where are the institutionalists? answer: not sociology

Neo-institutionalism was and remains a major strand of organizational theory. However, it seems as if it has receded from sociology programs. Some of the esteemed senior scholars in this tradition, such as Art Stinchcombe and Lynn Zucker, are emeritus faculty. A number of key figures such as Woody Powell, Brian Rowan, and John Meyer work in professional schools (education). And the bulk of early and mid career institutional scholars work in the b-schools, with Oxford and Alberta being the center of much work.

So where in sociology do we still see institutionalism? If you look at, say, the top 20-30 PhD programs, you get the following count: Neil Fligstein (Berkeley), Paul DiMaggio (NYU), Tim Hallett (IU), me (IU), Melissa Wooten (U Mass – Amherst), Tim Bartley (Ohio State). And it would be easy to whittle this list down. Paul DiMaggio’s recent work is more culture and cognition rather than institutionalism. Tim Bartley is less of an institutionalist per se and more of a scholar of industrial regulation. Perhaps, you might add Berkeley’s Cristina Mora, whose book on pan-ethnicity employs some aspects of institutionalism. But once again, you could argue her work is mainly immigration and ethnicity, not an attempt to develop institutionalism. Still, out of the 300-400 faculty who teach in the biggest PhD programs, it says something when only about 5 of them actually work on one of sociology’s most important contributions to the social sciences.

Is this a bad thing? Probably not. There is no reason to believe a theory of organizations has to live in sociology programs. One might also argue that institutionalism in sociology has simply transformed into a different thing – a theory of fields/dynamics of contention school that focuses more on conflict and mobilization than isomorphism.  So perhaps the number of people I could have identified would be larger. But I suspect it would not be larger.

What are your thoughts? Is this another example of org theory migrating to b-schools?

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Written by fabiorojas

February 28, 2017 at 12:46 am

10 Responses

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  1. Interesting post. If you think the following is true: “institutionalism in sociology has simply transformed into a different thing – a theory of fields/dynamics of contention school that focuses more on conflict and mobilization than isomorphism.” Then there are many more folks in sociology departments doing institutional theory, yeah?



    March 1, 2017 at 4:23 am

  2. Yes, but they don’t admit it!



    March 1, 2017 at 4:24 am

  3. @fabiorjas

    I think I know what you mean, but I won’t name names. Future post suggestion: if a theory of fields/dynamics of contention (or however you want to label it) is a version of institutional theory, why don’t the theorists who use these ideas/concepts/strategies identify as institutional theory, and why should they?



    March 1, 2017 at 4:33 am

  4. 1. Friend, you just inspired next week’s big post!

    2. A first stab at the answer. A lot of ToF/DoC folks hail from social movements and political sociology. These folks are much less interested in the “classic” issues of institutional theory, like isomorphism and diffusion. A second answer may be lineage. A lot of folks in sociology who did institutionalism trained with people like Paul DiMaggio and Lynn Zucker. These folks are mentoring much fewer people in this vein. I, myself, self taught institutional theory.



    March 1, 2017 at 4:36 am

  5. Sociological theory and research seems so much broader than (neo-) institutional theory, and in some sense (neo-)institutional theory seems to reflect a particular flavour or style of social theory that has found traction and appeal in business schools, perhaps because it nicely re-packages a diverse range of concepts, theories and debates? From a European perspective it certainly seems to favour certain assumptions about structure/agency over others? From someone who has taught/researched in both b-schools and sociology depts I am more surprised by how often scholars talk past each other.


    J Waring

    March 1, 2017 at 10:44 pm

  6. Since when is Oxford a “b-school”?

    Liked by 1 person


    March 2, 2017 at 9:27 am

  7. I think Frank Dobbin at Harvard identies as an institutionalist as well



    March 2, 2017 at 12:30 pm

  8. “one of sociology’s most important contributions to the social sciences”

    Really? This is what we have accomplished? It’s not even a real theory with any predictive power. Sad!

    Fabio, can elaborate what are (in your view) the other “most important contributions”?



    March 4, 2017 at 4:34 am

  9. Maybe you could have a look in Europe. American sociologists who complain about economists not citing them should first read and cite European sociology… Eur sociology is full of institutional thinking, and is much more interdiscplinary with cross-links to comparative political economy.



    March 6, 2017 at 10:03 pm

  10. John Meyer is also emeritus. He works/worked in a sociology department, not a professional school.

    (Insert snark about institutionalists who play fast and loose with institutional facts?)



    March 8, 2017 at 7:58 pm

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