The “Old” New Institutionalism versus the “New” New Institutionalism

I signed on to blog on Orgtheory a couple of months ago with the express purpose of writing about “A Theory of Fields” (Oxford Press, 2012), my new book with Doug McAdam. So here it goes.

Today I want to explain something about the shape of research in organizational theory for the past 35 years ago in order to situate “A Theory of Fields” in that research. The cornerstones of the “new institutionalism” in organizational theory are three works, the Meyer and Rowan paper (1977), the DiMaggio and Powell paper (1983), and the book edited by Powell and DiMaggio (1991).

I would like to take the provocative position that since about 1990, most scholars have given up on the original formulation of the new institutionalism even though they are ritually fixated on citing these canonical works. It is worth thinking why they found that formulation limited.

The Meyer/Rowan and DiMaggio/Powell position on organizations is that actors in organizations do not have interests and that their actions are “programmed” by scripts. Moreover, actors are unable to figure out what to do, so they either follow the leader (i.e. mimic those they perceive as successful), act according to norms often propagated by professionals, or else find themselves coerced by state authorities. The Meyer/Rowan and DiMaggio/Powell world was not only void of actors; it was also void of change. Once such an order got into place, it became taken for granted and difficult to dislodge. “People” in this world told themselves stories, used myth and ceremony, and they decoupled their stories from what they were doing. This meant that the consequences of their actions were not important.  DiMaggio recognized this problem in 1988 when he suggested that in order to explain change we needed another theory one that involved actors, interests, power, and what he called “institutional entrepreneurs”.

The core of organizational studies since the early 1990s has been to reintroduce interests, actors, power and the problem of change into the center of organizational studies. Indeed, the field of entrepreneurship in management studies is probably at the moment, the hottest part of organizational theory. If one looks at these papers, one still sees ritual citing of DiMaggio/Powell and Meyer/Rowan. But the core ideas of these papers could not be farther from those works. The focus on entrepreneurial studies is on how new fields are like social movements. They come into existence during crises. They invoke the concept of institutional entrepreneurs who build the space and create new cultural frames, interests and identities. In doing so, the entrepreneurs build political coalitions to dominate the new order. Indeed, the gist of the past 15 years of organizational research is entirely antithetical to the “old” new institutionalism.

I submit to you that the time is now right to reject the “old” new institutionalism” entirely, free our minds, and produce a “new” new institutionalism.

One of the main goals of “A Theory of Fields” is to synthesize and extend previous work that has had this agenda (including McAdam’s and my own work) and produce a theoretical work that clarifies how to think about social fields or meso level social orders. Such a theory has many puzzles to solve. How are new social arenas formed? How do such arenas maintain their structure on an ongoing basis? One critical argument of the “new” new institutionalism is that actors are always jockeying for position in existing fields. They are always trying to better their situation and in doing so, can create change in both their position and the underlying order of the field. This produces two distinct kinds of change, the change whereby a new institutional order comes into existence and the more common situation whereby change is more gradual and continuous.

It is odd that many scholars even those who are interested in entrepreneurs are prepared to accept the Meyer/Rowan and DiMaggio/Powell account of settled fields. They implicitly accept that once a field comes into existence, everyone in that field can “fall asleep”. They mail it in every day by following scripts given by their positions in the field. If they change it is because others are doing it, they are confirming to norms, or because they are being coerced.

But this view of the world posits two radically different states, one where we can be agents and make our world and the other where we can do little about it. “A Theory of Fields” undermines this entire line of argument by asserting that actors are always acting and this means they are always struggling. They are in a battle for position and the game is always being played. This means that “A Theory of Fields” is part of a “new” new institutionalism that honors actors, sees purposes, interests, and identities, and allows for stuff to happen all the time.

In other words, the “new” new institutionalism returns us to a world that seems closer to the one people actually experience.

After all, when was the last time you or anyone you know “downloaded a script” in order to figure out how to act?

I will end here and return later with several other comments including a discussion of Bourdieu, network theory, and organizational logics. I also want to highlight some of the general ideas that are novel in “A Theory of Fields” that might get overlooked and of potentially great use to people trying to do empirical work.


Written by fligstein

August 23, 2012 at 9:19 pm

18 Responses

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  1. Fligstein, you might want to check out the paper entitled ‘The Old Institutionalism vs. The New Institutionalism’ in Sociological Perspectives by Seth Abrutyn and John Turner. Your reference to ‘old’ institutionalism is actually the ‘new institutionalism’ and should remain under that title…if not something entitled something other than institutions all together (how about something organizationally focused?). This dialogue seems to miss the whole field of old institutionalism (or what they also refer to as ‘historic institutionalism’).



    August 24, 2012 at 11:30 am

  2. Erm, it’s titled ‘The Old Institutionalism Meets the New Institutionalism’



    August 24, 2012 at 11:49 am

  3. I think Neil referred to the old “new institutionalism” (i.e., the work of 1977 and 1991) and not to “old institutionalism” (e.g., Selznik).

    However, I do not agree with some parts of Neil’s critique of old “new institutionalism”. Of course, I never consciously “downloaded a script”; the question is whether scripts or cognitive schemas unconsciously influence my actions and my perception of reality. I think (social) psychology provided convincing evidence for such influences.



    August 24, 2012 at 1:15 pm

  4. Yes, grad student, Neil was being tongue in cheek when talking about the “old new” and the “new new.”

    I think the differences between the old institutionalism and the new institutionalism have really broken down. That’s a good thing from my perspective. Current institutional scholarship readily brings in interests and action and people doing stuff on the ground level that doesn’t involve overly-socialized conceptions of humanity. In addition to the work on institutional entrepreneurship and social movements, the new micro-foundations literature and the work on inhabited institutions highlight the importance of people doing things that both reinforce and change institutions. If we believe that people’s activities matter to the functioning of institutions (and not just that those activities are endogenous to institutions), then we must also believe that heterogeneity exists among these actors (e.g., interests, values, identities, etc.). I’m fully on board with that idea.


    brayden king

    August 24, 2012 at 1:51 pm

  5. I’m also interested in hearing more about how this theoretical perspective applies outside organizational studies. For example, what does the field perspective suggest about agency more generally that might be different from other theoretical perspectives? You write that “actors are always acting and this means they are always struggling” — does this mean that you see most actions as intentional? How do purposes, interests, and identities shape action?



    August 24, 2012 at 1:51 pm

  6. I agree with Fligstein as well. Looking a fields, the classical ‘New Institutionalism’ works have indeed always struck me as wooden. Bourdieu’s own take on fields, as personified in ‘Rules of Art’, sees them as active places of conflict where the shared definitions of things within the fields is a key point of contention between actors.

    The term ‘New Institutionalism’ amuses me personally as I was not even alive when the key works were published.


    Yet another grad student

    August 24, 2012 at 4:53 pm

  7. I am confused. I have not found any innovation in the “new new institutionalism”, the agent is considered by Powell & DiMaggio, they observe: “But institutions are not only limitations over the human agency, they are first product of the human action”. And Scott has deepened the organizational field part. So, it would be great if Fligstein could elaborate an argument.



    August 24, 2012 at 5:07 pm

  8. Neil, Great to have your post and the promise of further provocations from the book and your other work. I read these several ‘classic’ papers somewhat less archly than you do: the ‘cultural dopes’ version of the new inst is more the outcome of later journal debates and professional jostling – viz some of the nasty (one-sided) commentary in AJS etc. These early papers were responding to both dominant current theory (e.g., functionalist and structural contingency theory) and new data about organization structures that came to be common, similar despite substantially different local contexts and sectors.
    In your excerpt here, I miss some telling of the work by March and colleagues, much of it on organizational rules, politics, and coalitions, as well as on how ‘action’ occurs complex social structures (e.g,. ‘organized anarchies’ or more archly ‘garban can models’) that was also context of some of the early papers.
    One small point: The new institutionalism was a set of arguments to forward attention to external context and systems of meaning, to account for large-scale organizational structures and action in such highly stylized settings, esp across wider fields of activity and initiative. The ‘success’ of these arguments and their proliferation as canonical citation for ‘most anything that is wacky (e.g., ‘non’-rational)’ may have blurred the original analytic value of the approach.
    All that said, your purpose to provide a fresh statement of change as the outcome of activity, struggle and conflict is welcome. And if that re-vitalizes a Weberian spirit, recognizes Bourdieu, engages a pragmatics, and can engage much work in recent decades from social movement theory and work on collective identity, all to the good. We may also want to avert a renewed debate on ‘agency’ per se and spend more empirical time on activity (vs. ‘agency’ per se) and how what people do can inform more robust theory.


  9. Thanks for all of the comments. I see more agreement than disagreement here about the limits of the Meyer/Rowan, DiMaggio/Powell approach.

    Two points: first, I think the model of actors and fields that we have collectively produced in the past 30 years is very general and not just about org. theory. Indeed, the fact that such language can be found in so many subfields shows that many of our empirical problems are about understanding arenas of action, their structure, and how “games” play out. This is true in social movements, political sociology, economic sociology, and cultural sociology. This theory is very generic in the sense that it applies to lots of places where people are trying to get action. as long as actors are in a social arena where something is at stake and taking each other into account in their behavior, well, there you have a field.

