deep springs and institutional isomorphism

A few days ago, I posted about Deep Springs College’s decision to admit women in 2013. In the comments, “Frances Quarel,” disputed my contention that the decision reflected institutional pressures (i.e., single ed was a much less legitimate organizational form in the 2000s). Essentially, Quarel argued that Deep Springs reflected *no* response to the institutional environment. Quarel correctly notes that the Deep Springs displays very little resemblance to other colleges. So isomorphism is a bad explanation.

My response: theories of isomorphism are usually arguments about resource dependency. In most formulations, the argument is that the more that an organization requires material or symbolic resources, the more it will be susceptible to external pressures for conformity. If you want to establish a university with thousands of students and tons of research grants, you’ll probably need to conform. If you want to let thirteen dudes clean stables and read Plato on a desert ranch, no need to conform. As long as you have a little pot of money, nothing will prevent you from doing your own thing.

So I’d agree with the general thurst of Quarel’s comment. Deep Springs hasn’t conformed much to the higher ed system. But that doesn’t mean that Deep Springs is completely immune to external pressures. The school just has a very low responsiveness to the outside world. The new co-ed policy reflects one of the ways that the college is connected to a broader institutional environment – the association with Telluride and newer cohorts of students, who turn into the alumni who then pressed for change. The emergence of coed education as a taken for granted standard in higher wasn’t hatched in the deserts of California.

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Written by fabiorojas

July 4, 2012 at 12:03 am

5 Responses

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  1. well spoken, fabio — not that i am intimately familiar with the details, but your explanation certainly resonates with this org theory outsider


    org theory outsider

    July 4, 2012 at 5:37 am

  2. Hi Fabio, I think you need to address the empirical details, not just reassert the plausibility of the theory.

    If Deep Springs has shown remarkable resistance to external pressures so far, and the college itself rejects that explanation, then how can you so confidently say that in, in this case, the change is explained by isomorphism? DS doesn’t claim to have “hatched” the idea, but it does claim to have considered the idea on its merits (as an idea) not in terms of its promise of funding from Telluride. We might say that they have concluded that co-ed education is a good idea, not merely a dominant ideology to which they now choose to conform. The shift to co-ed education was not a delayed its entry to the 20th century, as your post suggested. It was yet another example of DS “doing it’s own thing”. It just happens to be something other schools do too.

    I still think the tone of your defense against criticism is strange. Keep in mind that the school has a strong identity as “self-governing”. What is happening here is that sociology is brought in to debunk that self-image. (“Resistance is futile!”) And it is doing so on a pretty flimsy empirical basis, which is the main point that both DS and FQ have raised. I think they have a point. It makes sociology look like a somewhat thoughtless and malevolent force.

    DS of course feels and responds to institutional pressures. You are overreaching and very much imposing a view of the world (in Bourdieu’s sense of a “theory effect”), however, by explaining this policy simply as an act of conformity. Frances Q. did not say there was *no* pressure. She said your argument for the pressure was very weak and countered by invoking the mass of evidence to show that DS is quite capable of thinking for itself.



    July 4, 2012 at 9:15 am

  3. I’m not sure Fabio has to address the details. Isomorphism isn’t an individual-level theory. There are always contrarians and late adopters. Late adopters accept a cost of being criticized and pilloried up to when they shift, but the cost can be borne. This reminds me of a question of why Switzerland only let women vote in 1973. It is possible to have isomorphism, like gravity, and yet thumb ones nose at it, by standing up.



    July 5, 2012 at 4:05 am

  4. @Tony: Fabio is using isomorphism to explain an individual level event. DS had a lot of spine to stand up to co-ed norms. By invoking “gravity” to explain how it “fell”, he is implying they lost that spine. But DS is saying they chose to lie down after considering the matter carefully. I.e., gravity (isomorphism) does not explain their change of mind. Precisely because gravity cannot explain how we stand up. It can only provide a rough outline of the difficulty.

    I think the Swiss case is worth thinking about here too. Presumably Fabio would say that when women were given the vote, Switzerland was conforming to the institutional norms of Western democracy. I think the Swiss might object in the same way that DS has, especially if he were to suggest that their adoption of universal suffrage had something to do with “resource dependency”.



    July 5, 2012 at 11:30 am

  5. One of the claims I make in my own research is that neoinstitutional arguments are themselves a resource that organizational insiders can draw on as a strategic tool as they aim to change organizational practices. Consider the difference between an organization in which the leadership says “Everyone else is doing X, so we should considering doing X as well” and one in which the leadership ignores X until the students appear and say “do X–everyone else is so it won’t make you look bad–and by the way if you don’t do X we are going on strike.” I am not familiar enough with the Deep Springs story to be able to tell how much of the decision reflects isomorphic pressures and how much reflects insider activism, but it is certainly possible that it was the combination of both that pushed the college past the tipping point and towards change.



    July 5, 2012 at 9:47 pm

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