is your (institutional) theory “Parsonian”? A technical criterion

Many times sociological analyses of institutionalization, especially those located in the “normative” and “cognitive” pole as defined by Scott (2008), and especially those associated with neo-institutionalism are accused of putting forth an “oversocialized” conception of the actor, and sometimes even the P-word is used:  institutional theory is “Parsonian” (this is usually followed by a reference to Garfinkel and the whole “cultural dope*” thing).

For instance, Hirsch and Lounsbury perceptively note that an intriguing irony of the neo-institutional defocalization of action, conflict and strategy is

…the close similarity of…neoinstitutionalism to the very Parsonian model from which it has worked so hard to distance itself…To the extent [that] Parsons’s general theories generated serious dissents for being too committed to isomorphism, to quick to accord functionalist legitimacy to existing structures and outcomes, too focused on stability rather than change, and too slow to see conflict or change as endogenous, the new institutionalism seems eerily close to old Parsonian theory.  In Garfinkel’s terms, individuals following the new cognitive scripts are as likely to be “cultural dopes” following taken-for-granted scripts as they were when following out the internalized norms, values and socialization espoused by Parsons (1997:  415).

That neo-institutional theory is “Parsonian” in itself would not be surprising, insofar as it was indeed Parsons who (at least theoretically) pointed the way towards considering the larger environment in which organizations are located as a primary factor. But the main problem with the “Parsonian” criticism as directed to a given deployment of institutional theory is that the adjective is bandied about as a vague characterization, and the reference to either Wrong or Garfinkel ends coming out more as a “I scored a point against the theory” (after all, if you can corner some theory into “cultural dope” land you know you got it in trouble) than as a substantive criticism.

In any case, I must confess that until now, I never actually understood, exactly what the whole cultural dope thing was all about anyways, and by implication never really appreciated what was so bad about it.

But now I think I (kind of) get it.  And I think that it is possible to come up with a more concrete definition of what makes a given account of norms or cognition in institutional analysis Parsonian, which will move this criticism closer to a productive analytical assessment that could be used to fix what’s wrong with a given way of conceptualizing the process or the role of institutions and institutionalization in organizations.  In fact, I think that a more concrete definition of when an account of norms in institutionalism has gone Parsonian can even help the theorist understand when such an account is actually warranted (I happen to be of the opinion “never”) and can be coherently defended.

The technical criterion for “Parsonian” comes from John Heritage’s (1984) brilliant distillation of Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology.  In discussing “the problem of reflexivity” Heritage (1984: 30) notes that the key problem that Garfinkel had vis a vis the Parsonian account of “socialization of norms” is that the actor was denied (by theoretical fiat) a particular sort of subjective orientation towards norms.  This orientation was simple self-consciousness.

That is, Parsons defined “internalization” as “unconscious introjection” which meant that if an actor was socialized into a norm, then the actor was unconscious of how that norm determined her conduct.  In essence, the Parsonian socialized actor cannot take norms as an object of reflexive consideration and strategization, for if that were the case then the norm would lose its status as “normative” and would become just another instrumental resource for action.  This is Parsons (1951: 37) as quoted in Heritage (1984: 30-31):

There is a range of possible modes of orientation in the motivational sense to a value standard. Perhaps the most important distinction is between that attitude of expediency at one pol, where conformity or non-conformity is a function of the instrumental interests of the actor, and at the other pole the ‘introjection’ or internalization of the standard so that to act in conformity with it becomes a need disposition in the actor’s own personality structure, relatively independently of any instrumentally significant consequences of conformity. The latter is to be regarded as the basic type of integration of motivation with a normative pattern-structure of values.

Thus, as Heritage (1984: 30) notes, while the actor may orient himself reflexively (and thus strategically) to all sorts of elements in her environment Parsons “excludes as objects of the actor’s orientation the cultural values which the actor has internalized” (italics in original).  Why is Parsons’ adamant about excluding the reflexive mode of orientation towards norms?  Heritage notes that Parsons main (theoretical) concern revolved around the fact that if actors where allowed to “adopt a reflexive attitude to their normative environments” then that would open up the possibility of their also “acting manipulatively in relation to them” which means that “actors who can manipulate their conduct in relation to a normative environment are those who can act strategically.” For theoretical reasons that need not concern us here, Parsons could not have any of that (e.g. actors acting strategically and manipulatively in relation to the norms that they are expected to conform to).

