large part based on the rule
regime which they maintain, adapt, or transform.
2. Universal Interaction Grammars.6
Rule system theory has identified and applied universal rule grammars – in a comparative
perspective – to human interaction and games as well as diverse institutions and institutional
arrangements: bureaucracies, judicial systems, markets, democratic associations, etc.7
The conceptualization of universal interaction grammars enables us to systematically investigate
and analyze group and organizational structures, interaction situations and performances, which
rule regimes socially defined and regulated – and to do this comparatively -- as one would
compare the grammars of different languages. This is done in Burns and Flam (1987) in terms of
defining social relationships and interaction patterns of diverse institutions.8
Rules and rule systems serve three (at least) basic functions/uses in all social life: (1)
coordination/direction of social action and interaction; (2) understanding/simulation of what is
going on or will go on in the future, and (3) referents in giving and asking for accounts,
generating normative discourses, for instance of praise and of critique.
The rules making up rules regimes consists of three qualitatively different kinds:
descriptive or declarative rules describing or defining reality, action or directive/regulative rules,
and evaluative rules defining what is worth-while, good, valuable (or their opposites, “bads”).
Rule system theory provides a model which identifies key specific rule categories which
underlie or, when enacted, generate particular group or organizational properties: the rules
concern a group’s particular participants and their relations and social structure, its times and
places, its values and goals, its activities and procedures and productions, its materials and
technologies used in group activities and productions (see Figure 1). They concern the finite and
universal rule base of group social action and interaction, its material, social structural, and
5 The determination of the universal rule categories for groups, diverse social organizations, and institutions was
based on: (1) language categories that are reflected in “questions” and definitions/descriptions of socially regulated
interaction situations: who, what, for what, how, where, when (Burns et al, 1985; Burns and Flam (1987); (2)
interaction descriptions and analysis (and contextualized games, C-games) (Burns and Gomolinska, 2000; Burns and
Roszkowska, 2005, 2007, 2008; (3) comparative institutional analysis (Burns and Flam, 1987).
6 The focus here is on relational and organizational grammars. There are other types of social grammars such as
those of language and money (Burns and DeVille).
7 Although the focus of the research is on modern social organizations, the theory is applicable to families, clans,
communities, etc. The theoretical and empirical research clearly demonstrated that there was no scale problem.
8 In the sociological game theory work of Burns and Gomolinska (2000), Burns, Gomolinksa, and Meeker (2001),
and Burns and Roszkowska (2005, 2007, 2008), games and established interaction settings are characterized and
distinguished in terms of their particular grammars – grammars which allow one to predict the interaction patterns
and equilibria of interaction settings and games.
Figure 1: Social Organizational Bases and Their Interactions and Productions9
9!An earlier model of group or social system functioning was formulated by Talcott Parsons (195X): the well-known
AGIL model which specified (1) economic and material production or “adaptation” (A), (2) goal-orientation which
entailed group or social system selection of goals and values, (3) integration or group maintenance (I) and cultural
and rule patterns, or “latency” (L). A more abstract model of “self-reproducing automata” was formulated by von
In the model of group and organizational rule regimes, ten (10) categories of rules are identified
(see Tables 1 and 2) concerning group agency conditions, social structure, interaction, material
conditions, and time and space: A. Four categories concern agency relating to: Identity (I),
Group membership (II), Share values, ideals, and goals (III), and Shared knowledge and beliefs
(IV); B. Group social relations and structure (category V); C. Group action and interaction
orders/patterning (VI, VII, VIII); D. Material and resource conditions of group action and
interaction (IX); and E. Rules relating to group times and space conditions for the group to meet
Table 1: Key Types of Rule Categories Specifying Group Conditions, Structures, and
Type I. Identity rules – “Who are we?”
Type II. Membership and Participation Rules – “Who belongs, who doesn’t?”
Type III. Rules concerning shared value orientations and ideals – “What does the group consider
good and bad?”
Type IV. Rules concerning shared beliefs and models – “What do we know and believe about
ourselves, our group behavior, and our environment.”
Type V. Social relational and structural rules. “How do we relate to one another, what is our
Type VI. Procedures and production rules. “What are our characteristic activities, practices,
production programs, ceremonies and rituals?”