    Second, I agree with the sort of model Steve Vaisey proposes in his paper on the dual process model of culture. Some of what we do is guided by habit no doubt, and much of social life would be impossible without habit. People act all of the time with their dispositions, what Bourdieu called “habitus.” Where our model of action moves away from this is in two ways. Sometimes people do sit back, think, and act strategically. What makes this interesting is that when this happens, it usually is quite social; our actions are consciously being framed against or for some other people’s actions.

    I also think that sociologists have underestimated the degree to which action is social in another sense; i.e. that we work to gain cooperation from others. This is not in instit. theory or March and his students. It is both Mead and Durkheim. Identities, meaning, and morality are ways that we view ourselves as a group. What skilled social actors do (and all of us have some skill and do this all the time) is appeal to others either tacitly or explicitly and offer common identities, meanins, or values as justifications for that cooperation. It is this kind of action that is aorund for all kinds of jockeying for position and coalition building and alliances.

    Liked by 1 person


    August 25, 2012 at 12:30 am

  10. Dear Neil,

    Thanks for getting the debate online. I read the Sociological Theory paper when it came out and have purchased the book. If I had to describe the whole work in as few words as possible, I would probably opt for “parsimonious Bourdieu upgrade” (I’m Continental-European). Vincent Dubois also wrote a recent paper that comes close to your model in terms of underlying assumptions and terminology, but his work is, I believe, more canonical Bourdieu.

    I come from political science and definitely agree that the model is generic enough to extend beyond org. theory. Political science has its own (ironically “new” or “neo-”) institutions, of the Mahoney and Thelen Weberian type: 1. ideal-typical institutions that are 2. typically slow-moving hard boards driven by 3. large, fragmented, bureaucratic agencies. In my opinion, your model provides a lot of what we need to explain how these institutions get set into gradual or non-gradual reform by agents with a more diverse set of motives than “public service managerialism” or “governmental reform” or any variant of these.

    The model cleanly sweeps through soc classics, org / instit theory, plus the interesting bits of management and strategy that get looked down upon by many in various disciplines. As Omar said when he advertised the paper, the grand conceptual synthesis is very much welcome. Alternatives to that, e.g. following Powell and Colyvas’ “Microfoundations of Institutional Theory” (cited here a few years back), require reading for half a career: the “building blocks” include ethnomethodology, performativity, sensemaking, status expectations and pretty much everything about the emergence and manipulation of social constructs—and that’s before you even start building for your application, e.g. to public policy, where there’s even more to read to understand what is going on.

    This is excellent work, and I am not surprised to see so many grad students like me here. This model can fly straight because its wings are neither too fragile or too heavy. Good luck with the dissemination work!



    August 26, 2012 at 1:15 pm

  11. I appreciate Neil’s always insightful interventions and his attempt to provoke a lively discussion here. But I think he falls into a trap that too often characterizes theoretical debates in sociology: the holistic evaluation of theoretical work for lacking particular theoretical dimensions or giving too much attention to other dimensions–too much or too little structure (or agency), too much or too little or too much culture (or interests), as though these dimensions are scalar entities that we can know the correct amount of in advance–the goldilocks approach theory. Two problems are especially obvious: 1. The theories often castigated were developed in particular theoretical/historical contexts and addressed issues other were addressing at the time. Rowan/Meyers and DiMaggio/Powell were writing in a theoretical context when the explanations for organizational similarity were poorly understood and each introduced into the literature important and robust explanations. 2. Insofar as their explanations were partial, we can move the field ahead more constructively by asking the relationship between the factors they did mention and the factors they didn’t mention than to chide them for not mentioning all factors. All theory is partial and complaining that a theory does not mention all factors is not constructive. To move theory ahead, one needs to either show how a theory at hand is wrong or how the factors mentioned in a theory relate to other factors (interests, structures, etc.). Neil’s work is a model for how constructive theory building can work, but this provocation could be more constructive.


    Bill Roy

    August 26, 2012 at 7:04 pm

  12. I’m with Bill here. Rather than suggest a paradigm shift, it’s helpful to recognize how subsequent work has extended and reworked these ideas you propose rejecting. One area of theoretical “progress” is the recognition that few org. fields are ever truly settled: institutionalization is always incomplete, models fail to translate across boundaries, actors disagree over exemplars, expertise is appropriated but not implemented, liminal actors are freer to violate notions of appropriate behavior, etc. To what extent is this incompleteness a result of on-going struggles or random institutional drift? Here I think a fields approach could dialog (not replace) with these older ideas in a fruitful way.

