By Michael Zargham, Eric Alston, Kelsie Nabben, and Ilan Ben-Meir¹
With a rapidly-growing number of blockchain communities in the process of drafting formal, written constitutions for their projects, it is becoming apparent that an advanced understanding of the structure and function of constitutions is not being adequately applied. The ways that the common conceptualization of constitutions falls short in effectively guiding blockchain governance, however, highlight the precise places where this conceptualization is most in need of revision.
This article outlines how we can re-apply these concepts to questions of governance unique to the context of blockchain communities — and will see how the more robust understanding of the structure and function of constitutions offered in this article can provide novel answers to the unique set of questions posed by the governance of distributed networks.
What is a Constitution?
If one looks up the word “constitution” in the dictionary², one finds an array of interrelated but distinct definitions:
1a: the basic principles and laws of a nation, state, or social group that determine the powers and duties of the government and guarantee certain rights to the people in it
1b: a written instrument embodying the rules of a political or social organization
2a: the physical makeup of the individual especially with respect to the health, strength, and appearance of the body
2b: the structure, composition, physical makeup, or nature of something
3: the mode in which a state or society is organized
especially: the manner in which sovereign power is distributed
4: an established law or custom
5: the act of establishing, making, or setting up
It is impossible to proceed without clarifying the relationships between these seven senses of the term. We begin by folding Definition 4 (“an established law or custom) into Definition 5 (“the act of establishing, making, or setting up”) and differentiate them from the other remaining definitions, insofar as 5 names a process, rather than offering any insight into what the product of that process is, while 4 names one of the products of that process without providing the requisite context. From here, the picture clarifies substantially: Definition 2b (“the structure, composition, physical makeup, or nature of something”) is an umbrella concept, under which Definition 2a (“the physical makeup of the individual especially with respect to the health, strength, and appearance of the body”) clearly falls. Definition 1a (“the basic principles and laws of a nation, state, or social group that determine the powers and duties of the government and guarantee certain rights to the people in it”) and Definition 3 (“the mode in which a state or society is organized especially: the manner in which sovereign power is distributed”) are also both subsets of Definition 2b — which makes sense, as 1a and 3 are two ways of saying the same thing. Finally, Definition 1b (“a written instrument embodying the rules of a political or social organization”) is a special case of the general concept identified in definitions 1a and 3.
In other words, the first thing that most people think of when they hear the word “constitution” is in fact the most limited (and limiting) sense of the word. Clearly, our existing understanding of constitutions is quite jumbled: Per the schema above, it is possible to talk about a formal, written constitution (1b) being part of an organization’s overall social constitution (1a/3), which is in turn part of the general constitution (2b) of that organization — and all of these constitutions are themselves the products of a process called “constitution” (5). In order to say anything nuanced about this topic (or any other), however, one must first have unique terms with which to refer to its component parts.
In our multidisciplinary research, we have found that the confusion around constitutions can be readily resolved by first “zooming out” — that is, reformulating our understanding of the concept with a greater degree of generalization — and then “zooming back in” by subjecting this new understanding to a functional decomposition.
To begin this process, we will start with the existing definition with the highest degree of generality — 2b: “the structure, composition, physical makeup, or nature of something.” Keeping 2a (“the physical makeup of the individual especially with respect to the health, strength, and appearance of the body”) in the back of our minds, due to its conceptual proximity to our primary definition (1a), we then recast these definitions in functional terms: If the existing definitions try (and fail) to tell us what a constitution is, we will reformulate them in such a way that they instead tell us what a constitution does. In this case, we would say that an entity’s constitution structures, composes, physically makes up, or determines the nature of that entity.
Put differently, the function of a constitution is to delineate the boundaries of a particular organization or entity, entrenching elements of its composition relative to that organization’s regular processes of decision-making, as well as against the broader array of legal, social, economic, and environmental forces that make up its context(s). This constitutive function operates to reinforce the coherence of that entity in the face of both internal and external pressures, such that it can dynamically evolve through its interactions with both its members and its environment while nonetheless retaining its identity.
