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.