    See Schneiberg and Clemens 2006 for a wonderful update on how institutional thinking has proceeded since DiMaggio/Powell and Meyer/Rowan:



    August 27, 2012 at 6:30 pm

  13. I disagree that theories are reconcialble. Disagreement is healthy. I suscribe to the school of the philosophy of science that observation is theory laden. The basic reason to move away from some theoretical ideas is that they do not capture reality adequately, particularly in terms of many of the problems in which we are interested.

    For me, scholars have rejected Meyer/Rowan/DiMaggio/Powell because they do not solve their empirical problems. They have struggled to stay in that paradigm and it does not work. It is like putting a square peg in a round hole. So, sometimes it just makes sense to do something else. I note that the Powell/Colvas piece shows that Woody Powell has certainly distanced himself from DiMaggio/Powell’s Berger and Luckman view of actors. As soon as you allow actors the ability to make sense, then they no longer are responding out of habit or taken for grantedness but active cognition and all it implies.

    The main reason to embrace a new perspective is to point out what other perspectives do not see. Dr.’s comment above actually is quite hard for the “logics” crowd to deal with. The logics perspective implies being able to assume you can account for what every actor thinks in a field if you understand the logic of the field.

    If there is drift or conflict and if fields go in and out of being organized (even without outside shocks), then how is this analyzable from the logics perspective? Indeed, the logic is not settled or agreed upon and fields can drift without structure for long periods of time. From the logics perspective, there is not really a field.

    How do we analyze this from our fields perspective?

    In our fields perspective, we clarify that fields are about four things: something at stake, positions, common rules or understandings, and perceptions of actors in various positions about “what is really going on”. Highly institutionalized fields will have great agreement on all of these. Note: this does not mean that they are not conflictual or that challengers accept the legitimacy of the status quo, only that folks see and recognize the same thing.

    It follows that any or all of these can be up for grabs to varying degrees at any time. Imagine a field where people agree on what is at stake but totally disagree about who has what position, what is really going on, and what the rules are. (Sounds like many Sociology Departments!) The advance that this implies over the logics perspective is that it does not assume that actors share a logic. It also assumes that these things can be up for grabs and that the very definition of the situation can be clearer or less clear. Indeed, actors,identities, and positions are always in flux to some degree. It also allows analysts to see these things shift over time.

    It is quite possible for actors to change their position in a field without changing the nature of what is at stake or the rules. But, it can also be that by changing their position, actors actually change the rules and meanings in the fields. This is an empirical question and one that our theory recognizes as needing theorizing but the logics and Meyer/Rowan/DiMaggio/Powell perspective can’t understand.

    Incidentally, in the book (and paper), we try and construct theoretical ideas about the conditions under which these things might happen, but these mechanisms are only tendencies of the way fields work.



    August 28, 2012 at 5:46 pm

  14. Our early reading of Fligstein and McAdam’s work on strategic action fields shows its promise in adding to our understanding of institutional stability and change. We look forward to Fligstein’s future blogs on the subject.

    We are concerned, however, that Fligstein and McAdam (2012) are stuck in a view of institutional theory circa 1991 that does not engage with the dozens, if not hundreds, of articles published since then that have emphasized the role of agency, conflict, and heterogeneity in institutional fields.

    We are particularly concerned with their mischaracterization of the institutional logics perspective contained in Fligstein and McAdam (2012) and in Fligstein’s comments above.

    In his comments above, Fligstein seems to assume that the logics perspective implies that every field is associated with a single institutional logic. While the early empirical work on institutional logics (e.g., Thornton and Ocasio, 1999, Rao et al, 2003) emphasized the changes resulting from the transition from one dominant institutional logic to another, it was never intended to equate a logic with a field. Just because the market logic became dominant in higher education publishing does not mean that editors ceased to have their own view or active sensemaking of the industry. Just because nouvelle cuisine became dominant in French cuisine does not mean that classical cuisine ceased to exist and everyone in the field abandoned it. In fact Rao et al’s (2005) subsequent research indicates clear evidence of crossing across logics and cuisines.

