orgtheory.net

what was lost in the jump to institutionalism

Take a look at any sociology of organizations syllabus. You will notice a big jump – from closed systems theory to open systems theory. You will see Chester Bernard, human relations, Carnegie school and so forth. Then, you see the “big 3” of modern org studies, as Heather Haveman called them: institutionalism, ecology, and networks. And little link to the past.

Of course, there are are still scholars who examine the internal workings of organizations. Diane Vaughan’s challenger book is seminal. My favorite from the 2000s was James March, Martin Schultz, and Xueguang Zhou’s The Dyamics of Rules. More recently, our co-blogger, Katherine Chen, wrote an award winning book on Burning Man. What is missing, however, is a coherent theory of internal organizational dynamics similar to what the Carnegie School or the Human Relations school attempted. Sociologists who work on internal dynamics like to refashion institutional theory, not work out new theory. For example, inhabited institutionalism (which I like) is the meet up of symbolic interactionism and M&R ’77 institutionalism.

By drawing everything from institutionalism, I think we might have created a muddle of things. Institutionalism is everything – conformity (D&P 83), fake conformity (M&R 77), conflict (Theory of Fields), entrepreneurialism (DiMaggio 88), crystallization of rules (Tolbert), and erosion and disruption (various work scholars). The charitable view is that we’ve created a rich language for organizational processes. The uncharitable view is that we’ve just come up with a big pile of jargon for what we were doing already.

Here is what I suggest. The sociology of organizations/organizational behavior field should take a “time out” and really work on alternatives. And not just your tired old pot-shots at rational choice theory. But serious consideration of theory that is not institutionalism (e.g., no love notes to ecology promising a grand unification). Only through that comparison can we assess the strong parts of the current landscape of institutional theory.

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Written by fabiorojas

December 1, 2015 at 12:01 am

Posted in uncategorized

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  1. While not necessarily a break from institutionalism, we might seriously consider the role of individual’s interests (of the rational choice variety) in the creation, maintenance, and demise of institutions. For example, DiMaggio (1988) argued that neoinstitutionalism implicitly assumes that organization is the result of actors acting on the basis of two interests: predictability and survival. Thus, interests might provide a new(ish) “micro-foundation” for all sorts of other organizational and institutional level outcomes.

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    Peter Lista (@peterlista)

    December 1, 2015 at 4:54 am


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