The “Old” New Institutionalism versus the “New” New Institutionalism
I signed on to blog on Orgtheory a couple of months ago with the express purpose of writing about “A Theory of Fields” (Oxford Press, 2012), my new book with Doug McAdam. So here it goes.
Today I want to explain something about the shape of research in organizational theory for the past 35 years ago in order to situate “A Theory of Fields” in that research. The cornerstones of the “new institutionalism” in organizational theory are three works, the Meyer and Rowan paper (1977), the DiMaggio and Powell paper (1983), and the book edited by Powell and DiMaggio (1991).
I would like to take the provocative position that since about 1990, most scholars have given up on the original formulation of the new institutionalism even though they are ritually fixated on citing these canonical works. It is worth thinking why they found that formulation limited.
The Meyer/Rowan and DiMaggio/Powell position on organizations is that actors in organizations do not have interests and that their actions are “programmed” by scripts. Moreover, actors are unable to figure out what to do, so they either follow the leader (i.e. mimic those they perceive as successful), act according to norms often propagated by professionals, or else find themselves coerced by state authorities. The Meyer/Rowan and DiMaggio/Powell world was not only void of actors; it was also void of change. Once such an order got into place, it became taken for granted and difficult to dislodge. “People” in this world told themselves stories, used myth and ceremony, and they decoupled their stories from what they were doing. This meant that the consequences of their actions were not important. DiMaggio recognized this problem in 1988 when he suggested that in order to explain change we needed another theory one that involved actors, interests, power, and what he called “institutional entrepreneurs”.
The core of organizational studies since the early 1990s has been to reintroduce interests, actors, power and the problem of change into the center of organizational studies. Indeed, the field of entrepreneurship in management studies is probably at the moment, the hottest part of organizational theory. If one looks at these papers, one still sees ritual citing of DiMaggio/Powell and Meyer/Rowan. But the core ideas of these papers could not be farther from those works. The focus on entrepreneurial studies is on how new fields are like social movements. They come into existence during crises. They invoke the concept of institutional entrepreneurs who build the space and create new cultural frames, interests and identities. In doing so, the entrepreneurs build political coalitions to dominate the new order. Indeed, the gist of the past 15 years of organizational research is entirely antithetical to the “old” new institutionalism.
I submit to you that the time is now right to reject the “old” new institutionalism” entirely, free our minds, and produce a “new” new institutionalism.
One of the main goals of “A Theory of Fields” is to synthesize and extend previous work that has had this agenda (including McAdam’s and my own work) and produce a theoretical work that clarifies how to think about social fields or meso level social orders. Such a theory has many puzzles to solve. How are new social arenas formed? How do such arenas maintain their structure on an ongoing basis? One critical argument of the “new” new institutionalism is that actors are always jockeying for position in existing fields. They are always trying to better their situation and in doing so, can create change in both their position and the underlying order of the field. This produces two distinct kinds of change, the change whereby a new institutional order comes into existence and the more common situation whereby change is more gradual and continuous.
It is odd that many scholars even those who are interested in entrepreneurs are prepared to accept the Meyer/Rowan and DiMaggio/Powell account of settled fields. They implicitly accept that once a field comes into existence, everyone in that field can “fall asleep”. They mail it in every day by following scripts given by their positions in the field. If they change it is because others are doing it, they are confirming to norms, or because they are being coerced.
But this view of the world posits two radically different states, one where we can be agents and make our world and the other where we can do little about it. “A Theory of Fields” undermines this entire line of argument by asserting that actors are always acting and this means they are always struggling. They are in a battle for position and the game is always being played. This means that “A Theory of Fields” is part of a “new” new institutionalism that honors actors, sees purposes, interests, and identities, and allows for stuff to happen all the time.
In other words, the “new” new institutionalism returns us to a world that seems closer to the one people actually experience.
After all, when was the last time you or anyone you know “downloaded a script” in order to figure out how to act?
I will end here and return later with several other comments including a discussion of Bourdieu, network theory, and organizational logics. I also want to highlight some of the general ideas that are novel in “A Theory of Fields” that might get overlooked and of potentially great use to people trying to do empirical work.
Subscribe to comments with RSS.
Comments are closed.