orgtheory.net

do institutions really constrain behavior?*

Brayden

In Omar’s recent post, he distinguishes between two different conceptions of how institutions work. In one view institutions are myths that organizations implement superficially to demonstrate compliance to a legitimate cultural model. In the other view, institutions actually constrain behavior. Institutions come in the form of scripts, ritualized behaviors, etc. that make people/organizations act in certain ways. Hence, we see a great deal of homogeneity in behavior. Similarity in organizational form doesn’t necessarily imply that people have found the most optimal solution to a problem, as a functionalist theory might suggest; rather, they all act the same because they’re being informed by the same institution.

I have a problem with this latter view of institutionalism. My problem can, in part, be summarized by the common complaint that it depicts managers and other human actors as “cultural dopes.” But I also dislike the constraint-perspective because, so far, we haven’t done a very good job of making our case that it actually works that way. Institutional analysis often begins with the assumption that homogeneity is evidence that culture is at work. If organizations are isomorphic, it must be because some behavior or policy has become institutionalized. We do not distinguish between the outcome (institutionalization as a social fact) from the process (institutionalization as diffusion). Similarity has become our object of analysis. (I have other problems with this line of thinking but I’ll leave it for later.)

Institutionalists rarely consider the alternative explanations for emerging isomorphism. As Lieberman and Asaba described in a recent AMR article, economists and management scholars (who don’t consider themselves institutionalists) have their own compelling theories to explain why organizations may merge on a common strategy or policy. Contrary to our sometimes naive depiction of economic arguments, most of these theoretical explanations do not rely on some sort of tautological-optimality argument. For instance, one group of scholars note that when firms are in tight competition for the same resources, strategic change by one firm may initiate a series of similar changes by their competitors. None of the competitors want to be put at a disadvantage so, lacking better information, they try to maintain balance with their competitors through imitation. Note that the outcome is the same (isomorphism), but the source of explanation is very different. Striving for legitimacy or reliance on scripts or schemas is completely absent.

Back to the bigger problem – I’m not sure if institutionalists can say with confidence that institutions constrain behavior because 1) we seem to be more interested in demonstrating institutionalization as a process than as an outcome (and thus we don’t really establish the “social fact” aspect of institutions) and 2) we haven’t yet dealt very well with competing explanations for isomorphism.

*By constraint I mean a particular kind of constraint – the ability to elicit certain behaviors through cultural mechanisms. The other view of institutional constraint – the choice-within-constraints variety – assumes that individuals/organizations are rational actors that have to play by the rules to get what they want. Organizations are the rats, and institutions are the cheese mazes.

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Written by brayden king

September 27, 2006 at 3:42 pm

9 Responses

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  1. It seems that one of Zucker’s major beefs is with the fact that most sociologists are focused on demonstrating the fact of institutionalization (usually operationalized as the relatively pervasive diffusion of something [poison pills, CFOs trained in finance, etc.]), and rather give short shrift to the institutionalization process, especially during the initial stages when as a rule it is much more likely to fail.
    According to Zucker, it can be said that by selecting successful examples of institutionalization sociologists have neglected the process of trial and error, that occurs during the initial stages when actors are in “explore” rather than exploit modes, and when they are much more likely to behave in instrumentally rational ways. So I think that from this point of view, is not the focus on process that has hurt institutional theory, but it is the focus on institutionalization as a “property” or “final” state.
    Another point that I found interesting in Zucker’s critique, is the fact that institutional theory has no account of “fads” (and here management scholars and economists have vastly outpaced sociologists in providing plausible models and mechanisms for the emergence of fads [but see Strang and Macy who go at it from a more RC and learning-friendly standpoint]). The reason for this is that fads are an example of diffusion without institutionalization a Kuhnian unthinkable from the point of view of “naive” institutionalism which tends to equate diffusion with institutionalization.

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    Omar

    September 28, 2006 at 12:02 am

  2. Yes, I guess I’m picking up on a difference between the social fact of institutionalization and the social facts that are institutions. I think those are two different things – the former being more content-driven and subject to change and the latter more enduring and macro. Institutionalization is widely studied, but institutions have for some reason been ignored. I’ll try to make this point more clearly at some point in the future (either here or in a paper).

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    brayden

    September 28, 2006 at 1:19 am

  3. Ah, now I remember, got it! Institutions with a big “I,” sort of what “old” institutionalists and most sociologists call institutions…

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    Omar

    September 28, 2006 at 1:53 pm

  4. we seem to be more interested in demonstrating institutionalization as a process than as an outcome

    Off the cuff, I’m reminded of Tilly’s many studies (1978, 1986, 1995) of the force that political institutions exert on forms of collective “claims making” (e.g., social movements). His attention is not so much on process as outcome: changes in the 19th century state (increasing power of parliament and the bourgeoisie, growing numbers of wage laborers, etc.) affected a fundamental shift in the ways that people organized collective challenges. How the newly institutionalized “repertoire of contention” comes about is eclipsed by analyses of why. In fact, the entire literature on political opportunities concerns the effects of established, external institutional structures on popular contention. So I guess I’m surprised at Brayden’s impression that institutions-as-outcome haven’t been studied much.

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    Jeff

    September 29, 2006 at 12:31 am

  5. Clearly, there are some scholars who are interested in the big institutions of society and how they affect collective behavior. Tilly is one of them. However, I wouldn’t count most studies of the POS variety. Political opportunities are defined broadly but very rarely are they conceptualized in institutional terms. For example, the number of elite allies in a legislature or the number of favorable laws previously passed don’t really capture variation in the big-I institutions of society.

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    brayden

    September 29, 2006 at 1:56 am

  6. For example, the number of elite allies in a legislature or the number of favorable laws previously passed don’t really capture variation in the big-I institutions of society.

    Sure, I see what you’re getting at. But the general theoretical point is that shifts such as those you mention are indicative of shifting power alignments and structural changes (McAdam 1982, 1986) that, for example, increase the porousness of political institutions. To the extent that relationships among political elites and those between elites and challengers signify stable structures, positions, and routines, even divided elites and elite allies might be considered institutional shifts.

    Some studies, as you mention, are more explicitly about Institutions (writ large) – e.g., the work of the European folks (Kriesi, Koopmans, Giugni, etc.). In another literature, we could find examples like Skocpol, Wickham-Crowley, Goldstone, Wallerstein. Again, we could find lots of examples, I think. It might be more accurate to say that the lacunae you mention is more of a problem for organizational scholars than for Sociology (the institution).

    I recall Lis Clemens criticizing her own book, as well as marxian analyses of capitalism, for attending much more to analyses of stable times at the expense of the processes of change. Although, she’s clearly made headway since then.

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    Jeff

    September 29, 2006 at 4:32 pm

  7. […] In Cartwright’s view most outcomes in economics (and by extension in all social science) are produced by such historically specific nomological machines, which serve to channel, modify and reroute the capacities of individuals and other institutional arrangements so that certain regularities are produced with some degree of predictability.  By implication, “unpredictability,” randomness and chaos can be thought of as caused by the breakdown of these socioeconomic nomological machines (another name for institutions with a big “I”?).  This appears to be a nice way of reconciling concerns with historicity with the scientific attempt to explain measurable regularities. […]

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  8. […] that is formally equivalent to Tolbert and Zucker’s (1996; see previous posts by myself and Brayden) discussion of institutional and resource-dependence theories–any purported case of […]

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  9. […] behavior” (Tolbert and Zucker 1996: 175).  I think that this view of culture–and Brayden agrees–as an internalized “determinant” of behavior is simply indefensible from a […]

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