the end of institutionalism as have known it
Around 2004 or so, I felt that we were “done” with institutionalism as it was developed from Stinchcombe (1965) to Fligstein (2000). My view was that once you focused on the organizational environment and produced a zillion diffusion studies, there were only so many extra topics to deal with. For example, you could propose a strong coupling argument (DiMaggio and Powell 1983) or weak coupling argument (Weick 1976 or Meyer and Rowan 1977). Then maybe you could do innovation within a field (DiMaggio’s institutional entrepreneur argument) or how people exploited fields (Fligstein’s social skill argument). Finally, starting with Clemens (1999), and then Armstrong (2004), then Bartley (2006), and then the work of the orgs/movement crowd (including Brayden and myself) you got into contention. So what else was left?
Well, it turns out there are two major moves that force you in a new direction. One might be called the “aspects of fields” program – which means that you study some element of an organizational field in depth and really analyze the living day lights out of it. For example, the Ocasio/Thornoton/Lounsbury stuff on institutional logics is an example. Another example is the new stuff by Suddaby and Lawrence on institutional work, which includes some of my work on power building in organizations.
The other program is the Fligstein/McAdam Theory of Fields, which essentially marries “social skill” era Fligstein with the incumbent-challenger dynamics that was highlighted in The Dynamics of Contention book. In other words, you rub the Orange Bible and DoC together and hope the child is attractive.
The purpose of this post is not to evaluate these programs. That’ll come later, and there will some special summer action concerning ToF. But here, I am just mapping out institutional theory as it stands these days. The “aspects of institutionalism” program is clearly a deepening and refinement of the theory that emerged in early post-Parsons sociology. On Facebook, I asserted that ToF was our “new new institutionalism,” and there was push back. I think my position is that, as far as genealogy and conent is concerened, ToF is a merger of two separate ideas.
As far as the discipline is concerned, management likes the aspects program because it is relatively easy to stick to firm level dynamics. Studies of executives, or regulations, or what have you can be pegged to “institutional X” theory. In contrast, sociologists like conflict a bit more and movements, so ToF will prove popular. If nothing else, it provides a simple and intuitive vocabulary for the types of social processes that contemporary macro-sociologists like to talk about.