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.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz 

Written by fabiorojas

January 17, 2014 at 12:01 am

One Response

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Nice post Fabio. It’s a nice, brief summary of what’s happened to institutional theory.

    On the Facebook page I disagreed that field theory could or should be classified as institutional theory. I think if you only consider the lineage from which Fligstein and McAdam comes, that grouping makes sense. But there is a lot of field theory that is not institutional at all (see the Martin AJS paper). I think you could argue that even F&M’s version of field theory is more focused on structure than it is on institutions. What I like about the perspective is that it focuses our attention on structural position. F&M limited those positions mostly to incumbents versus challengers, but if you take the idea of fields seriously you can imagine that they are structured on various types of position (e.g., status, identity, resource differences). What matters most in field theory as an explanatory mechanism is relative position.

    Sociologists, over time, will gravitate more to the field theory version of institutionalism (if we want to adopt that clunky label), I think, because it opens up the dialogue to conversations about the most fundamental concepts of structure, like status and power. Status dynamics should be a driving force among actors in a field. Power differentials should shape practices and skills. These are ideas that most sociologists can get behind. Institutional theory, in contrast, has always had a hard time dealing with these ideas. When institutional theorists wanted to talk about power, it has always seemed out of place to me or as if they’ve had to steal from resource dependence theory to make sense of a lot of organizational behavior. The most basic concept in institutional theory, I think, is legitimacy. And clearly it’s an important concept that matters a lot to what organizations and other actors do. But I don’t think it’s the only thing that matters.

    Anyway, this comment is just meant to point out that field theory is really about more than just institutions, and I think that this is what makes it the more flexible theory of organizations.


    brayden king

    January 17, 2014 at 9:05 pm

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: