orgtheory.net

cohort replacement and institutional change

Institutional theorists have become obsessed with explaining sources of institutional change in organizations. During neoinstitutional theory’s rise to prominence, it was mostly a theory of stability and homogenization of society, but in the last decade or so more and more institutional scholars have started focusing on change dynamics. There are some obviously good reasons for this, including the purpose of making institutional theory a more useful tool. Theories of institutional change often try to find endogenous explanations, e.g., institutional contradictions, competition between institutional logics. Still most of these explanations, because they give primacy to higher-level processes, ignore what’s going on at the ground level or at least fail to take into account the processes whereby people change their beliefs, adapt values, and alter their identities to make room for a new institutional practice.

In our rush to generate endogenous explanations for institutional change, it seems that some of the obvious micro-level processes of institutional change have been ignored. This research completely ignores the people whose “hearts and minds” must change in order to actually create lasting institutional change, even though for a new routine to become institutionalized people have to put it into action and for a new policy to be seen as “legitimate” people have to be convinced of the policy’s appropriateness. Perhaps the lack of emphasis on these micro-dynamics is the result of methodological biases. Demographic analysis, public opinion research, and experimental methods are mostly outside the toolkit of most institutional theorists. And yet, there’s probably a lot we could get from these analyses.

One potentially very important mechanism of institutional change is cohort replacement. By that I mean the replacement of old guards of organizational members and leaders with newer cohorts who have different beliefs, opinions, and values. It’s strange, when you think about it, that institutional theorists haven’t considered in any serious way how cohort replacement affects organizational practices and policies, even though opinion research indicates that cohort differences explain significant variation in beliefs and attitudes. Cohort differences may often matter more than life stage differences in explaining political opinions and attitudes. Take the case of liberalizing beliefs about same sex marriage. One study indicates that about half of the growth in support for same sex marriage is the result of cohort replacement. Younger generations are simply more open to this practice than preceding generations. We can expect that in a couple of generations, same sex marriage will be legal everywhere due to cohort replacement.

How might cohort replacement explain organizational change? One way to examine this would be to look at how demographic differences across organizations explain openness to new policies/practices or rates of early adoption. Another fruitful path would be to explain how cohort replacement creates identity conflict in organizations, a potentially crucial source of friction underlying change. Cohorts, in this sense, could be conceptualized as the carriers of different identities and logics. A nice illustration of this type of research is Nancy Whittier’s 1997 ASR paper about micro-cohorts and the transformation of the feminist movement. Even though the paper is often cited as an important illustration of how collective identity matters in movements, I think it’s undervalued as a study of institutional change.  Another potential line of investigation would be to examine the link between cohort replacement and selection processes at the field level-of-analysis.  One of my students pointed out to me yesterday that Haveman’s and Rao’s 1997 AJS paper on the thrift industry relies to an extent on the imagery of cohort replacement to explain why certain forms of thrift were selected.

More generally speaking, there should be a stronger link between research on organizational demography (e.g., see Damon Phillips’s work on law firms; Heather Haveman on managerial tenure) and institutional theory. Obviously, rates of entry and exit of managers affect organizational processes. The question for institutional theory is, how do these demographic changes affect institutional stability and heterogeneity?

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Written by brayden king

October 25, 2011 at 5:22 pm

17 Responses

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  1. Brayden – you make a good point. The cohort replacement argument can be used to explain the emergence of the modern U.S. advertising industry around the turn of the 20th century. What prevented the widespread outsourcing of ad services was the prevailing idea amongst manufacturers that they “should” produce their own advertising because they have the best knowledge of their products. It wasn’t until the owners of these manufacturing firms (like William Alexander Proctor) died, and their children took over the companies, that we see firms regularly outsourcing their advertising, which legitimated the practice and grew the advertising industry.

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    Sekou

    October 25, 2011 at 6:33 pm

  2. I’m glad you brought up experimental methods. Every institutionalist diligently cites Zucker (1977) but few take her use of lab experiments seriously. I’ve always been amazed that the economic profession has been more open to experimental methods (i.e. Vernon Smith) than sociology and I cannot figure out why this is the case. Given that economists are loathe to attribute anything to changing preferences, sociological work on cohort replacement as a mechanism for change is all the more important.

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    joshmccabe

    October 25, 2011 at 6:36 pm

  3. “people”….”hearts and minds”….”microdynamics.”

    I like what I am hearing. Though probably heresy in some circles.

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    teppo

    October 25, 2011 at 6:45 pm

  4. Great post, Brayden. I have several thoughts related to this.

    1) I think one of the reasons cohort replacement has been overlooked in institutional theory is that, in the short term, cohort replacement is essentially static. As Brooks & Manza argue in Why Welfare States Persist, because these things happen gradually, they are essentially non-factors in short-term analyses of institutions.

    2) I would love to see better theorizing about how and why cohort replacement matters — if institutional change happens partly due to cohort replacement, can we make predictions ex ante about how that change might matter? I often see cohort replacement arguments as a kind of black box argument — younger individuals will be more tolerant, etc. without necessarily theorizing as to why that might be.

    3) Some work by historical institutionalists in political science — I’m thinking of Thelen in particular here — rejects the continuity/change dichotomy and instead investigates how institutions are both “sticky” and constantly changing over time. It seems that cohort replacement could fit in nicely here.

