hermeneutic institutionalism – what is to be gained?

It’s not every day that something in the institutional literature surprises me. At this point in my career, I’ve been completely immersed in institutionalism, such much that I have literally been asked to write at least four separate handbook chapters on various aspects of institutionalism.* It was a pleasure then, to discover that one of my old grad school professors, Andreas Glaeser, wrote an article in 2014 about hermeneutics and institutions in Qualitative Sociology.

So what is in this evocatively titled article? Basically, it lays out an approach to sociology that one might call “hermeneutic sociology.” Drawing on late 19th century and early 20th century, Glaeser argues that sociology, or at least cultural theory, is all about the process of understanding. In his view, the basic element of cultural analysis is an investigation of how future actions follow from prior actions by flowing from individual understandings of the world. Thus, the premise of the “sociology of understanding” is that the fundamental act of sociology is uncovering of how people orient themselves and order themselves in the world.

I agree with Andreas that this is probably a firmer grounding than, say, Durkheimian sociology or functionalist sociology. It is not too hard to begin with the assumption that people are “homo interpretus,” viewers and analyzers of the world. The basic metaphor is that humans are constantly embedded in webs of meaning and react to them.

Now, how does this lead to institutional theory? If I get the arguments, is that chains of understanding and validation are a better way to analyze the types of social regularities that catch the attention of neo-institutional theory. In other words, if you observe that colleges adopt a uniform set of anti-harassment policies, it isn’t enough to simply wave your hands and say “isomorphism” or “efficiency,” if you lean rational choice. You still need to find a second order explanation for why the adoption of these policies make sense at all. By focusing on webs of meaning and validation of understandings, you can get a story of coordination and regularity.

I think where I would criticize this article is noting that it doesn’t really capture current institutional thought beyond the class articles of the 1980s. For example, institutionalism has really reshaped itself after, say, 2000 with the rise of institutional entrepreneurship theory, inhabited institution theory, and institutional work theory. I might also toss in Fligstein’s social skill theory and the Fligstein and McAdam book on field theory. These works are, for the most part, I think, consistent with Glaeser’s sociology of understanding. They depart from the cultural dope model and really think about culture as being instrumental (inst. work theory), constituted through action and understanding (inhabited institutions), and reliant on recursive social structures (Fligstein and McAdam’s A Theory of Fields).

I still think Glaeser is onto something. There is something about the basic phenomenology of action within organizations and institutions that is missed when we reduce all to habitus (e.g., Bourdieu or even Fligsten and McAdam 2012) or strategic actions (as I discuss in chapter 3 in Theory for the Working Sociologist). I would be interested to see if the sociology of understanding can be effectively used to tackle the sorts of administrative behaviors founds in contemporary institutional research.

*If institutionalism is your thing, they are: the Oxford bibliography on institutionalism, politics and institutionalism, race and institutionalism, and movements and institutionalism. This probably deserves its own post…


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Written by fabiorojas

March 12, 2019 at 4:01 am

Posted in uncategorized

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  1. Very good article. Thank you.



    March 15, 2019 at 3:57 am

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