What are political institutions in government

Political education

Peter Massing

Dr. Peter Massing is Senior Professor of Social Studies and Political Education at the Otto Suhr Institute for Political Science at the Free University of Berlin. His main research interests are democracy theory, concepts of political education and competence orientation in political education. He is co-editor of the magazine political education and the newsreel.

It is the task of the opposition to loyally support the government - this is the opinion of two thirds of the respondents to the Saxony-Anhalt Monitor from 2007. Right? Not correct? How important is knowledge about political institutions, their goals and working methods in order to be able to understand and assess politics and democracy appropriately? Institutional studies are a classic of political education - and yet controversial.

The Reichstag building in Berlin is the seat of the German Bundestag. (& copy bpb, Sabine Kleefisch)
At the beginning of the 1960s, many representatives of political education had turned their backs on institutional studies, as it had prevailed in school practice up to that point. They criticized that an abstract "customer", which often only dealt with the listing of the functions of the state organs and the presentation of the formal aspects of the decision-making process, was too detached from the experiences of the learners. This would not allow an adequate conception of politics in terms of its interest and power orientation and in its process and action character. Thereafter, political education in theory and practice neglected the institutional for a long time, which also led to a one-sided and distorted understanding of political reality. It was not until the late 1970s that a number of authors of political education tried to re-conceptualize "institutional learning". Today there is a great deal of agreement in theory and among practitioners of civic education that civic education must not exclude social and political institutions. It would then miss the political reality.

Political education is faced with the challenge of giving sufficient consideration to political institutions without slipping into the criticized "customer". This is not an easy task. Political institutions are far removed from the immediate realm of experience of young people and many adults. In addition, the distance between young people and adults and traditional political institutions has grown continuously in recent years. This raises the question of how it can be possible to integrate "institutional learning" into political education. The answer is given on two levels. At the level of the content, it must be clarified what political and social institutions are and what requirements can be derived from this for institutional learning. At the level of the organization of the learning process, ways of didactic development and methods are to be shown that are suitable for reducing the distance between the young people and the institutions.

What are political institutions?

It is true that there is no uniform understanding of institutions in the social sciences. In political science, however, attempts have recently become established to approach the question of what institutions are pragmatically. According to this, a distinction is made between political institutions in the narrower and broader sense. These institutions are political because they are always connected with the production and implementation of generally binding decisions.

Political institutions in the narrower sense are the state with government (head of state, cabinets, ministries), parliament, administration as well as federal and municipal institutions.

Political institutions in the broader sense include social organizations such as parties, associations and mass media, but also, for example, the constitution, laws, elections or the majority principle. This means that the contents of institutional studies are named in the sense of knowledge elements.

The more important question for civic education, however, is what insights should be conveyed that turn "knowledge" into "understanding". For this, too, it is necessary to take another look at the results of the social science institutional theory, from which the following requirements for civic education can be derived. Institutions always contain contexts of meaning. Institutional learning in political education therefore has the task of conveying the meaning of institutions to the learners and of making it clear that institutions are based on an idea and pursue a purpose. It should become clear in the learning process that the specific design and actions of an institution can be assessed according to how this idea and the purpose are realized. For example, it can be checked to what extent the institution of the Federal Constitutional Court realizes the idea of ​​the fundamental rights state. The question of the meaning of institutions is decisive for political education, but questions about the structure and functions of institutions must not be neglected either.

Institutions are made by people and they can therefore also be changed by people, e.g. if the institutions no longer adequately fulfill their tasks. Political institutions serve the realization of the interests of individuals and social groups and are enforced with the help of power and domination. Institutional learning in political education must critically analyze this aspect of interests and domination. Only on this basis can it be discussed whether and why existing institutions are no longer sufficient, must be reformed, further developed or replaced by new institutions. An example here would be the discussion of the extent to which parliaments adequately represent the political will of the population or whether direct democratic procedures, such as referendums, are better suited to this or should at least supplement parliamentary decisions.

In "institutional studies" political institutions are seen as part of the formal dimension (polity) of the political. In addition to the constitution, legal system and tradition, this also includes the elements of political decision-making, such as elections, basic rights, parties, associations, etc. The formal dimension is above all Institutional learning in political education must also describe and analyze political institutions in connection with the procedural dimension of politics, ie the political processes of decision-making and the mediation of interests of conflict and consensus Dimension (policy) in the form of political problems, goals, programs and proposed solutions. Only in this way can "institutional learning" adequately grasp and clarify the complexity of political reality If you want to deal with political education work with institutions, the following principles are particularly suitable, according to which the lessons or the learning situation can be designed: Reality encounter and experience orientation, problem orientation, internal orientation and action orientation.

