cognitive institutionalization and the problem of inconceivability: Weber’s solution (alternative title: the post that Tim will sort of like)

I am currently reading the third of edition of Scott’s Institutions and Organizations (or re-reading as the case may be since I read the second edition). One thing that struck me about the current way that Scott presents the overall “analytical framework” is the fact that in discussing the “three pillars” of institutional theory Scott appears to be far more explicit about the divergent way in which the the process (and not the “state”) and mechanisms of institutionalization is conceived from what he terms the regulative, normative and cognitive-culture points of view. In any case, this is my own theory as to why I just noticed a striking ambiguity in the way that the “cognitive-cultural” pillar defines institutionalization.

This ambiguity may explain some of the empirical fudging that has been historical characteristic of researchers who attempt to derive test implications from this paradigm (on this note see Schneiberg and Clemens 2006 and this post about it). More radically the more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that if cognitive-cultural institutionalization is defined in the restrictive way that Scott says the cognitive-culturalists define it, not only are there straightforward logical problems with the definition which make the cultural-cognitive formulation of institutionalization self-defeating in some specifiable settings and circumstances, but there are straightforward empirical intuitions that suggest that nothing could really be institutionalized in that way (or at least that nothing is institutionalized in that way in the current system and if it is there is actually no way of finding out).

In fact, the more you think about it, the more you realize that whatever could be claimed to be institutionalized in a “cognitive-cultural” manner, is more properly thought of as really being institutionalized in a regulative or normative way. In other words–and this is something 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 cognitive-cultural institutionalization “reduces” to normative or regulative institutionalization in the absence of strong countervailing positive evidence which shows that that something is institutionalized in the way that the cognitive-culturalists say it should be.

The last thing that came to mind as I thought about these issues, is that there is way of defining cognitive-cultural institutionalization that is not as strong as Scott’s and which seems to be more intuitively consistent with empirical intuition and which in fact suggest a more straightforward way of actually ascertaining whether anything could be actually institutionalized in a “cognitive-cultural” way.

So, how does Scott says the cognitive-culturalists institutional theorists define institutionalization? According to Scott, from the cognitive-cultural viewpoint, “[c]ultures are conceived of as unitary systems, internally consistent across groups and situations…For cultural cognitive theorists, compliance occurs in many circumstances because other types of behavior are inconceivable; routines are followed because they are taken from granted as ‘the way we do these things'” (2007: 58).

The “many circumstances” qualifier notwithstanding it seems like Scott (correctly I think) isolates what marks cognitive-cultural institutionalization as different from let’s say regulative institutionalization (something is regulatively institutionalized if there are explicit, reliable and robust sanctioning mechanisms that are regularly activated once a deviation from the expected pattern in detected as well as routinely active monitoring mechanisms that can detect this violation) or normative institutionalization (something is normatively institutionalized if a specific state of affairs, cultural ideal or pattern of behavior is seen as desirable for its own sake by a set of powerful actors who are then committed to uphold the pattern in their everyday action and to instill and “socialize” new actors in the system so that they are also committed to seeing that pattern as the most desirable way of doing things). That is something is institutionalized in a cognitive-cultural way if actors in a given social system are literally unable to think of (hence the cognitive part) a different way of doing things. This “constraint on individual cognition” is then thought of to emanate from large scale cultural patterns that are taken for granted (and therefore not “perceived” as being really there).

Now, a simple moment of reflection should show that this criterion for something being institutionalized is simply too strong. In fact it is so strong that it is unlikely that anything could really be shown to be institutionalized in that way. Furthermore, it is clear that in some circumstances, a researcher cannot claim that something is institutionalized in this way without committing herself to the “liar’s paradox.” What circumstances are these? Well, if you think about it, for an observer to say that something is institutionalized in this way, he or she must be a clear outsider to the social system in question. That is, a sociologist cannot say “X is cognitively institutionalized in modern Western societies” if the researcher is part of modern Western society.

The reason for this is that when a cognitive-culturalist says “X is institutionalized in Western society” what he or she is saying is that “for members of Western societies it is literally inconceivable to think of a different way of doing things.” But the researcher can only make this statement if he or she has already isolated the relevant behavioral pattern, and has already “de-naturalized it” by rendering it as being “socially constructed” which means that the researcher has in the very process of thinking as something being institutionalized come to the conclusion that “things could have been otherwise” and therefore is performatively showing that “somebody” in this case the social-scientist observer herself can conceive of a different way of doing things.