Once we identify the above as the function of constitutions (which we will refer to as the constitutive function), it becomes apparent that the dictionary’s varied definitions of the word are simply an array of possible implementations of this constitutive function. “[T]he basic principles and laws of a nation, state, or social group that determine the powers and duties of the government and guarantee certain rights to the people in it” are the most obvious mechanisms through which organizations of the types named demarcate certain of their characteristics as constitutive. This entrenches them at a level that cannot be modified without going outside that organization’s regular process; fractally, “a written instrument embodying the rules of a political or social organization” is simply a particular form that these mechanisms can take.
An organization’s constitutive infrastructure consists of all of that organization’s implementations of the constitutive function, accounting for the relationships between these implementations³. Like all infrastructures, constitutive infrastructures have some elements that can be architected — deliberately designed in order to ensure that they fulfill the requisite functions and fit to a given organization’s context. For example, written, formal constitutional documents are a form of constitutive infrastructure that history has shown to be particularly well-suited to the needs of centralized nation-states. These written documents serve to constitute both legal and cultural elements of the nation-state. Nonetheless, nation-states are composed of other (privately and publicly administered) civil infrastructures such as power grids, banking systems and religious organizations (to name just a few). Plainly, the nation-state is embodied by a host of distinct but interrelated infrastructures and institutions.
In the context of blockchain communities, software is a primary constitutive infrastructure. Blockchain-based smart contracts are a particularly potent constitutive infrastructure precisely because they can be implemented, administered and enforced uniformly via executable code, rather than implemented through written documents, administered by a bureaucracy and enforced by a legal system. These particular properties of blockchain networks make them suitable for infrastructuring procedural elements of an organization’s constitutive function⁴. This stands in contrast to the often nebulous “social contract” which arguably binds constituents irrespective of their consent. In many cases, these alternative mechanisms for “constituting” a community will prove better-suited to that community’s specific situation, needs, and aspirations than would a formal, written constitution.
Contextualizing the Constitutive Function
The elements that make up an organization’s constitutive infrastructure will, by definition, contribute to the process of constituting that organization’s internal and external boundaries. This process, however, can be further broken down into subsidiary processes: Determining which people are (and by extension, are not) subject to the organization’s governance, mapping the environment that the organization operates within, and defining the purpose that animates the organization, motivating the ways that its people interact with its environment⁵.
People refers to an organization’s internal context — who it includes, how it structures the interactions between members, and the pressures that these elements exert on the organization’s boundaries from within. The organization in question draws an external boundary separating its constituent members (or “body politic”) from outsiders, by defining criteria for citizenship, membership, and/or participation. At the same time, the diversity of values, desires, and skills found among the constituent members of a given organization exerts an influence on the shape of an organization’s internal boundaries — a well-constituted organization is one with a constitutive infrastructure that adequately and accurately embodies the values and wants of its members⁶.
Environment, on the other hand, refers to an organization’s external contexts — that is, everything that remains distinct from an organization once it is constituted. An organization’s environment exerts various forms of pressure (i.e. regulatory, legal, economic, cultural, etc.) on the shape of an organization’s boundaries from without — and, to the extent that the external environment influences how the organization chooses to conduct itself, it is able to exert pressure on the shape of the organization’s internal boundaries, as well.
Finally, an organization’s Purpose can be thought of as its mediating context — that is, as the set of attractors that orient the exercise of the various mechanisms through which the organization mediates the relationships between its internal and external contexts. When information flows from that organization’s environment to its people, its purpose informs its interpretation of that information; when information flows from its people to its environment, the organization’s purpose informs its choices (which may in turn affect its environment), and the manner of its transmission. An organization’s purpose is temporally mediating, as well; an organization moves towards its purpose through time.
People, Environment and Purpose collectively define the circumstances in which an organization constitutes itself. A constitutive infrastructure manifests and entrenches a boundary between People and Environment, mediating activity pursuant to purpose. Infrastructures by their nature enable a set of other activities, and they evolve on a slower timescale than the activities they enable⁷. Different kinds of constitutive infrastructures may have markedly different modalities for change. For example, written constitutions have “secondary rules” — the rules governing governance and its procedures — while software products have version control⁸ and Continuous-Integration Continuous-Deployment (CI/CD) frameworks⁹. What is important to recognize about both of these mechanisms for change is that they are entrenched more deeply than the infrastructures they modify. Mechanisms for adapting constitutive infrastructures may also be referred to as Governance Surfaces¹⁰.