Type VII. Rules for dealing with environmental factors and agents. “How do we cope with,
dominate, avoid environment threats and make gains in the environment?”
Type VIII. Rules for changing core group bases, in particular the rule regime itself. “How should
we go about changing group structures and processes”?
Type IX. Technology and resource rules. “What are appropriate technologies and materials we
should use in our activities (and possibly those that are excluded)?”
Type X. Time and Place Rules – “What are our appropriate places and times?”
Neumann (19XX). It had only two or possibly three production functions: manufacturing, copying, and reading and
implement the rule regime (or code book) together with structural features, the “codebook” possibly corresponding
to Parsons’ Latency function. Neither had resources and the natural environment as a factor. Parsons gives more
attention than von Neumann to “change”. Parsons has an explicit “adaptation” function as well as “goal-orientation”
to make shifts . Von Neumann has a system designed to follow a fixed codebook, but then he was concerned with
10 Rules and rule regimes need not be explicit buy may be tacit, or partially tacit. At the same time, group members
and outsiders may have misconceptions about the rules and their application. Thus, group members may deceive
themselves and others about what rules they are applying and what they mean in practice, deception may be
institutionalized in the form of ready-made discourses defining or explain a regime as just or efficient or optimal –
for example, a market regime – when it is not. Members as well as outsiders may see what they have been led to see
Below I present in more detail these universal rule types/categories (10) that make up a group or
organizational rule regime. This is a cognitive-normative framework defining among other things
group identity, its purposes, structural architecture, role relations including status and authority
relations, groups divisions, procedures, characteristic activities, and patterns of interaction and
expected outcomes.11 The regime may be understood as consisting of a collective codebook,
cultural tools & social organizational principles. There is a architecture of any rule regime, the
cognitive-normative basis of the formation and functioning any group or organization.
Table 2. Universal rule categories of social group and organizational rule regimes12
TYPE OF RULE
I. Group or Common Identity
Who are we? And How are we
Name & naming the group
The group shares a rule(s)
about what the group is to
called, often also share rules
about elaborating names and
being sure to use names
distinguishing it from other
I. Group or Common Identity
Who are we and how are we
identified – to ourselves and
possibly to others (some groups
have rules of secrecy so that they
cannot be identified by external
Defining and regulating right and proper group symbols,
dress, shoes, food, drink, etc.
Also specifying the performance of rituals characteristic of
the group – either individually or collectively performed
Symbols including hats,
hairstyles, beard styles,
shoes, clothing; foods, also
associated with particular
interaction patterns and
rituals; and possibly the
regime itself. Some groups
do not identify themselves by
their clothing, food, etc. but
their membership in a group
with a particular name.
II. Membership &
Who belongs and doesn’t
Rules concerning inclusion/exclusion – also recruitment
and removal/exit. In the universe of possible participants,
only those in a certain subpopulation or category may join
and participate. Up to the 19th – and well into the 20th
century in many societies – women were not allowed to be
“citizens” with the right to vote or hold public office. They
were not allowed to be ministers and still are not allowed to
be priests in the Catholic Church.
Group norms define roughly the appropriate level of
commitment to or involvement in the group that
Of course, may be
discriminatory based on
religion, class, gender, age,
11 This is not a “laundry list”, hence our emphasis on the structure or architecture rule regimes (Carson et al, 2009).
The specification and analysis of rule complexes making up architectures goes back more than 20 years and was the
basis of a reconceptualization of the theory of games and human interaction, a sociological theory of games (Burns
and Gomolinska, 2000; Burns, Gomolinksa, and Meeker (2001), and Burns and Roszkowska (2005, 2007, 2008,
among other articles).
12 Talcott Parsons (1951) proposed universal “pattern variables” (for instance, univeralism vs particularism, affective
neutrality vs affectivity; achievement versus ascription, collectivity vs self, specificity vs diffuseness). Other
conceptions of universal social organizational dimensions are: hierarchy, degree of institutionalization and degree of
formalization. While all of this is compatible with the rule regime concept, rules, rule complexes, and rule regimes
as well as rule regime formation and transformation are, in our view, more fundamental concepts in the social
membership should have or exhibit in general as well as in
particular activities.13 Those belonging to the group or
organization are expected (should) involve themselves to
an appropriate degree and in expected ways – specified by
III. Shared Value orientations &
ideals and goals.