Thus, whatever it is, if it can be thought of as being “socially constructed” it is ipso facto not institutionalized in the way that cognitive culturalists say it is. In essence, if we hold on to the inconceivability criterion (and remove the possibility of a social-scientific observer who has a god’s-eye point of view on the social system in question) then if something were to be institutionalized it would be impossible to ascertain whether it is in fact institutionalized in that way.

Now notice that this problem is not an issue if the social scientist is making the claim for societies that she is not a part of (thus, Durkheim could have made a cognitve-cultural institutionalization claim about totemism among Australian aborigines), but his claim about the institutionalization of “individualism” as a secular religion in contemporary Western societies suffers from the above issue. Notice also, that this self-reference problem is only a problem for the cognitive-cultural definition; it is not a problem for the normative or regulative definition because neither makes the strong inconceivability claim about the actor’s cognitive and imaginative capacities (and Parsons interpreted Durkheim’s claim about individualism as implying a normative definition of institutionalization not a cogntive-cultural one).

That is, from both a regulative and normative institutional point of view, something can be institutionalized in the manner that they describe it and at the same it could be perfectly possible (and in fact it routinely is!) for the relevant social actors to be capable of thinking that things could be otherwise. For a regulative institutionalist, you can think that things could be otherwise, but if you act on those thoughts you’d be punished. For a normative institutionalist you are perfectly capable of thinking of alternative arrangements but they are to be rejected because none of the possible candidates are as inherently desirable as the one that is currently institutionalized (see Stinchcombe 1997). In essence, neither of these two approaches put as strong constraints on individual cognition.

Beyond the logical difficulties, there are strictly empirical intuitions that militate against the strong “inconceivable” definition of institutionalization. That is, a clear way to “find out” empirically whether something is institutionalized in a cognitive-cultural way would be to ask the relevant actors whether they can think of alternative arrangements other than the one that is currently held to be institutionalized. The cognitive-cultural institutionalist predicts that actors simply cannot perform this task under conditions of institutionalization. If actors instead can think of alternative arrangements but reject as undesirable, then that something is not institutionalized in a cognitive-cultural way, but “only” in a normative way. If they can think of alternative arrangements but report that they wouldn’t be able to endorse them because they would get punished by the relevant authorities (or endorse current ones because they get rewarded), then that something is clearly institutionalized in regulative way.

A quick review of the usual things that cognitive-culturalists say are institutionalized in the way that they say they are suggests that most of these things are “really” institutionalized in a normative and regulative way. From capitalism, to democracy, to women’s rights, civil rights for racial minorities, etc. It is clear that if you give two seconds to a reasonably literate person, they can come up with alternative ways of arranging the relevant social realm in question (i.e. polity, family, economy, etc.). It is clear for instance, that capitalism is not institutionalized because people cannot “conceive” of a different way of doing things, but it is institutionalized on normative and regulative grounds. The same goes for current arrangements regarding civil rights, multiculturalism and women’s rights, etc. We can think of alternative (and morally obnoxious) ways of arranging society according to hierarchical racial and sexual classifications, but we reject them as undesirable.

In essence, the inconceivability criterion of institutionalization is incoherent. It is simply too strong to ever be able to be empirically confirmed and it suffers from logical self-referential problems better known to our sociology of knowledge friends. More damaging, any claim that something is institutionalized in a cognitive-cultural way (i.e. “actors are simply not able to think otherwise) is actually better thought of as being institutionalized in a normative or regulative way: actors are perfectly capable of thinking otherwise but find the present arrangement (a) inherently desirable or (b) backed by authorities endowed with coercive power.

So do we end up in place were the “cognitive” part of institutions (the defining feature of the “new institutionalism” according to DiMaggio and Powell) disappears for lack of logical coherence and empirical confirmation? Surprisingly, I think not. In fact, I think that there is a way to save a place for the cognitive component of institutions that sidesteps the above issues. This requires abandoning the way too strong “inconceivability” criterion however. My inspiration is a passage from Weber’s famous essay on “The Social Psychology of the World Religions” where he discusses the hypothetical attitude of a believer in one of the religious “theodicies” (i.e. Manichean, Western-transcendentalist-linear-time, Eastern-immanentist-cyclic-time, etc.) when confronted with an alternative theodicy. For Weber, other theodicies are not “inconceivable” from the point of view of a believer but they are simply “arbitrary” and literally “meaningless.”