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    Trey

    October 26, 2011 at 3:01 pm

  5. Definitely onto something. Take the example of healthcare reform through the years – the AMA used to be the frontline opponents to any reform efforts, and AMA members used to screech “socialism” to every reform effort. This past reform effort, a rival group to the AMA, the PNHP, (Physicians for a National Health Program) pushed hard for a single-payer system while rejecting any reform plan which preserved the insurance companies. This is a radical change from the 40′s-60′s – and polls of doctors indicate that generally they’re supportive of reform efforts (look up “As Physicians change, will the AMA change with it?” post on The Incidental Economist blog)

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    andrew

    October 26, 2011 at 5:57 pm

  6. Very good points. To raise some discussion, I venture to state that I am not sure a cohort effect really explains anything, in the strong sense of ‘explaining’?

    I mean if cohort has influence on say practices, it is because some underlying theoretical explanation correlates heavily with the cohorts. It may be socialization, identity, network ties, competencies, etc.

    If cohort matters, it may be a cultural or even rational choice issue. The really interesting question becomes: what makes cohorts different? Changes in professional education, changes in expectations of garduates? Could also be changes in the way the cohort is ‘selected’? Someone may have used their power to shape rules of enrollment, shaping the selection of new cohorts of managers or regulators or judges in a way that secures favorible outcomes.

    Whether cohort is “theoretical” explanation or not, it is at least a very important missing mediating construct that explains patterns of change. And maybe we should not remain on instituional level, but look also at the level of organizations.

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    Henri Schildt

    October 27, 2011 at 8:20 pm

  7. @Henri.

    Right on! The process of science continues as we keep on pushing the chain of causation back and back, increasing our store of knowledge as we go! Man, I love science haha (I’m not being sarcastic, I’m just a young student who gets easily excited)

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    andy

    October 27, 2011 at 8:54 pm

  8. “It’s strange, when you think about it, that institutional theorists haven’t considered in any serious way how cohort replacement affects organizational practices and policies, even though opinion research indicates that cohort differences explain significant variation in beliefs and attitudes. ”

    Thomas Kuhn got there first. What goes for the sciences can be generalized for any organizational groupthink.

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    Zathras

    November 2, 2011 at 1:03 am

  9. Science proceeds funeral by funeral
    Max Planck

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    tje

    November 2, 2011 at 2:02 am

  10. [...] In a word, death. Roughly, because old people die and young people take over. Changing hearts and minds is very difficult, but replacing them is only natural. In the US old attitudes towards race and sexuality have changed to a large degree not because old racists and homophobes changed, but because their more open-minded children took over. In Sri Lanka and all over, this is just the natural way of change. One potentially very important mechanism of institutional change is cohort replacement. By that I mean the replacement of old guards of organizational members and leaders with newer cohorts who have different beliefs, opinions, and values. It’s strange, when you think about it, that institutional theorists haven’t considered in any serious way how cohort replacement affects organizational practices and policies, even though opinion research indicates that cohort differences explain significant variation in beliefs and attitudes. Cohort differences may often matter more than life stage differences in explaining political opinions and attitudes. Take the case of liberalizing beliefs about same sex marriage. One study indicates that about half of the growth in support for same sex marriage is the result of cohort replacement. Younger generations are simply more open to this practice than preceding generations. We can expect that in a couple of generations, same sex marriage will be legal everywhere due to cohort replacement. (orgtheory.net) [...]

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  11. [...] In a word, death. Roughly, because old people die and young people take over. Changing hearts and minds is very difficult, but replacing them is only natural. In the US old attitudes towards race and sexuality have changed to a large degree not because old racists and homophobes changed, but because their more open-minded children took over. In Sri Lanka and all over, this is just the natural way of change. One potentially very important mechanism of institutional change is cohort replacement. By that I mean the replacement of old guards of organizational members and leaders with newer cohorts who have different beliefs, opinions, and values. It’s strange, when you think about it, that institutional theorists haven’t considered in any serious way how cohort replacement affects organizational practices and policies, even though opinion research indicates that cohort differences explain significant variation in beliefs and attitudes. Cohort differences may often matter more than life stage differences in explaining political opinions and attitudes. Take the case of liberalizing beliefs about same sex marriage. One study indicates that about half of the growth in support for same sex marriage is the result of cohort replacement. Younger generations are simply more open to this practice than preceding generations. We can expect that in a couple of generations, same sex marriage will be legal everywhere due to cohort replacement. (orgtheory.net) [...]

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  12. [...] orgtheory.net there is a post on cohort replacement and institutional change. It argues that change occurs not because people change their views or work habits but because [...]

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  13. [...] going to reverse itself, but rather, will become the new standard going forward. The phenomenon of cohort replacement, or “the replacement of old guards of organizational members and leaders with newer cohorts [...]

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  14. [...] going to reverse itself, but rather, will become the new standard going forward. The phenomenon of cohort replacement, or “the replacement of old guards of organizational members and leaders with newer [...]

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  15. [...] a polite term for this process: “cohort replacement.” This nice introductory post defines it as “the replacement of old guards of organizational members and leaders with newer [...]

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  16. [...] a polite term for this process: “cohort replacement.” This nice introductory post defines it as “the replacement of old guards of organizational members and leaders with newer [...]

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  17. [...] They will die off, and sooner rather than later, given their age. He cites the effect of “cohort reduction“: social change comes about when leaders of an organization, culture, or profession give way [...]

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