some thoughts on institutional logics, in three parts

Last week I was finishing up a volume introduction and it prompted me to catch up on the last couple of years of the institutional logics literature. This gave me some thoughts, and now I can’t sleep, so I’m putting them out there. This is long so it’s broken into three parts. The first two reflect my personal saga with institutional logics. They set up the rest, but you can also skip to the third and final section for the punchline.

part one

My first book (now in paperback) was framed explicitly in terms of institutional logics. I wanted to understand why universities started to understand the purpose of science in a new way—more in terms of its economic value, and less purely about either knowledge or solving other kinds of problems—and how that lined up with the spread of activities like faculty entrepreneurship and tech transfer offices and so on.

The development I was interested in explaining was easy to characterize in terms of institutional logics, and fit pretty closely with two of Friedland & Alford’s originals: the logic of science and the logic of capitalism. I called it market logic because I wanted to sound less Marxist (sorry Marxists), and characterized the project as trying to understand why practices grounded in a new logic spread in academic science.

There was always a little difficulty with the definitions. If science logic is about valuing the pure pursuit of knowledge, well, there was always a lot of stuff in the university that didn’t fit that—like all the science produced in service of the Cold War. And “market logic” seemed a little imprecise for talking about a new valuing of science for the economic contributions it could make. It wasn’t exactly the logic of accumulation, which is how Friedland and Alford described the logic of capitalism. Still, for the most part the concepts lined up pretty well with what I was trying to do: look for common factors that could explain the spread of a variety of new practices focused on the economic value of science in universities.

So that is how I framed the book. The book was pretty successful, I wrote a theory paper on how new logics could spread in one field when another, resource-providing field changed (i.e. the state), which the sociology of science people liked but didn’t really get picked up by the institutional logics people, and that was that.

part two

In the process, I got very interested in how policymakers came to think of science in terms of its economic value, which was new (for them) in the 1970s and prompted many of the policy decisions that changed academic science. This shift toward the economic seemed common to a range of policy domains—think about how policy conversations now treat education as an investment in human capital, or see the environment as important because of the economic effects of climate change—and closely tied to how we define policy problems and the range of solutions that get considered. This led to my current book-in-progress, which looks for common threads across multiple policy domains that have seen such a shift.

The two projects are structured in analogous ways: using historical cross-case comparisons (of policy domains, this time, rather than organizational practices) to gain insight into a broader cultural development—in the first project, university science becoming more entrepreneurial; in the second, policymaking becoming more focused on economic goals.

But the institutional logics perspective that worked well for the first project didn’t map neatly onto the second. It sounds like it might, right? Explaining the rise of an economic logic (market logic seems less and less the right term) in different policy areas.

But things quickly get blurry if you try to operationalize what it means for an economic logic to gain strength in a policy domain. Does it mean seeing the policy area in terms of its macroeconomic contribution, as when policymakers started to see technological innovation as a driver of economic growth? Is it about rethinking its purpose in microeconomic terms, as when education became an investment in human capital that would pay off in higher wages? How does that fit with the changes in environmental policy, which became more focused on the economic costs and benefits of protecting the environment, and on designing markets that could help do the job?

All these could be characterized as “economic logic”: as I defined market logic earlier, treating something as “worthwhile because it, or what it produces, has specifically economic value.” But this seemed to hide more than it revealed.

For example, you can talk about antitrust policy as having become more economic. Before 1970 it had competing and often contradictory legal purposes, which included encouraging competition and promoting efficiency, but also limiting the concentration of (nonmarket) power and protecting small business. After that, the field was increasingly defined in economic terms (the first two) and court decisions and changes in practice gradually defined the other goals as beyond the scope of antitrust policy.

Is this a story about the rise of economic logic in antitrust policy? Well, yes, sort of. But characterizing it as such misses important complexity. For example, although economists championed the idea that antitrust policy should only be used to achieve economic goals, there were very different schools of thought within economics about what policy should look like, and the “center” position evolved significantly over time. You can’t understand the evolution of antitrust policy by talking about “an” economic logic that gained influence in straightforward way. What economic logic implied was itself contested and changing.