    More recent research further belies Fligstein’s characterization of the logics perspective. The topic of multiple and conflicting institutional logics co-existing within a field has been a major area of research interest since at least Lounsbury (2007) and Marquis and Lounsbury (2007). More recently institutional complexity and pluralistic logics have been a central research focus (Dunn and Jones, 2010; Greenwood et al, 2011; Thornton, Ocasio, and Lounsbury, 2012). The study of emergence and transformation of institutional logics in unsettled fields has also been the subject of prior research (e.g., Nigam and Ocasio, 2010).
    Fligstein’s interpretation of the institutional logics perspective implying that logics determine the thinking of actors in a field is also misguided. The view of institutional logics as cultural toolkits for active thinking was introduced by Thornton (2004). In Thornton et al. (2012) we elaborate a microfoundations for the institutional logics perspective that allows for both actors’ habitual and active cognition, and how actors’ thinking is shaped by the situation and social interactions, rather than predetermined by the field. We also introduce a macrofoundations that suggests how different institutional orders in society stand in cooperation and conflict with one another and change over time.

    We welcome further dialogue with Fligstein on the relationship between the institutional logics perspective and the theory of strategic action fields. We wish however, that the dialogue not be based on making attributions about the literature on the institutional logics perspective that does not reflect the extensive body of theoretical and empirical work in this area.

    Pat Thornton, Willie Ocasio, and Mike Lounsbury


    Willie Ocasio

    August 28, 2012 at 10:34 pm

  15. […] The “Old” New Institutionalism versus the “New” New Institutionalism ( […]


  16. I apologize for having not answered this earlier. My classes just started (as I imagine many of yours have) and I have just got my head above water.

    The comment from Pat, Willie, and Mike shows that I don’t totally have the hang of this blogging thing. My ability to communicate succinctly is well, not so good. Let me try again.

    My point was not to lambaste the literature post 1991, but instead to point out that the literature pre-1991 has been surpassed and we should all recognize that.

    So, I totally agree you guys don’t have a Meyer/Rowan-DiMaggio/Powell-Scott-Friedland perspective. In fact, the whole point of my original post was to argue that since 1991, we have all been running as hard as we can away from the original formulations of the so-called “new institutional school”. And you guys and Huggy Rao, Elizabeth Armstrong, Marc Schnaiberg, Lis Clemens and many others have been rejecting the other formulation in your work for the past 20 years.

    The point of my post was to say let’s recognize that and move on. So, if we move on, we now have a lot of questions to consider. For me, these are not empirical questions mostly, but conceptual ones.

    One of the most important one is the issue of microfoundations. If you do not have Berger/Luckman micro foundations as DiMaggio/Powell/Meyer/Rowan/Scott do, then you need to come up with some new ones. I am pleased that in your new book you have taken this question on. We have a somewhat different one, one based on meaning, identity, and morality. Another is how to deal with change AND stability (something our view does in an explicit way). A third is how to imagine the interaction between exogenous and endogenous change (something that is totally not in the orignal pre 1991 formulations).

    It seems to me that if we (and I include people who might identify themselves as “logics” folks) are past the “old new institutionalism”, then a critique of some of what has been done since 1991 is legitimate.

    Here, my point was to question the term “logic”. To me, that term is as vague as the term institution and its uses in the past 20 years are not clear or straightforward. Indeed, I think you agree with me about that. If you thought the literature was really speaking with one voice, why would you have written a book about it? Weren’t you trying to clarify what people thought they were doing?

    PeopIe have used the term “logics” in many ways. Is it a set of values, an attitude, a habitus, a cultural frame, a mobilizing device, a feature of the structure of a field, something actors are aware of, an identity, or something that is tasken for granted? Is it a quality of indivduals, groups, fields, or organizations? The argument that some scholars have empirically discovered multiple logics in a field does not solve the problem of what logics are and what they mean. Are they political coalitions? Are they niche partitioning devices? Or are they incumbent-challenger structures? Are they signs fields aren’t institutionalized? How would we know? Finally, while the studies you mention above may allow for multiple logics to exist, there are lots of studies that do not even consider that to be a question.

    A blog is not the place to carry on this debate because this is a complicated question. The Fligstein/McAdam book tries to take that term apart and consider its constituent parts. Our strategy is to separate these things out as different features of fields and distinguish between things that are quite different.

    I look forward to some dialoguing about that issue and maybe encourage some context in the real world where that might occur. I plan on spending some time with your book to figure out if and where we differ. I suggest you do that with ours. Then let’s meet and discuss.


    Neil Fligstein

    September 14, 2012 at 12:57 am

  17. I think Anton Zijderfeld had some interesting points to make on this subject in “The Institutional Imperative” (2000). I also think that his “On Cliches” (1979) offers a great deal of perspective on how human meaning fits into the quandaries of an institutional analysis.


    Larry Irons

    January 21, 2013 at 3:11 am

  18. […] a guest blogger on orgtheory Neil Fligstein started a series of posts about his and Doug McAdam´s new book “A Theory of Fields ” (Oxford 2012). It […]


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