Provisioning Constitutive Infrastructures
The understanding of constitutions offered in this article makes it clear that written constitutions are just one kind of constitutive infrastructure, which encompasses a significantly wider range of social and technical mechanisms. Thus, it becomes apparent that many blockchain communities currently considering a formal, written constitution have already constituted — they have already developed significant constitutive infrastructure through their code, protocols, social norms, and the emergent process of institutional ordering that is governance itself ¹¹.
In cases where such an infrastructure is already fulfilling the constitutive function for an organization, there may be no benefit to translating an organization’s already-existing constitutive infrastructure into a more formal “Constitution” as a document external to the existing processes that already constitute the organization. Insofar as there are identifiable gaps in the constitutive function, it may be appropriate to provision additional constitutive infrastructures, but before doing so, constitutional designers for blockchain networks must be attentive to the existing balance of constitutive forces we have defined.
The pre-existing constitutive forces determine the scope and form of additional constitutive infrastructure that is possible, let alone desirable for a given organization. Constitutional best practices are therefore organization-specific to a great extent, and can directly implicate regulatory liability depending upon the tokenization or capitalization of the organization in question.
BlockScience is actively engaged in research and development projects applying the constitutive infrastructure framework for model-based institutional design, especially leveraging emerging technologies such as AI and blockchain as institutional materials. We invite collaboration from those looking to navigate this exciting frontier.
 This essay is part of the Governance Research Initiative at BlockScience.
 https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/constitution. Accessed 3/30/2023.
 In the context of blockchain systems, some examples of constitutive infrastructure include software code, written documentation, social norms, and legal documentation.
 Nabben, Kelsie. (2023). Web3 as ‘self-infrastructuring’: The challenge is how. Big Data & Society, 10(1). https://doi.org/10.1177/20539517231159002
 Alston, Eric. “Animating Purpose, Governance as Conflict & Institutional Incompleteness.” (2022). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0rohg5AM0iw
 Thornhill, Chris. “Constitutionalism: Sociology Of.” In Encyclopedia of the Philosophy of Law and Social Philosophy, edited by Mortimer Sellers and Stephan Kirste, 1–9. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-6730-0_72-1.
 C.R. Hinings, D. M. Logue, and C. Zietsma. “Fields, institutional infrastructure and governance.” The Sage handbook of organisational institutionalism. 2017.
 Rochkind, Marc J. (1975). “The Source Code Control System”. IEEE Transactions on Software Engineering. SE-1 (4): 364–370. doi:10.1109/TSE.1975.6312866
 Gallaba, Keheliya (2019). “Improving the Robustness and Efficiency of Continuous Integration and Deployment”. 2019 IEEE International Conference on Software Maintenance and Evolution (ICSME): 619–623. doi:10.1109/ICSME.2019.00099. ISBN 978–1–7281–3094–1. S2CID 208879679.
 Zargham, Michael and Nabben, Kelsie, Aligning ‘Decentralized Autonomous Organization’ to Precedents in Cybernetics (April 4, 2022). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4077358 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4077358
 Alston, “Animating Purpose.” Forthcoming article.
Alston, Eric, An Organizational Coase Theorem: Constitutional Constraints as Increasing in Exit Costs (February 21, 2022). Available at SSRN: http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4039320
Alston, E. (2022). Governance as Conflict: Constitution of Shared Values Defining Future Margins of Disagreement. MIT Computational Law Report. Retrieved from https://law.mit.edu/pub/governanceasconflict;
Alston, E., Law, W., Murtazashvili, I., & Weiss, M. (2022). Blockchain networks as constitutional and competitive polycentric orders. Journal of Institutional Economics, 18(5), 707–723. doi:10.1017/S174413742100093X
Alston, E., Nabben, K., Zargham, M., & B (2022). Applying Lessons from Constitutional Public Finance to Token System Design. Retrieved from https://medium.com/block-science/applying-lessons-from-constitutional-public-finance-to-token-system-design-78ed78f16362
Suggested Citation: Zargham M., Alston E., Nabben K., Ben-Meir I., 2023. “What Constitutes a Constitution?”. BlockScience Medium (blog). Available online: [https://medium.com/block-science/what-constitutes-a-constitution-2034d3550df4]
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