And there’s the rub. What worked fairly well as a way to characterize the justification for a handful of specific new practices in a pretty well-defined field (U.S. research universities) worked much less well for characterizing an analogous cultural shift that took place in a much broader social space—across whole domains of public policy. The practices of bioscience entrepreneurship, university patenting, and university-industry research centers seemed to have enough cultural similarity that they could usefully be compared. But the shift toward seeing education as a producer of human capital, antitrust policy as efficiency-promoting, and environmental policy as best determined through cost-benefit analysis seemed less usefully characterized as reflecting the spread of an institutional logic—even though I did, and still do, think they are related shifts.

Instead, what they share is economists: a particular expert group with its own style of thought that is influential, but not uniform; that evolves over time; and that plays out differently as it approaches different questions and is applied in different political contexts. So the new book is framed in terms of the spread of a particular—but not fixed—kind of disciplinary expertise: how its bearers gained organizational footholds and displaced competing experts; how their way of thinking was institutionalized through laws, court decisions, and regulations; and how they influenced other disciplines (law, public policy) in ways that facilitated this process. At least for the moment, I’m not thinking about the changes I’m interested in in terms of the spread of a particular institutional logic.

part three

So that’s that. My first book came out in 2012 and I haven’t paid a lot of attention to the institutional logics literature since then, although it has exploded in size. Getting up to date for the piece I was writing, though, made me revisit it.

And it kind of made my head hurt. And I think the clue as to why is buried in that long and self-involved story about my own wrestling with the concept.

I still believe the concept of institutional logics is useful as an orienting framework. A lot of the big insights—that there are broad institutional orders, like market, family, profession, religion, etc., and that they compete and combine at local levels—seem fundamentally correct. And the proliferation of institutional logics research in management journals has made culture and practices much more central to the study of orgaizations—which I see as a good thing.

But in the last couple of years, research on institutional logics has been all about understanding the microdynamics of how institutional logics play out locally—within particular organizations or groups of them. And because it’s published in management journals (not that sociology journals would be any different), the authors have to use these studies to generate theory. And so there is a proliferation of work that identifies mechanisms through which competition/displacement/hybridization takes place locally, and which is presumed to be at least potentially generalizable.

The problem is that institutional logics are ideal types, not real things in the world. And while you can find useful ways to measure them in particular contexts, there aren’t a lot of useful ways to measure them across contexts—in part because they instantiate differently across fields and organizations, and hybridize in practice, and evolve, and so on.

And so the institutional logics literature has seen this very recent proliferation of increasingly abstruse theory that isn’t really “theory” in the sense of being testable, generalizable, and so on, but is more about the case-based identification of mechanisms that are hoped to be more general.

I don’t think this is terribly generative. These theory-building papers, of which there are many, are never going to be more general, because institutional logics are not real things: they’re not solid enough to make cross-case comparison useful except at fairly local scales. Which is why the framework worked for explaining the origins of some specific practices in academic science, but was less useful for explaining how an economic way of thinking spread in multiple policy domains.

None of this is to say that there isn’t considerable value in the concept of institutional logics. It’s great for understanding what is going on in particular important contexts, and some of the more recent papers that I really like use it to explain just such cases. But these are papers not focused on building general arguments about how institutional logics have effects. (They also, not incidentally, tend not to focus on the broadest logics of the inter-institutional order—market, corporation, profession, religion, and so on—but on more local logics that do not map neatly onto those broader logics.)

Explaining cases—like descriptive results—is a real contribution, and I think we should value it much more highly. But the institutional logics perspective does not work well as a Lakatosian research program, and a lot of recent work seems to try to shoehorn it into that box.

I don’t think a Lakatosian research program was the intent of Thornton, Ocasio and Lounsbury, who in their 2012 book called institutional logics a “perspective.” And it certainly wasn’t the intent of Roger Friedland, whose bemused reflections on how his 1991 essay took on a life of its own are well worth the read.

But that seems to be where we are. There are plenty of useful things that can be done with the institutional logics perspective. Lots of particular important cases are begging for explanation. And we can carry insights we take from one case to give us new intuition into other, analogous cases.

By the very nature of the concept, though, studies of institutional logics are not going to produce the scientific cumulation of knowledge that appears to be the current goal. No matter how much we might wish it would.

