This article uses empirical institutional studies to illustrate the ways in which institutional analyses help scholars to understand key features of refugee protection, such as discretion, interpretation, compliance, and advocacy. The ideals of international law must be implemented in practice by people on the ground, and those people are embedded in institutions. Sometimes these institutions are elements of a powerful administrative state and sometimes they take the form of international organizations, which are themselves massive bureaucracies. Institutions shape and constrain the choices of decision-makers, they incentivize certain behaviours and discourage others, and when institutions interact with one another and pursue their agenda, they can create conflict. Institutional analyses help us to understand how law works, not just ‘on the books’, but in action, because they involve an examination of both the formal rules and the informal agency culture that helps shape outcomes.