Notice that this is not a “normative” judgment, it is not only that the other theodicies appear “undesirable” but that in addition to this property they literally “don’t compute.” In fact from this point of view it is possible to bring back the “primacy of cognition over values” that DiMaggio and Powell (1991) argued for: the theodicies are undesirable because they are meaningless. This stance appears to me to be more advantageous because the “meaninglessness” criterion is much weaker than the inconceivability one: a person could be perfectly capable of conceiving of an alternative arrangement and reject it because it “does not make much sense” to them (this is also actually more faithful to Berger and Luckmann). Furthermore, this judgment of meaningfulness is analytically and empirically separable from judgments of normative desirability and judgments of regulative propriety, which can make the claim of something being institutionalized in a cognitive-cultural way amenable to empirical confirmation.

Written by Omar

April 13, 2008 at 2:20 pm

Posted in sociology

7 Responses

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  1. Omar:

    I’m glad I saw this excellent post of yours. Thanks for sharing it.

    I also find the regulative-normative-cognitive distinctions to be very problematic. At least two reasons for this, the second of one relates to your post. The first is that these dimensions are pretty clearly not orthogonal to one another. For example, think of the cultural classification schemes in Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger as examples of how (the violation of) such schemes often have normative and regulative aspects.

    A second reason is a two-sided objection to the equation of taken-for-grantedness with cognitive institutionalization:

    (a) actors often take for granted a certain way of doing, or thinking about, something not because it’s legitimate, but because *it works*. Think, for example, about a learning-by-doing process. Our first encounter with a problem (e.g., finding the best way to commute from a new home to your office) occasions heightened awareness of the task and focused experimentation. But once you’ve come to a reasonably efficient way of doing things, you go an automatic pilot and focus on other, higher-leverage challenges. So in short, taken-for-grantedness is orthogonal to the legitimacy/efficiency distinction.

    (b) (As you suggest), legitimized categories and larger systems of categorization can constrain action even when actors are fully aware of such constraints and even privately object to them (e.g., we can all rail against the system of academic disciplines [or the particular way they’re carved up), but tend to reproduce them because we are/feel powerless to do anything about them.

    There is a sense in which the equation of taken-for-grantedness with cognitive legitimation reflects a succumbing to the fundamental attribution error. When we see that people are adhering to a narrow way of doing/thinking about things, it might be that they cannot imagine something different. But it might also be that they see no reason to try imagining something different (because what they’re doing works reasonably well), but could if things suddenly went south. And it might be that they (or at least some subset of such folks) spend a lot of time imagining alternative worlds, but don’t try to do anything about it because they can’t see how to mobilize sufficient support (partly because they themselves commit the FAE and assume everyone else buys into it). In short, a lot of what looks like taken-for-grantedness is just pluralistic ignorance. (MIT student Rodrigo Canales is developing some of the latter themes in his dissertation on institutional entrepreneurship in the entrpreneurial finance sector in Mexico. Institutional change there had relatively to do with getting people to think differently than with being in a position to be able to act on those deviant thoughts).


    Ezra Zuckerman

    April 14, 2008 at 3:34 am

  2. Seems to me like verbal sparring. To be sure, inconceivable means impossible to imagine or to grasp mentally and understand. But it also means to be beyond belief or thought impossible. How is that less feasible than thinking a thing pointless, futile, or having no significance? Many of the Christians I know find the idea of Hinduism far more unbelievable than atheism and in that sense inconceivable.


    Fred Thompson

    April 14, 2008 at 11:31 am

  3. Hi Ezra:

    Glad you liked the post. The connection to Douglas is certainly an apposite one, which I didn’t think of. When it comes to Douglas it’s interesting that institutionalists tend to concentrate on the collection of lectures How Institutions Think, which is the book in which her arguments are most disconnected from social relations, but ignore the clear link between cognition and regulation that pervades the bulk of her anthropological work (especially when she draws on ethnographic fieldwork) and her excellent stuff on joking relations.

    Your other examples just make me think that there is just something deeply wrong with the idea of institutions as exercising strong constraints on individual cognition. While I think that Fred is right in that you can think of “conceivability” in much weaker terms, my sense is that a lot of institutionalists do sneak in the strong cognitive-constraint assumption into their argument.