Written by epopp

October 8, 2015 at 10:59 am

12 Responses

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  1. Great text! Do you think that some works on logics adopt a scholastic point of view? That is, attributing the origin of actors’ conduct to something created by social scientists while forgetting these are actually just analytical construction – not real life mechanism.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m not up to date on the recent work, but my suspicion is that the problem is not so much that logics aren’t “real things” but that the goal has been to theorize about a wide array of logics without much attention to their actual *content*



    October 8, 2015 at 7:46 pm

  3. @Tim. Ok, while you’re at it, could you also speculate about why there are just six — and only six, not more, not less — institutional logics in Western societies? Might there be seven?


    Howard Aldrich

    October 8, 2015 at 8:57 pm

  4. Howard, there can be as many as you like, but you need to show and convince us of the existence of other institutional orders. It is a provisional meta-theory!


    Mike Lounsbury

    October 8, 2015 at 10:48 pm

  5. @Pedro, thanks. I do think that happens sometimes, but my impression is that most of the work really does try to start from the actors.

    @Tim, I do think there’s a lot more attention to content than there was even 3-5 years ago, particularly with the shift toward practice and the spread of research on institutional work.

    What I find difficult is pinning down what the big orders consist of well enough to say that a local set of events is clearly linked to one or another. In the university context, think about enrollment management. It’s sort of corporate. It’s sort of market. You could say it’s a hybrid. But does it get you somewhere to really try to nail down its precise relationship to broad institutional logics? Or can you do just as well talking about it as a local logic that uses rationalized techniques to achieve organizational — mostly financial — goals? Yet if you do the latter, I don’t know how you can generalize about it.



    October 9, 2015 at 12:00 am

  6. I’ll have to re-engage before I can speculate further. Thanks for the posting.



    October 9, 2015 at 1:59 pm

  7. @Beth, Your point about explaining local events, such as enrollment management, by drawing from the institutional logics framework, reminded me of how much simpler Ann Swidler’s toolkit theory of culture is to apply. Think about the contending interests at the local level, at a university, negotiating over how enrollment will be managed and what issues will be taken into account. Each of the parties – – the administration (deans and the registrar), students, student government, faculty, faculty Council, and so forth – – will be pushing for its particular interpretation of what makes the most sense. To justify their proposals, they can “draw down” from the cultural cloud bits of rationalized discourse to support their argument. From this perspective, agency lies in the hands of the contending parties, who use self-interest plus accumulated cultural commitments to offer their justifications.

    Think how much more action oriented this is then to imagine that somehow some free-floating logics up there in the cloud wend their way down through layers of social, political, and organizational filters before landing on the humans who take them on.

    Forgive the somewhat mechanistic depiction of the process, but I think this captures the conundrum you pointed to in your example. The local logics are constructed by actors needing to give accounts for their actions and their goals, and they more or less skillfully take what they need from the cloud. What’s generalizable are the mechanisms in which local actors are embedded and which, among other things, compel them to give rationalized accounts that they believe others will accept.

    There’s no claim that the people who do this are particularly effective, as that could not be known until well into the process. It is a highly contingent outcome. (As you know, I’m deeply skeptical of claims about “institutional entrepreneurs.”)

    Liked by 1 person

    Howard Aldrich

    October 9, 2015 at 3:54 pm

  8. A late response to Howard — I think there’s a middle ground between master logics that are locally applied (a la the strongest version of institutional logics) and free-floating bits that actors draw on opportunistically (a la Swidler), and that is logics that are adopted or circulated at the organizational or field level.

    So here I’m thinking of another paper in our forthcoming RSO volume by Daniel Davis and Amy Binder, who look at competing logics in university career centers. They compare an older career-development model, in which the job of career centers is to help students understand their interests and aptitudes and how that might connect to various career paths, and a new corporate (?) model in which the goal is to build relationships with employers and package students in appealing ways both to improve employment outcomes and to generate fees from companies interested in them (through programs like this:

    It seems totally fair to characterize these as competing logics, and they are associated with distinct professional groups. They don’t map neatly onto broad intitutional logics, though, and it’s also hard to characterize them as hybrids of those major types. Yet they are more than just piecemeal justifications for things various interests wanted anyway; they’re whole different ways of thinking about the purpose of the (sub)organization. And it’s a logic that circulates, too — the model emerged (if I’m not mangling the paper) from the older industrial affiliates programs that science departments often have, which charge companies similar fees for privileged access, and administrators of the two types of program share a professional organization. So it still seems useful to me to talk about this as a logic. I’m just not convinced that the pattern of circulation could be generalized to a very different (i.e. beyond the field of research universities, at best) context.



