institutionalism and public policy

Two weeks ago, I reviewed Between Movement and Establishment, an institutional analysis of youth advocacy groups. My big complaint was that institutional scholars needed to get up to speed and work on policy. Lots of good work on describing youth advocacy organizations, not enough on the outcomes. So what can institutionalists add to debates over organizational outcomes and policy? A few suggestions:

  1. Institutionalism is pretty useful for coming up with hypotheses about the creation and adoption of policies. The movement/institutional literature has good descriptions of how interest groups affect the policy environment. For example, one hypothesis is that movement generated policies usually have to be watered down to be accepted. Another hypothesis is that policy adoption waves are like management fads. There’s already a decent literature on this in org studies and public policy.
  2. Institutional theory has promise on the issue of implementation. Once the organization adopts policy, how does it get translated into practice? The new research on institutional work I think has promise. You have to consider what organizational leaders do to make something acceptable, or to reframe the rules so that new policy is possible.
  3. Outcomes – here the link is less obvious. One way that institutionalism could contribute is to discuss how culture affects the definition and monitoring of outcomes. Another insight, drawing from our former guest Michael Sauder, is that the ranking/rating of outcomes creates new incentives for organizational behavior, “teaching to the test.” I wonder if there’s an interesting story about how institutional processes change the behavior of people targeted by policy (performativity strikes again!!!!). It’s a stretch, but worth considering.

#1 isn’t bad and #2 is a straight forward application of current institutional theory. Doing #3 for real would be a home run.

Written by fabiorojas

September 27, 2010 at 1:48 am

3 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. isn’t changing the behavior of people targeted by a policy exactly the point? i suppose you’re thinking about adverse effects…

    on a related note, one particularly applied area where people are doing this sort of work is using org/institutional theory to inform policies that will help diffuse organizational practices.

    i am thinking specifically of the chronic care management practices of organizations in the healthcare sector, but no doubt similar studies could be done in others as well. the use of political constructs, such as the patient-centered medical home, can also be a nice normatively isomorphic complement to incentive-providing policies.



    September 27, 2010 at 2:46 am

  2. I think you could make the same point about all of sociology. But I like it the way it is – advocacy, and design of social policy, imo is rightly separated from scholarship … but unfortunately there is a lack of practitioners to bridge the gap between scholarship and social policy.



    September 27, 2010 at 4:45 pm

  3. Two shout outs here about outstanding qualitative work on this subject– as I couldn’t agree more that institutional research in the area of policy outcomes is fascinating and underappreciated.

    My colleague Rebecca Kissane has a fabulous and utterly devastating piece on the failure of the “welfare internships” that resulted from PRWORA:
    Kissane, Rebecca Joyce. 2010. “Administrative Challenges Facing Nonprofit Worksites Providing Work or Work-Like Experiences for Welfare Recipients.” Sociological Perspectives. 53(3): 373-396.
    A PDF of this article and information about her other work, also on policy outcomes, at her website here:

    Nina Eliasoph’s new book Making Volunteers, forthcoming from Princeton in February 2011, is impossible to put down. This ethnographic study of youth volunteer projects looks at the ways in which participants and administrators try to make sense of top-down, short-term mandates for bottom-up empowerment from multiple institutional sponsors. The results are often the reverse of what sponsors intend, and the book is both hilariously funny and very depressing at the same time. Her book isn’t coming out for a bit, but Nina will be presenting some of this work at our Democratizing Inequalities conference at NYU in October. Abstracts here:



    September 28, 2010 at 1:50 am

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: