trouble in institutionalist land
Last week, I argued that there was kind of a big problem in modern sociology: one of our dominant macro theories is highly inconsistent with many of our favorite micro theories. If we look at various popular account of individual action in cultural sociology (e.g., toolkit theory), many don’t produce isomorphism.
Here’s the outline of the argument:
- The gist of institutional theories of isomorphism is that people working in org fields experience pressures for conformity. If you don’t follow a pre-existing cultural script, you can’t run your organization.
- For this argument to work, you need to assume that people respond to their environment in fairly uniform ways.
- In the original D&P ’83 article, in the hypotheses section, they admit variance when status orders are weak. Otherwise, the prediction is when status orders are well established, or when high status actors propagate norms, you get conformity.
- Different authors offer different social psychological mechanisms. D&P ’83 and ’91 (the intro) often appeal to a wide range of scholarship to justify isomorphism. They appeal to Berger and Luckman, as well as Bourdieu. You can also concoct a rational choice version, which is consistent with resource dependency arguments.
- If you actually read the fine print of these social psychology theories, most do not predict isomorphism, except Bourdieu’s habitus theory. For example, Berger and Luckmann’s book describes how people develop a stock of knowledge that defines their social reality. Fair enough. But nowhere do B&L ever say that this social reality is highly uniform, resistant to change, or otherwise offer a mechanism that acts as an iron cage. The slip is that “taken for granted” is interpreted as “hard to challenge.” Look at Griswold’s theory of cultural objects, or Zelizer, and it’s all about local constructions of meaning. Does not imply isomorsphism. Another case is rational choice institutionalism, where you set up a game theory model to predict norm following. Fair enough, but you have lots of hidden assumptions – uniform agents, low enforce costs, etc. Drop these and you get heterogeneity. Indeed, what you get is from the way less popular Meyer and Rowan ’77 institutionalism.
Of course, I am not the only person who noted these issues. DiMaggio’s idea of the inst entrepreneur is one attempt to get around this problem. The Clemens and Cook ’99 note that even iron cage institutionalism only predict stasis if you assume perfect reproduction. Admit imperfect reproduction and the theory breaks down. In the 2000s, the focus shifted to logics, institutional work, and conflict/movements. Substantively, it’s an implicit rejection of earlier institutional. Theoretically, it’s (almost) a complete reworking of the theory. These may not be institutionalist in the sense of the 70s or 80s, or even early 90s, but at least it is consistent with how many sociologists describe motivation and action.