institutional theory and goffman’s dilemma
Recently I sat down to re-read Pamela Tolbert and Lynne Zucker’s (1996) insightful essay “The Institutionalization of Institutional Theory” (in this collection; a similar argument is made in this paper). I discovered two things: 1) this is a much better paper than I remembered reading years ago in grad school and 2) they make a point that I think has gone under-noticed in recent discussions of theoretical problems and prospects in institutional theory, but which I think deserves a much wider airing.
The problem begins with what they note is an “ambiguity” in the conceptualization of institutionalization, that emerges out of the classic Meyer and Rowan (1977) piece, and which is a creature of their creative yet incomplete adaptation of the notion of loose coupling (which in the original Weick formulation simply referred to a state of disconnection [or lack of integration] between the parts or components of an organization) to explain the alleged lack of tight connection between an organizations formal structure and its everyday (“technical”) activities in the context of embeddedness in an “institutionalized environment.” Notice the sleight of hand: from disconnected parts to a disconnection between institutionally mandated form and behavior. Not the same thing.
This is crucial according to Tolbert and Zucker, since it allows Meyer and Rowan to make use of the cognate notions of institution and institutionalization in two different senses, which carry wildly divergent empirical referents and theoretical presupositions. The first sense is the traditional “phenomenological”(from its formulation by Berger and Luckmann)/Durkheimian notion of an institution as a taken-for-granted, exteriorized and “typified” patterns of habitual action and cognition, which exerts a constraining force on behavior patterns and which is in fact the primary explanation for the actor’s behavior. The other is the notion of an institution as an externally mandated “facade,” which actors adopt for purposes of legitimacy and/or external mimicry but which carries little cognitive legitimacy and empirical weight in explaining the behavior of actors since (by definition) it is decoupled from their everyday activities.
Tolbert and Zucker note that institutional theorists cannot have it both ways: either institutions are seen as an important element in the explanation of an actor’s behaviors and thus externally constraining in the classic Durkheimian sense (the Berger-Luckmann conception), or it is seen as an externally imposed “frontstage” that actors adopt in order to secure important environmental goodies (resources, legitimacy, etc.), but which has little bearing on their everyday patterns of activity. What is more, if the loose-coupling idea is taken seriously as the impetus for a research program, then institutional theory collapses (in terms of empirical predictions) into the Pfeffer-Salancik resource dependency theory: organizational actors are seens as rational calculators adopting externally legitimated environmental accouterments as a way of getting the resources that they need from their environment.
From this viewpoint, the uniqueness of the institutionalist paradigm (its attention to culture as constitutive of actors in a strong sense) is lost:
The lack of theoretical distinctiveness in these studies results in part from the de-emphasis on a distinguishing feature of institutional theory, a focus on the role of cultural understanding as determinants of behavior..and on the normative bounds of rational decision-making. By shifting toward and emphasis on changes in ‘appearance’ and downplaying the internal consequences of institutionalized structure, treating structure as merely symbol and signal, we end up with the implicit argument that a structure can maintain its symbolic value in the face of widespread knowledge that its effect on individuals’ behavior is negligible. How such a contradiction in cultural understandings (i.e. that structures signify commitment to some action, and that structures may be unrelated to action) can endure poses and unanswered riddle in this approach.
It may surprise some that the “new” institutional approach inspired by the Meyer-Rowan paper (touted as subverting traditional notions of rationality and means-ends conceptions of behavior ["ritual and ceremony"]) ends up coming so close to its alleged rational-choice opposite. However, this may have something to do with a larger meta-theoretical issue, which revolves around the conceptual work that notions such as “loose-coupling” do in the theory. It turns out that Erving Goffman, faced a similar theoretical dilemma throughout his career, as could only be noted by Randall Collins in his essay “The Three Stages of Erving Goffman” in an old out of print book called Sociology since Mid-Century. In that essay, Collins noted how Goffman began to develop his microsociology as a straightforward application of Durkheimian ritual theory, where individuals performances to sustain “face” and to manipulate their micro-environment to project and “acceptable” self and to protect others from failing to do the same, were seen as motivated by an inherent desire to sustain the moral order of society. However very early on, the entire conceptual armamentarium that Goffman developed (frontstage/backstage, saving face, interaction as dramaturgy, etc.) was seen as fairly compatible with “cynical” and rationalistic manipulation of appearances to secure advantages in interaction.
Thus Goffman’s invention of the notion of “role-distance” can be seen as strictly analogous to the Meyer-Rowan notion of loose coupling. Not surprisingly, Collins notes, after the “Durkhemian” period of the early and mid 1960s, where social actors were seen as motivated by a primarily moral commitment to the interaction order, Goffman enters a “rational choice” stage in which he begins to take seriously the notion of micro-interaction and self presentation as a game (in the technical sense as the references to Schelling attest) under limited information conditions. Thus, with the introduction of “role-distance” (an external “social” imposition that does not bind the actor to behave in specified ways) a space is opened up for the original Durkhemian inspired theory of micro-interaction to “devolve” into a rational action oriented formulation.
Is there a lesson for institutional theory here?