Reality encounter and experience orientation

The aim of these principles is to build a bridge between the everyday world of learners and politics. Learners should leave school or educational institution and explore political institutions as extracurricular learning locations. This gives them the opportunity to experience socio-political reality directly. By seeing and experiencing the institution for themselves, learners should make it easier for them to grasp, develop, organize, analyze and interpret their way of working directly. The separation of the life situation for which learning is taking place and the learning situation should be overcome for this period. There are two ways of access: a subject-related one that focuses on the learner, and an object-related one that focuses on the institution. The subject-related approach makes learners aware of their everyday experiences and relates them to political institutions and their tasks. The object-related access goes the opposite way. It starts at the institutional level. He tries to make the learners aware of the importance of institutions for their everyday and living environment and to enable them to "understand" the meaning, the meaning and the function of institutions for the individual, for society and for the political system.

Problem orientation

Institutions cannot in themselves be subjects of political education. That would lead to the criticized "institutional studies". In order for institutions to become educational content, they must be analyzed in connection with a political problem. Problem-oriented access can be gained by dealing with important political controversies and decision-making processes. In this context, exemplary structures and functions of political institutions are opened up. The questions about their meaning and importance for social interests and for the social structure of rule can be discussed and assessed. In addition, the links, interlinkages and dependencies of the institutions on the procedural and Recognize content-related dimensions of the political Problem-oriented arises from the perspective of those involved in politics as well as from the perspective of those affected by politics.

Internal perspective

This means an approach that focuses on the political actors such as politicians, interest representatives from associations or journalists. The learners deal with their actions. They analyze their attitudes, interests and motives and they try to recognize the tension between room for maneuver and institutional constraints. An internal orientation arises through direct encounters, through case studies but also through simulative methods, such as role or business games.

Action orientation

With regard to the political institutions, this principle comprises three main aspects. In terms of content, action orientation means the action of the institutions and the action in the institutions. As a goal of political education, action orientation means the ability of learners to develop institutions for themselves. They are responsible for and organize their learning process themselves. However, action orientation also means the use of activating, i.e. action-oriented, methods in political education.

The application of the principles of didactic development

The individual principles of didactic development are closely related and can be linked to one another in the practice of political education with different weightings. For example, an "active town hall exploration" or a visit to parliament are part of an encounter with reality. Both institutions are regarded as extracurricular learning locations that enable practical learning.

The close connection between the principles of didactic development can be demonstrated using the example of the Federal Constitutional Court. If civic education tries to understand the institution of the Federal Constitutional Court and its actions through its respective decisions, then, for example, the judgments on § 218, on foreign deployments of the Bundeswehr, on the crucifix obligation in Bavarian schools or on the NPD ban, experience and problem orientation can be linked with one another . From the analysis of the respective judgments and their justifications, from the comparison of the majority decision with the minority vote of constitutional judges, an internal orientation emerges, the focus of which is on the actions of the actors, i.e. the judges of the Federal Constitutional Court, as well as their leeway and their boundaries between law and politics. This internal orientation also opens up the possibility of action orientation through role plays or simulation games, in which, for example, the decision-making process of the court can be dealt with.

Methods of institutional learning

A variety of methods can be used within institutional studies. They range from social studies and case analysis to project methods and simulative, action-oriented methods such as role play or business simulation. However, two methods seem particularly suitable for institutional learning: Exploration and expert interviews.

The exploration creates a direct, experience-related access to a political institution, for example by visiting a town hall or a parliament such as the state parliament or the Bundestag. The well-prepared investigation of a political institution on site can support, continue and supplement purely theoretical learning. During the exploration, you can get to know the perspectives of different actors in the institution. Your own, sometimes prejudiced, perspective is confronted with others and thus expanded and corrected. In addition, political education can take into account and process an important part of political reality that is otherwise difficult to access. The learners can better recognize the political processes, which are mostly invisible in the media, through on-site investigations in the institutions and at least partially reconstruct them authentically.

The expert survey takes a different approach. The learners have the opportunity to ask questions from a political expert and receive first-hand answers. One of the main goals of this method is to open up political education to the institutional, political and social reality. The main purpose of an expert survey is to use the expert to develop information or experience that is very difficult or impossible to obtain in other ways - e.g. through books or newspaper materials.

In summary, it can be said that in political education and in political didactics there is agreement that political institutions are important elements of political education and that institutional studies cannot be dispensed with. Political education, which aims to enable understanding of politics and insights into political contexts, must include political institutions and explicitly address them.