deep culture and organization theory

This weekend, Omar wrote a detail post about the “depth” of culture, the degree to which some idea is internalized and serves as a motivation or guide for action. I strongly recommend that you read it. What I’d like to do in this post is use Omar’s comments as a springboard for thinking about organizational behavior.

The reigning theory in sociology of organization is neo-institutionalism. The details vary, but the gist is that the model posits a Parsonsian theory of action. There is an “environment” that “imprints” itself in organizations. Myth and Ceremony institutionalism posits a “shallow imprinting” – people don’t really believe myth and ceremony. Iron cage institutionalism takes a very “deep” view of culture. Actors internalize culture and then do it.

Omar posits, I think, is a view of culture that is constitutive (you are the ideas you internalize) and interactive (your use of the idea modifies the cultural landscape). Omar wants to get away from the metaphor of “deep” vs. “shallow” culture. He also discusses dual process theory, which merits its own post.

What is important for organization theorists is that you get away from Parsons’ model:

Note that conceptually the difference is between thinking of “depth” as a property of the cultural object (the misleading Parsonian view) or thinking of “depth” as resulting from the interaction between properties of the person (internalized as dispositions) and qualities of the object (e.g. meaning of a proposition or statement) (the Bourdieusian point).

The implication for orgtheory? Previously, the locus of orgtheory has been the “environment” – all the stuff outside the organization that people care about. That’s highly analogous to “culture” getting internalized deep within the individual. Thus, different institutional theories reflect a deep/shallow dichotomy. If you buy Omar’s post-Swidler/post-Giddens view of things, then what is really interesting is the interaction creating at the point of contact between environment and organization. Orgs don’t passively await imprinting. Rather, there is variance in how they respond to the environment and there is interesting variation in the adoption/importation of stuff from the environment.

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Written by fabiorojas

January 9, 2013 at 12:01 am

4 Responses

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  1. Thanks for bringing up new institutionalism in reference to Omar’s post.

    Someone tell me I’m wrong, but I understand new institutionalism as following from berger and luckman’s phenomenology. In that sense it is already a strong break with Parson’s psychology. Ask Omar, but maybe this is more a shallow culture argument.


    January 10, 2013 at 5:02 am

  2. They cite Berger and Luckmann, but the empirical studies for the most part adopt a Parsonsian psychology. See Hirsch’s criticism that they follow the “cultural dope” model.


    January 10, 2013 at 5:04 am

  3. They are different in some important details (e.g. B & L follow the phenomenological emphasis on cognition rather than values, and “externalization” and “objectification” to the socialization dialectic), but in terms of the assumption that something external can become an internal part of the actor, the phenomenological and functionalist positions are actually not that much different.


    January 10, 2013 at 11:58 am

  4. I think one of the problems of the new institutionalism is that it assumed that all culture was cognition and they got rid of the Parsonian emphasis on values (this is very similar to Vaisey’s critique of cultural sociology, more generally). Powell and Dimaggio’s introduction to the 1991 volume was the most blatant in doing this.

    Of course, the cognitive aspects of culture matter, but to assume that values don’t drive organizations as well seems to willfully ignore what makes many organizations different from one another (e.g., nonprofits vs. for-profits).

    brayden king

    January 10, 2013 at 3:49 pm

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