    October 11, 2015 at 7:52 pm

  9. A late response to the very interesting conversation.
    Pat, Mike, and I are currently writing a new chapter on the institutional logics perspective (ILP) for a revised Handbook of Organizational Institutionalism. Elizabeth’s blog is timely to prompt us to clarify some points.

    (1) In our 2012 book we envisioned ILP to be a scientific research program, one which builds on, but differs from the scientific research program of neoinstitutional theory. The introductory chapter draws on Berger and Zelditch (1993), Stanford theoreticians who were influenced by Lakatos’s goals in understanding scientific progress through research programs.

    (2) Our ontological claim is that institutional logics are real phenomena. Institutional logics are real the same way bureaucracy is real and culture is real. We understand that not all users of ILP follow a realist ontology.

    (3) The ideal types are not the institutional logics per se but an analytical representation of the logics. Here is an area where we have heard much misunderstanding of what we intended and perhaps we were not clear. The societal ideal types in our 2012 book provide an ideal-typical model of societal-level logics from a reading of canonical texts such as Weber’s Economy and Society and contemporary organization theory. They are meant to be an example and not the only possible model. The cells are intended to vary significantly based on specific research questions and specific instantiations. Other forms of representing and measuring logics beside ideal types are both possible and desirable, for example relying on vocabularies of practice.

    (4) As noted throughout our work, institutional logics are historically contingent. Institutional orders and their corresponding logics evolve and change over time. There is very little research that examines historical change in logics within an institutional order, most is comparing across institutional orders, though this research is starting to emerge.

    (5) ILP as a scientific research program seeks to uncover mechanisms that explain their origin, translation, transformation, and consequences. Cumulative knowledge about institutional logics is based on the accumulation of knowledge about the underlying mechanisms, not primarily on whether the same instantiations of logics are observed across contexts. One broad empirical finding that has been found is that the market logics have greatly increased in instantiations across contexts, (Thornton, Ocasio and Lounsbury, 2015, Emerging Trends in the Social Sciences by Wiley). But as Elizabeth’s works suggests this instantiation is not an isomorphic diffusion, but is subject to translation across contexts and hybridization with other logics.

    (6) Institutional logics are cross-level phenomena and can be observed at different levels of analysis: societal, field, and organizational. There are top-down, bottom-up and horizontal mechanisms by which institutional logics at different levels affect one another. More research is needed on these cross-level effects and on the differences and similarities in logics across different levels.

    (7) The meta-theory presented in the 2012 book outlined some mechanisms to explain the cross-level dynamics of institutional logics. The perspective differs from a purely structural or purely agentic meta-theory. ILP is not a closed-formed theory, although closed -form theories have been and will continue to be developed from the meta-theory.

    (8) ILP has been quite generative of research hypotheses, propositions, and theory so far, and over time the generativity of the research program will prove its continued usefulness and scientific progress or not (Berger and Zelditch, 1993). Time will tell as to the generality of theory and conceptual mechanisms. Scope conditions may develop around mechanisms by which logics become instantiated and have effects—generalizable bits of theory (mechanisms) that are good across space and time subject to scope conditions. Individual mechanisms might end up becoming components of a broader category of mechanisms a la Tilly.

    Willie, Pat, and Mike


    William Ocasio

    October 12, 2015 at 11:44 am

  10. Willie et al. — thanks for this — do you mind if I pull it into a stand-alone post so it is more visible?



    October 12, 2015 at 12:29 pm

  11. Sure. Feel free to post separately. Willie

    Sent from my iPhone



    October 12, 2015 at 12:56 pm

  12. […] institutional logics perspective (ILP) for a revised Handbook of Organizational Institutionalism. Elizabeth’s blog is timely to prompt us to clarify some […]


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