This is then the technical criterion of “Parsonian” for any theory.  If a theory does not allow the actor self-reflexive (and thus manipulative) subjective access to institutionalized norms it is technically Parsonian (notice that the theory would also have to offer some story as to how a norm can become so “deeply internalized” that actors end up not being aware that they are acting in accordance to it).  More precisely, if the theory defines institutionalization as norms acquiring such a character that actors cannot be so oriented towards, then it is Parsonian.

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 presumably 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.

Moreover, we know that this account of normative institutionalization is empirically false.  Actors take strategic and calculative orientations towards institutionalized normative structures all of the time (Oliver 1991), and those structures are no less institutionalized for it.  In fact, it is clear now to me that Tolbert and Zucker’s (1996: 169) zeroing on the fact that institutional theory contains “an apparent logical ambiguity…one which involves the phenomenological status of structural arrangements that are the objects of institutionalization processes” and their recommendation that removing this ambiguity leads to a reconciliation of “rational actor” with “oversocialized” models is actually a much more insightful criticism than I initially thought.  For by “phenomenology” Tolbert and Zucker are clearly knocking close the reflexivity problem.  This is what I called “Goffman’s dilemma.”  The reason why institutional theory becomes indistinguishable from “resource dependence” theory once actors are allowed to be reflexive about their normative commitments is precisely connected to Parsons’ (pseudo)problem.  Once an institutional analysis stops being Parsonian, it indeed becomes indistinguishable from resource dependence theory at the level of empirical implications (at least at the organization level in terms of incentives for adoption).

Thus, with the abandonment of the notion that something can be strongly institutionalized at the “phenomenological” level (e.g. actors cannot do or think otherwise or a norm that becomes the subject of reflexive calculation all of a sudden loses its status as normative) one part of the Tolbert and Zucker’s criticism does lose force, which is the part that is centered on the anxiety that institutional theory would no longer be “unique” vis a vis resource dependence theory.  My response to the fear that institutional theory might become just a fancy version of (rationalist) resource dependence theory, is: so what?  At least it is a more conceptually defensible theory, which does not have to rely on (implausible) Parsonian assumptions about unconscious internalization or about culture as a constraint on behavior.And anyways, as exemplified in the research done by Tolbert and Zucker, Oliver, Suchman, Zajac/Westphal, etc. is not that IT and RD become completely indistinguishable, but more than the range of explanatory phenomena over which each theory is in “charge” becomes a fuzzier continuum of behavioral responses and not a sharp dichotomy between strategic rationality and unconscious normativity.

Tolbert and Zucker make a theoretical mistake by retaining a place (however delimited) for a Parsonian (via Berger and Luckmann) notion of institutionalization, one in which culture keeps its “power to determine 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 cognitive viewpoint, so it should just be tossed.  It is not a service for institutional theory to be built on such shaky cognitive micro-foundations.  For any of the things that are subject to institutionalization, whether it be rules, norms or “cognitive templates” it is clear that nothing can ever be so deeply institutionalized that actors cannot do, conceive or imagine otherwise, nor can something be so deeply institutionalized that actors are simply incapable of taking a calculating, cynical, strategic attitude towards it (in terms of “norm compliance” or “cognitive template adoption” or both).

In fact, the evidence shows that actors are always thinking, doing and imagining otherwise (and are constantly strategizing and cynically adopting), and that this imagining-otherwise capacity and this ability to cynically adopt might (under some circumstances) be the actual reason for why something persists.  In fact, “invidious imagining otherwise” (e.g. conservatives obsessed with liberal debauchery or liberals obsessed with conservative “craziness” or the constant remembrance of really bad things such as the holocaust or slavery) is probably a key signal of that the opposite of what’s being fantasized about is institutionalized in my neck of the woods (e.g. democracy vis a vis Nazism).

I think that once we get over this conceptual hump, and also get over the Parsonian fear that allowing for the strategic orientation towards norms is equivalent to admitting to their lack of capacity to serve as behavioral referents (a fear that persists in Tolbert and Zucker and even Scott) then the ghost of Parsons will be permanently exorcised from institutional theory.

