what have we learned from jerry davis and other neo-institutionalism haters?

I’ve finished writing a brief bibliography on institutionalism, which includes a section on the critics that I blegged about earlier. What did I learn from reading the critics? Well, the critics come in a few flavors:

  1. Weak model of human behavior – This can be found in Stinchcombe’s Annual Review and the discussion of the “cultural dupe” model. The good news, for institutionalists, is that this problem has been addressed. Between the inhabited institutions folks like Hallett and his buddy Marc Ventresca and the Lawrence/Suddaby institutional work folks (including myself), I think we’ve simply abandoned the DiMaggio and Powell 83 model of behavior and replaced it with an improvement (people have agency, but they must deal with institutions).
  2. Vague – Jerry and others have claimed that the theory is vague or incoherent. This obviously motivated the Jepperson ’91 chapter and the endless army of books that followed (Scott 2000, the handbook of organizational institutionalism, etc). My verdict is mixed. A lot of basic ideas, like “field,” still retain the “you know it when you see it” flavor and are quite vague.
  3. Empirically false – No one, I think, has successfully answered the Kraatz and Zaajc (1996) article, which speaks to a major chunk of institutional theory – the view that organizations must act in accordance with cultural scripts to ensure survival. Jerry Davis is right about this. Yet, other rather simple neo-institutional hypotheses have been repeatedly tested. For example, there’s a lot of evidence for mimetic isomorphism in various fields. The recent work by Sauder/Espeland/etc focuses on how practices (such as rankings in higher ed) become taken for granted, which supports a Zucker 77 kind of institutionalism.  Also, it seems nearly impossible to test the “B” hypotheses in DiMaggio and Powell 83 because you need to compare fields, which seems hard since fields can only be defined inductively.

My verdict? The haters are correct. New institutionalism has a number of severe issues. The good news is that some problems have been dealt with in positive ways, such as a better model of individual action. It’s really a rejection of late 70s/early 80s organizational institutionalism, but that’s ok . Other areas are mixed. I’d say that at least one major hypothesis has been refuted, while others seem to be ok. Finally, there seems to be some fundamental conceptual issues (e.g., how to know a field, what exactly counts as an institution) that really need to be rethought from the ground up.

Essential texts for serious readers: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz

Written by fabiorojas

November 23, 2012 at 12:09 am

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