What does the group consider
good and bad? What does it
These rules define relevant values, purposes, and priorities
regarding group activities as well as outcomes and
developments. Appropriate values for the group:
concerning group relations, relative value of in-group and
others, spirituality and the sacred.
Distributive justice rules, for instance, rewards/payments
and penalties for collective and individual performances
with respect to general value as well as role performance.
Value(s) like that of creativity
or of money are expressions
of the group’s ability to
command proper orientations
and obedience. Group values
as socially precious or sacred
objects through time.
IV. Shared belief/model rules
How do we view ourselves and
the world, our cognitive
orientations, distinctions and
models of causality and dealing
with causal forces?
What are our beliefs about our
powers and capabilities vis-à-vis
Shared group beliefs/models of appropriate or relevant
“situations”, definitions of the situation, causality, and
Framing and conceptualizing types of problems and their
causes and solutions. Problem solving rules and
algorithms (the right means to deal with the problems). For
instance, making distinctions about outside groups, dividing
them into “races”, attributing to them properties and
Shared beliefs/models are
expressions of the group’s
ability to command proper
orientations and obedience
V. Social relational and
How do we relate to one
another? What is our internal
Rules of position define roles and appropriate role
occupants and role relationships including control
Rules define authority & leadership rights as well as
property rights (ownership rules) – what the group owns or
control and who decides over their allocation.14
Relations of the group and individual members of
possessions (property). What may actors do or not do with
group and individual property in the group context. Group
may appropriate individual’s property. Or individual retains
rights to certain properties. In general, a groups has a
subcomplex of rules relating to what actors may or may not
do, must do, or are forbidden to do with the possessions in
the group context, for instance a particular property may or
may not be permissible in the group context, or it may not
be sold or transferred to outsiders, or it may be transferred
only after a collective decision.15
Roles are not only “internal”.
In some groups, the same
person may play multiple
roles, e.g. internally in
leading the group and
resolving conflicts and
externally in negotiations or
in cooperation or conflict (see
13 This applies even in the activities of “fun and games”. Participants may be criticized if they do not engage
appropriately, either “not trying hard enough” or exhibiting “over-enthusiasm” or “inappropriate competitivity.”
14 Concerning actors in their particular positions and the roles they play, those in positions of high status and power
are allowed, even expected to act in particular ways, which are not permitted for subordinate or ordinary actors.
Husbands in many "advanced countries" such as the USA had a right to physically punish their wives so long as "the
rod was no thicker than a thumb." Women could not speak publicly – and, in particular, could not preach in most
churches (which still obtains for most of the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faiths).
15 Of particular importance in social life are distributive rules (Burns et al, 2014). Rules about
appropriate/required/forbidden distribution of resources to actors in group situations, for instance rewards/payments
Group norms define appropriate emotions for
relationships, for instance, the degree of respect or
obsequiousness, emotional control vis-à-vis a group
leader, someone or something sacred to the group, toward
group members and outsiders.
VI. Production and procedural
What are our characteristic
practices, production activities,
our ceremonies and rituals?
Rules define what are right and proper activities for the
group and group members to engage in. Members might
be expected to cooperate with one another generally or in
particular areas of activity, to make “sacrifices” for the
group, to demonstrate solidarity through actions for the
group and its members.
Production rules and processes in particular group
situations, including internal governance and enforcement
and sanctioning. Also, there are sub-complexes relating to
structuring incentive arrangements for establishing and
maintaining member involvement-adherence to the group,
its leadership, and rule regime.
Communication rules, rules about scripts and discourses
as well as rules about who may or may not initiate
communication, or particular types of communications such
as directives or evaluations
Procedures/algorithms for deliberating and deciding as a
group, that is collective choices.16 In what ways are
collective judgments and decisions to be made: through an
authoritarian leadership, negotiation, democratic voting,
Rules for defining problems and problem-solution,
resolving conflicts and accomplishing distributive justice.
Not all group activities are
prescribed by the regime
VII. Rules for dealing with
factors and other agents in the
Group orientations and strategies derive from group beliefs
and models about agents and factors in the environment.
