institutionalism 2015

Institutionalism is, by any measure, the major sociological theory of organizational behavior. It’s flagship article, DiMaggio and Powell 1983, is the most cited article ever published in the American Sociological Review. Citations to institutionalism dwarf other approaches like ecology and network analysis. Virtually all graduate students who specialize in organizational theory must learn institutionalism and there is a steady stream of handbooks and edited volume chapters that expound the theory.

So this week, I want to get a few issues on the table about institutionalism. Today is simply an assessment of “where are we now?” I’ll offer a few claims on this question and I’d be interested to see if you agree with me.

First, institutional theory has moved from a theory of organizational conformity/non-conformity (depends if you are D&P 83 or M&R 77) to a theory of action with fields. This can be seen in Fligstein and McAdam’s theory of fields, institutional work, and inhabited institutions.

Second,  we’ve pretty much dropped studies of diffusion curves (they still happen on occasion, though) and focused on strategic action or environments. This can be seen in the institutional logics/inhabited institutions split in the field.

Third, institutionalism has moved away from sociology programs and into management and education programs. For example, most of the leading institutional logic scholars are in b-schools (Thornton, Ocasio, Lounsbury), as are the big names in institutional work theory (Suddaby, Lawrence, Leca) and one half of the duo that brought you inhabited institutions (Ventresca). In sociology programs, one sees top scholars either using institutional theory to study “topics” (e.g., my own work on movements and org change) or they are creating theory that no longer presents itself as institutions (e.g., Fligstein and McAdam present their theory of fields as drawing from many sources in sociology). You don’t see new branches of institutionalism being hatched in soc programs (except Hallet’s inhabited institutions).

Use the comments to discuss the “where are we now.”

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Written by fabiorojas

November 30, 2015 at 12:01 am

Posted in fabio, Institutions

8 Responses

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  1. Where are we now*. Excuse my OCD.



    November 30, 2015 at 12:32 am

  2. The most cited article in the AJS is DiMaggio’s 1983 “The Iron Cage Revisited?”


    Fredrick Welfare

    November 30, 2015 at 5:29 am

  3. fabiorojas

    November 30, 2015 at 5:40 am

  4. Linked to your 2nd point, I would add that institutionalists have moved from a focus on stability/diffusion to a focus on change/ambiguity/conflict



    November 30, 2015 at 5:58 pm

  5. Looking forward to following this. Would really like to know how people think we can best integrate analysis of technology into institutional approaches. As a media/com researcher interested in change this is a pretty pressing concern.


    Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

    November 30, 2015 at 6:09 pm

  6. My colleague just returned from the Modernist Studies Association to report that institutionalism is the hot topic for people studying modern and contemporary literature in English departments.

    Liked by 1 person

    Eric Schwartz

    December 1, 2015 at 7:02 pm

  7. Derrida meets Paul DiMaggio? Sign me up!



    December 1, 2015 at 8:13 pm

  8. Hunh. I have humanities friends who go to Modernist Studies. I wonder if they caught whiffs of this.

    I agree with where we are now, mostly. Can’t speak to institutionalism in sociology as I am not exposed to that enough.

    My own thinking certainly revolves around environment, action and fields. I still find quite useful the idea that the field is defined by actors up and out. So, we can be a little more “emic” about where the boundaries are instead of some managerial work that relies on various top-down categories of what a community or field is (I’m thinking especially of those industry codes).

    As some sort of benchmarker of change in how we use institutional theory, I am curious about how old versus new seems to have evaporated. Did the differences get resolved?

    The answer may partly relate to your second point about a shift away from diffusion to one on action and strategy. I agree with your observation, but wonder if we threw the proverbial baby out with bathwater. Some kinds of stability in fields still emerges? Diffusion still happens, but may include counter-currents or resistance? For example, maybe the diffusion of one set of ideologies or practices that is more dominant also provokes counterparts that are most active not WITHIN organizations but in professional networks and other field-level actors.

    I need to read the other entries in this series, but I have my own attraction to logics but also frustration about who or what among researchers gets to define what “counts” or not as a logic.



    December 19, 2015 at 11:30 pm

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