*The emergence of this “cultural dope” meme is in itself interesting. Garfinkel’s preferred term is “judgmental dope, of a cultural or psychological kind” (1967: 67) which (not to be too much of a theory dork here) carries fundamentally different implications than “cultural dope,” since the cultural dope is a special kind (the sociologist’s) of judgmental dope (1967: 68); this means that there are “psychological dopes,” “anthropological dopes” and maybe even “management dopes”.

Written by Omar

January 16, 2010 at 9:09 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Barry Barnes has a concise discussion of this problem in The Elements of Social Theory, where he makes the connection to the whole what-does-it-mean-to-follow-a-rule debate: it’s essentially the same point, and it’s a really vital piece of rebuttal to a very strong tendency in sociology to rest explanations on a basically indefensible notion of “taken-for-grantedness”.



    January 16, 2010 at 11:02 pm

  2. Great post Omar. Very thought provoking.

    As you’ve already noted, I like the idea that institutional theory ought to take into account the reflexivity of actors to institutions, rules, etc. But I guess I don’t see how this completely muddies the distinction between institutional theory and resource dependence theory. Perhaps this is because I’ve never thought that strategic mindedness is the object of RD theory. The biggest distinction I see is that resource dependence theory was always more about the effects of constraining relationships than it was about the content (e.g., culture, rules) of those relationships. So if you want to create a sort of theoretical division of labor, resource dependence folks can continue to study the networks and resources and institutional theorists can be more oriented to the cultural aspects of interactions. Not that we need to preserve the distinction, but I think that in reality scholars continue to divide themselves in this way. Most RD research today seems to be about networks, strategic alliances, etc. while most contemporary institutional theory, especially in the management world, is concerned with how actors use culture to get stuff done (i.e., acquire more resources).



    January 17, 2010 at 2:25 am

  3. Happened upon this post in running down references to Garfinkel’s “cultural dope” thesis–very interesting, and some good leads to the literature–thanks.

    From a management theory perspective, I suppose it makes sense that “nothing can ever be so deeply institutionalized that actors cannot do, conceive or imagine otherwise, nor can something be so deeply institutionalized that actors are simply incapable of taking a calculating, cynical, strategic attitude towards it.” Certainly, the cognitivist orthodoxy of the individual mind as the unit of analysis supports this view of the individual actor. But it might also be possible to ground notions of institutional socialization within sociocultural perspectives in which “processes, such as the mind and the self, [are viewed] as phenomena … actually made up within, as opposed to merely facilitated by, culture and society” (Kirschner & Martin, 2010, p. 1). One can’t have it both ways as to one’s foundational perspective. If one takes the culture as primary, then the fundamental processes of enculturation have to be acquired through “unconscious introjection,” there being no more basic cognitive architecture upon which to fall back. Perhaps the management theory position that individual processes are primary stems from a focus on culturally complex and salient norms and practices.
    Consider, for example, proxemics, the culture-specific norms for drawing physical perimeters around one’s body for various social purposes. Hall (1966) interpreted these as achieved through unconscious adaptations; arguably, their very existence would not have been discovered, if not for differing cross-cultural norms, for instance the tendency for natives of France to prefer closer physical proximity for conversation than do Americans. The possibility of being conscious and strategic about one’s proxemic performances, then, arises only in complex intercultural settings. Generalizing from this example, one can maintain a culture-foundational perspective by regarding the strategic machinations of the individual as an artifact of the intersections of many cultures within an institutional setting. This approach maintains the Parsonian position as primary, while appropriating conscious and strategic processes to cultural positioning rather than to the independent actor of resource dependence theory. The attempt is to counter the effective dissolution of culture in the cognitivist frame.

    Hall, E. T. (1966) The hidden dimension. New York: Doubleday.

    Kirschner, S. R., & Martin, J. (2010). The sociocultural turn in psychology: An introduction and an invitation. In S. R. Kirschner & J. Martin (Eds.), The sociocultural turn in psychology: The contextual emergence of mind and self (pp. 1-27). New York: Columbia University Press.


    David Kirshner

    July 5, 2010 at 9:44 pm

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