(this category is a particular category of group production
Typically, one or more
members deal with external
groups and agents. The
group may recruit a member
to meet and negotiate with an
VIII. Rules for changing rules
and group cores
Group values and beliefs enter in regulating change,
and penalties for collective and individual performances. (1) with respect to general values and norms, laws and
sanctioning; (2) with respect to role and sub-group performance.
16 Collective Choice Rules and procedures concerning the linking, coordinating, collectivizing of actions of the
different actors: (i) how roles are interlocked (as superordinate-subordinate interaction in Burns and Flam (1987);
also, see Burns et al (1985) on differing models of such relationships; (ii) ways in which collective judgments and
decisions are to be made: negotiation, adjudication, democratic voting, etc.
IX. Technology & resource
What are the characteristic
technologies and materials which
we utilize? And those that are
Rules define necessary and appropriate technologies and
resources for group activities.
That is, there are appropriate/permitted/required/forbidden
techniques and technologies as well as materials. For
instance, the acceptable technologies used by physicians
in dealing with their patients in particular areas of illness.
As indicated elsewhere in the
text, the group either controls
essential technologies and
resources (for instance,
through physical or
ownership control, or must
have access to and obtain
them from external agents)
X. Time and place rules
What are “our” places and times?
Rules define times and places for group activity or
Appropriate times and situations for the group to be
activated and functioning as “the group.” Answers the
question if a particular situation is one appropriate for
The group must have access
to (rights, ownership, control)
the places (and times)
appropriate for group
Rules that are part of a group’s rule regime are "known" (some or many possibly tacitly); they
are normally useable/implementable or applicable (provided requisite technologies and
resources are available to the actor(s); and are considered functional or appropriate (or
legitimate, as rules in a regime are), hence the resource base as essential. A group’s regime
provides the cognitive-normative basis of members to coordinate with one another, to collaborate
and exchange in particular ways; to understand what is going on in the group, to simulate groups
interactions and developments, and to refer to in giving and asking for accounts and in making
normative judgments, criticisms as well as eulogies.
The theory does not require that the participants in interaction are in agreement about the
grammars (subcomplexes of the rule regime). Not only are agents in diverse roles expected to
perform according to different grammars, but they may disagree and struggle over the
appropriate grammars, the contents of particular categories of rules, or even details of a
particular rule. As stressed in Burns and Flam (1987) (also see Burns and Hall, 2012), there is at
one time or another a politics (or potential politics) to social rules (see next section), those rules
that are supposed to apply generally as well as the rules associated with particular roles and role
The ten universal rule categories presented here may not be fully specified in all
interaction situations. Typically, the process of "institutionalizing" a group or a complex of
relationships entails a specification of the rules in the different categories. Long established –
institutionalized – relationships usually have rules specified in all the categories. But this is an
empirical question. Also, disruptions may occur as a result of political, economic, technological,
or other social transformations. Rules in particular categories that were taken for granted earlier
may no longer be accepted or applied. Relationships which were hierarchical (with rule
specifications appropriate to such relationships) are transformed into egalitarian relationships. Or
the values and norms considered appropriate for particular relationships (whether in a family,
religious community, work organization, political association) are transformed, shift, or are
prioritized in radically different ways. Shifts in the rules of public policy paradigms governing
17 These spatial or domain rules define: Where? Where not? For example, can one set up a market here? Or a public
debate activity? Or is it reserved for religion. Many spaces are "zoned", defining the types of social and other
activities such as economic activities which are permitted or forbidden. And there may be spaces defined as multi-
functional but where the functional activities are differentiated in time. Time rules indicate when, when not? Or,
when maybe? For instance, is the time appropriate for the group to engage in a religious, market or other type of
areas of policy and regulation are investigated and identified in Carson et al (2009); the shifts
concern values and goals, agents considered responsible, expertise, appropriate means, among
other key rule changes.
Note: A rule regime does not necessarily consist of formal, explicit rules. It may be an implicit
regime, which members of a group do not reflect upon (unless or until there is a crisis or
performance failings, a “failed group experience”). The degree of institutionalization of the
regime as well as its completeness are variables.18
3. Rule Processes
There is often a vigorous situational ”politics” to establishing, maintaining, and changing
social rules and complexes of rules. Actors may disagree about, and struggle over, the definition
of the situation, and thus over which rule system(s) that should apply or how the rule system(s)
should be interpreted or adapted in the situation. Actors encounter resistance from others when
they deviate from or seek to modify established rules. This sets the stage for the exercise of
power either to enforce rules or to resist them, or to introduce new ones.