    Anthropologist Maurice Bloch (1977) has noted that this particular sort of argument, which goes back to a peculiar but influential interpretation of Durkheim and Mauss’ Primitive Classification, has a predictable consequence for theorizing social change: it can’t accommodate it. Funny that that is precisely what cognitive-cultural institutionalism has been accused of by most critics. Also, the fundamental attribution error that you speak of, is a vice that a lot of social scientists as observers tend to slip into: a “cognitive dupe” theory of sorts.



    April 14, 2008 at 10:20 pm

  4. Very interesting post and great comments on it.

    I completely agree with the notion that cognitive views of institutions are problematic on several levels, but I would not go as far as saying that they don’t exist. I like Omar’s addition of Weber’s ideas and the fact that the mechanism may not really be that people can’t conceive of an alternative but they simply see it as meaningless in their context. That said, I still think there is a piece of the puzzle missing, which Ezra brings in with the discussion on pluralistic ignorance.

    An interesting door into these issues is institutional change. The very existence of (endogenous) change is enough to demonstrate that “extreme” cognitive-cultural institutionalism is, at least, an incomplete view of institutions. That is, if all beliefs converge in an institutionalized setting, then how could we possibly account for change? If nobody within a system can even conceive of an alternative, then how could we possibly explain the existence of change?

    An explanation could be that, at any point in time, there are three types of people within an institutionalized setting. One group is composed of the “experts” and “hard core” believers in the status quo. They would be the group that simply can’t conceive of an alternative, they have completely drank the kool aid and are deeply invested in the existing solution. A second group (likely to be the majority) would be composed of people who follow the “meaninglessness” explanation: they can understand that there are alternatives but they don’t know enough about the phenomenon to truly understand the implications of following a different approach. Given that, as Ezra says, the existing institutional configuration “works”, they don’t see the need to invest much in learning more or in thinking about true alternatives. The third group would be the innovators, people who know enough about the phenomenon to understand the alternatives and their potential benefits. In their case, they truly believe that a different solution would be better, but pluralistic ignorance leads them to keep their views private. The important thing is that, in times of stability, what we would observe is everybody publicly stating that they believe the current solution is right. The first group becuse they truly believe it, the second because they don’t want to reveal their ignorance, and the third because they don’t know how many other people dissent and they don’t want to face the risks of deviating. Centola and Macy (2005) have a nice discussion on this.

    The last thing I would like to add is that both in the situation where things “work” and in the situation where people can envision an alternative but don’t pursue it, we still need a mechanism that explains stability. That is, the fact that something works does not mean that there couldn’t be a better solution. I agree that sometimes people just don’t want to conceive of a different solution because they don’t see the immediate need. But I also think that it is hard to argue that things can’t be improved, even when they work fine. AND, why is it that people who conceive of a better solution decide to keep it private? So I think that some sort of cost-benefit equation should come into it that explains why people stick to what works now (the why fix it if it ain’t broke? Syndrome). I believe the answer is UNCERTAINTY. We may think that another solution would be better, but we can’t really *know* the effects of changing the status quo. We do know, however, that there is much uncertainty surrounding this phenomenon (otherwise we would not need institutions) and we also know that there are bound to be large costs associated with shifting. So unless we see a clear and large benefit in changing the status quo, we are likely to stick to what we know.


    Rodrigo Canales

    April 14, 2008 at 11:59 pm

  5. Talk about the student exceeding the teacher…. :->


    Ezra Zuckerman

    April 15, 2008 at 2:06 am

  6. […] Richard Scott: Institutions and Organizations (new edition) […]


  7. […] I have argued before than at the cognitive pole, this sort of account of institutionalization is incoherent.  For actors would have to be treated as not being capable of “thinking otherwise” and no (sociological) theorist is ever in a position to make this judgment about an actor given the data at hand (but maybe in the future a neuroscientist might!)  At the normative pole, this sort of Parsonian institionalization story is also, for similar reasons, incoherent, and any account that relies on it must suffer the analytic consequences.  For in this Parsonian account, actors cannot bring to conscious awareness the rules that they are following, nor can they take a strategic attitude towards those rules.  No theorist is ever in a position to make that call in a manner that can be defended using the usual canons of evidence. […]


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