the not-so-new institutionalism

The “new” institutional theory isn’t so new anymore. Anyone trained in organizational theory post-1990s will recognize the brand of institutionalism popularized by people like Woody Powell, Paul DiMaggio, John Meyer, and Dick Scott as a healthy part of the status quo. In fact, it has become such a dominant perspective in org. theory circles that new students might mistake the entire field as being about institutional theory. Concepts like institutional logics, institutional work, institutional entrepreneurship, or institutional [insert term here] are common tools of the trade. All of this is to say that institutional theory isn’t so revolutionary anymore.

A few years ago Fabio wrote a post in which he wondered if we’ve reached the end of institutionalism.

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.

In one sense Fabio was clearly wrong about institutional theory being finished. If you pick up any management journal, you’ll find lots of references to the classics of institutional theory. The average issue of AMJ or Org. Studies or Org. Science might have one or two papers with”institutional” in the title or abstract. Even if Fabio was right that we’ve reached a theoretical cul-de-sac with few escape routes, it seems to be a wide lane in which many empirical cars can do circles.

At this point I wonder if institutional theory is just a placeholder for “we care about organizations as non-rational structures.” If you’re interested in culture and organizations, then institutional theory is an attractive conversation of which to be a part.

But do we need institutional theory anymore to study these types of problems? I’m not so sure that we do. Once we get interested in the micro-mechanisms of institutions, such as schemas, symbolic management, etc., then it becomes less clear if institutional theory is really driving new scholarly research at all or if it just signifies a certain style of research.

I find that institutional theory has become so jargon-laden that it sometimes obscures what is truly interesting about an empirical analysis. If my students are tempted to do some institutional theory, I will usually require them to sit down with me and to describe their analysis without ever once using the term “institutional” or any of the related concepts. Two things usually become apparent. In some cases, institutional theory concepts are a crutch that makes it difficult for a young scholar to be precise about what is actually going on in their analysis. In other cases, the students learn that more can be said and predicted without institutional theory than with it. I am sure there are cases where this is not true, of course.

Stepping back a bit, I believe that institutional theory is a victim of its own success. It was very good at providing a rich and interesting world view. Working within that perspective helped scholars see things about organizations and markets that might not have been otherwise apparent. But as institutional theory spread and became a driving force of many research agendas in organizational theory, it created a community of scholars who now identify with it less for its predictive/analytical power and more for the style of research they believe it represents. As a community, it is clearly thriving, but as a theoretical perspective, I’m less sure of its vitality.



Written by brayden king

January 2, 2017 at 6:20 pm

5 Responses

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  1. the not-so-new critiques of institutional theory

    We’ve spent now over a decade debating whether institutional theory is still alive, relevant, or has run its course. Both insiders like Royston Greenwood, and outsiders and quasi-outsiders like Fabio, Neil Fligstein, and now my friend and colleague Brayden have been writing blogs, holding panels, and even specialized conferences on the topic.

    But yet institutional theory continues to thrive. So what is the problem?

    A big part of the problem is semantics– what we cal institutional theory is not and has never really been a “theory” in the sense of analytical, testable propositions. What we cal institutional “theory” is really a diverse set of theories and mechanisms, which have greatly varied in how consistent they are with each other. An example of a theory is DiMaggio and Powell (1983) –isomorphism theory, although even here it has really been studied more as a set of quasi independent mechanisms–coercive, normative, and mimetic isomorphism–rather than the full theory. Meyer and Rowan (1977) cones close to being a theory also, but its not quite the same theoretical argument as DiMaggio and Powell, plus even though brilliant it is less internally coherent. More recently different sub-communities of institutional theory have developed related, yet diverse institutional theories or perspectives: institutional logics, institutional work, institutional entrepreneurship, and others–each developing its own set of mechanisms.

    I do agree with Brayden that the use of word institutions and institutional are overused. Non-rational structures is a terrible way to characterize institutions, and partly a remnant of DiMaggio and Powell (1983) I may add.

    But to use a cliche, let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water. Just drain it.

    In a forthcoming chapter on institutional logics Pat Thornton, Mike Lounsbury and I define institutions as taken-for-granted, normatively sanctioned set of roles and interaction orders for collective action. Our definition builds on neo-institutional theory while taking a more agentic view of institutions

    Form me institutional theory is the theoretically guided study of the determinants and consequences of institutions and institutional change. This clearly includes the micro-foundations of institutions, contrary to Brayden’s claim.

    The real problem for institutional theories is that the institutions being studied are not clearly identified, nor an explanation given of why, when, and how are they institutions. Perhaps it would be better to call it institutional analysis, rather than institutional theory. (I don’t like the word institutionalism–it sounds like an ideology or even worse, what some of its critics view it as– a disease).

    Interestingly, social movements in the U.S., Brayden’s research area, have become institutions, at least since the 1960s if not earlier. Perhaps more research, not less, is needed, on the consequences of social movements as institutions. This requires careful attention to historical context, something that is missing, alas, in much of organizational theory.

    Despite the recurring critiques, institutional analysis is not going away. Neither are institutional theories. Institutions are critical for organizations and collective action. Yes if institutions don’t vary within the object of study, the use of institutional theories is not particularly relevant. But in the post-1980s world, institutional change in markets, corporations, governments, so called non-profits, and yes social movements is increasing, making institutional theories ever more, not less relevant, for organization theory (by the way also not a theory).


    William Ocasio

    January 3, 2017 at 12:17 am

  2. Willie, I thought you’d also mention that I’m your boss. ;)

    I hope you can tell from my post that I don’t really think that institutional theory is dead. The community that has formed around institutional theory is far too vibrant to convincingly argue that the theory has run its course. But as you say, it’s a pretty loose coalition of scholars who seem more united around an interest in a broad topic area than they are committed to building a coherent theoretical framework. (You, Pat, and Mike have sought to do the latter in your book.)

    If my post offers a critique of institutional scholarship it is simply that at times it becomes too reliant on the jargon, which leads to analytic imprecision. that’s why I challenge my students to describe their theoretical propositions/findings without relying on jargon. That said, institutional theorists aren’t the only scholars guilty of imprecision. The field just stands out because of its dominance and because it lacks consensus about the best ways to operationalize certain concepts. (This point was also made by Clemens and Schneiberg in their Tools of the Trade paper.)


    brayden king

    January 3, 2017 at 1:09 am

  3. Sorry boss!


    Willie Ocasio

    January 3, 2017 at 1:21 am

  4. The older I get the more I respect Dwight Waldo. He summed up organization theory or whatever terms are appropriate today. He saw us all just “muddling through.”


  5. […] few days ago, we had a discussion about, exactly, what institutionalism is all about these days. This has been a long standing issue on this […]


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