Questions of power are central to our approach, since power struggles are about
organizing and regulating major economic, administrative and political institutions. These
struggles revolve around the formation and reformation of particular rule regimes defining the
general organizing principles and rules, social relationships, role sets, rights and obligations, and
the "rules of the game" in these domains. At stake is not only the power to change or maintain
institutional arrangements, but also social, economic and political opportunities engendered by
Power struggles are only one source of rule system adjustment, reform and/or
transformation which – as numerous projects carried out over years within the rule system
research framework demonstrate - can happen for a number of different reasons:
(i) Social situations – in their continual flux and flow – persistently challenge human efforts to
regulate and to maintain order. The implementation of rules – and the maintenance of some order
– always calls for cumulative experience, adjustment, adaptation – in this way normative and
institutional innovation is generated. There is a continual interplay – a dialectic, if you will –
between the regulated and the unregulated (Lotman, 1975).
(ii) As indicated in the previous section, informal rules may emerge and override the formal
rules. This happens for a variety of reasons. Rules never regulate actions fully, even in the most
elaborate interaction situations including rituals and dramaturgical settings. For one, formal rules
fail to completely specify action or provide exhaustive directions. They do not cover all relevant
or emergent situations. The situations which call for rule application are particularistic, even
idiosyncratic, whereas formal rules of behavior are more or less abstract and general. But,
secondly, actors may be uncertain or disagree about which formal rules apply or about the ways
in which to apply them, especially in emergent or novel situations. In both cases they engage in
situational analyses and rule modification, or even rule innovation out of which emerge informal
rules - these may or may not be formalized later.
18 The socially formalized or institutionalized properties of a rule regime should not be confused with logical
coherence (or incoherence) of the regime.
(iii) The application and implementation of rule systems or particular rules may be problematic,
for instance, requiring special cognitive and practical skills – a complex process in its own right
(see Burns and Gomolinska 2000). A shared, operative institutional paradigm organizes actors’
cognitive and normative modes of analysis and judgment. This paradigm includes not only
knowledge of the rule system but also interpretative rules and learned capacities for semantic and
pragmatic judgments relating to the application of the system. The operative paradigm mediates
between an abstract and often ideal(ized) rule system, on the one hand, and concrete situations in
which actors implement or realizea rule system and its practices, on the other. While this
paradigm helps to situate or contextualize abstract rules in relevant action situations, it
constitutes yet another, distinct source of rule adjustment, reform or reformulation.
(iv) The concrete world changes, making rule system implementation problematic, even in the
case of systems that previously were highly effective and robust. Consequently, there are
pressures on actors to adjust, adapt, and reform their organizing principles and rules.
(v) Situational conditions may make costly the implementation of particular rules and rule
systems in social activities or block it altogether. By shaping action opportunities and interaction
possibilities, ecological and physical factors limit the range of potential rules that can be
institutionalized and implemented in practice. The actors involved may be compelled – or
strongly motivated – to modify, radically transform, even replace rules or rule system(s) in order
to increase effectiveness, achieve major gains, or avoid substantial losses.
(vi) If an action at deviance with cultural rules or standard interpretations is perceived by other
actors as advantageous, it may be copied. Its ability to spread, providing a new cultural variant,
depends on three factors: (a) its perceived desirability or effectiveness; (b) the ability of those
with interests in the content of the rule system to sanction the use of the new rule (and to
overcome the opposition of others); (c) the openness to acquisition, retention, and transmission
of a rule at variance with core key social rules of the cultural system.
All this implies that at the same time that social rule systems strongly influence
actions and interactions, they are formed, reformed and transformed by the actors involved. The
complexity of social life requires some imagination in applying rules to a specific action and
interaction context. Highly formalized, systematic rules have to be interpreted and put into
practice using situation information and knowledge. Human agency is manifest in this dialectical
process. Particular actors, with their specific competencies and endowments, make situational
analyses and engage their imagination, while developing interpretations and strategies which
lead them to modify old and create new rules in response to the immediate pushes and pulls of
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