Archive for the ‘Institutions’ Category
In this post, I want to offer a few thoughts about what institutionalism can gain, or has gained, through its interactions with other areas. Let’s start with what it might gain by looking at our neighbors, the economists. One thing that immediately jumps to mind is that institutionalism gets immediately recast as applied game theory, such as the work of Avner Grief. The idea is that “institution” becomes “norm,” which means that you can ask about the types of incentives that lead to norms being followed or violated. So far, this sort of work is well cited in sociology, but most sociologists are simply not interested in this type of economic modelling. Still, there is probably much to be gained by considering how “taken for grantedness” might be affected by incentives and the structure of interaction.
We might also consider how institutionalism might be impacted by a deeper engagement with other subfields of sociology. One thing that you notice is that institutional scholars routinely cite work in other fields, but don’t apply the ideas. For example, I noticed in grad school that a lot of institutional articles would cite cultural theory, but you don’t see a full blown toolkit style analysis in institutionalism. Rather than ritual citation, it might be good to seriously make institutionalist theories of action meet cultural theories of action (a la Hans Joas or Swidler).
By anchoring itself empirically to organizational studies, economic sociology, and politics, institutionalism has pretty much cut itself off from a whole range of empirical phenomena. Already, by looking at movements (see Brayden’s work or Huggy Rao’s or Sarah Soule’s), org studies has grown tremendously. My own work on universities also focuses on the institutionalism/movements interactions. But why don’t we have “gendered institutionalism” or a theory going after inequality-institution interactions?
So for ambitious students, we have two very interesting possibilities. One is to enrich institutional theory by linking to another area with different methods/behavioral assumptions like economics or anthropology. Another road to take is to look at areas of sociology that have had little contact with institutionalism like gender, race, or demography.
Institutionalism is, by any measure, the major sociological theory of organizational behavior. It’s flagship article, DiMaggio and Powell 1983, is the most cited article ever published in the American Sociological Review. Citations to institutionalism dwarf other approaches like ecology and network analysis. Virtually all graduate students who specialize in organizational theory must learn institutionalism and there is a steady stream of handbooks and edited volume chapters that expound the theory.
So this week, I want to get a few issues on the table about institutionalism. Today is simply an assessment of “where are we now?” I’ll offer a few claims on this question and I’d be interested to see if you agree with me.
First, institutional theory has moved from a theory of organizational conformity/non-conformity (depends if you are D&P 83 or M&R 77) to a theory of action with fields. This can be seen in Fligstein and McAdam’s theory of fields, institutional work, and inhabited institutions.
Second, we’ve pretty much dropped studies of diffusion curves (they still happen on occasion, though) and focused on strategic action or environments. This can be seen in the institutional logics/inhabited institutions split in the field.
Third, institutionalism has moved away from sociology programs and into management and education programs. For example, most of the leading institutional logic scholars are in b-schools (Thornton, Ocasio, Lounsbury), as are the big names in institutional work theory (Suddaby, Lawrence, Leca) and one half of the duo that brought you inhabited institutions (Ventresca). In sociology programs, one sees top scholars either using institutional theory to study “topics” (e.g., my own work on movements and org change) or they are creating theory that no longer presents itself as institutions (e.g., Fligstein and McAdam present their theory of fields as drawing from many sources in sociology). You don’t see new branches of institutionalism being hatched in soc programs (except Hallet’s inhabited institutions).
Use the comments to discuss the “where are we now.”
Last week I was finishing up a volume introduction and it prompted me to catch up on the last couple of years of the institutional logics literature. This gave me some thoughts, and now I can’t sleep, so I’m putting them out there. This is long so it’s broken into three parts. The first two reflect my personal saga with institutional logics. They set up the rest, but you can also skip to the third and final section for the punchline.
Netflix is running a documentary called The Search for General Tso, which is about the origin of a dish called “General Tso’s Chicken.” As you might imagine, the documentary starts with some obvious humor. Folks back in China have never heard of it, so the viewer believes that it is a fake “American Chinese” dish.
The story turns out to be richer than that. I won’t give away the details, but the film is an excellent overview of Chinese immigration and the role that Chinese restaurants have in helping migrants:
- Chinese restaurants were given “territories” so they wouldn’t compete with each other, which explains why you find them in some far flung places.
- There is an interesting economics of Chinese food. For example, Tso’s Chicken is inexpensive and appeals to the American desire for sweet and fried foods.
- Even though Tso’s chicken is not commonly consumed in China, it actually has its origins there and was brought to the US through a rather bitter competition between two feuding Taiwanese chefs.
- Chinese food is highly unstable in that it is easy to modify for various global audiences.
So General Tso’s chicken emerges from a very, very specific circumstance in the 1970s, but it “fits” in the long standing field of Chinese restaurants and quickly diffuses throughout the US. Great story of culture, economics, and organizational fields.
In the Face of Inequality: How Black Colleges Adapt is a new book on historically black colleges by Melissa E. Wooten. The purpose of the book is to ask how the field of HBCs has evolved over its history and to provide a sociological answer to this question. The book is built on a series of questions that most organizational theorists would find intuitive – how is the HBC field organized? How do HBCs pursue collective action? How do they build legitimacy and how have they responded to the ere of desegregation?
After providing an overview of the HBC field, Wooten answers these questions by looking at “adaptive episodes” where HBCs come together to address various financial and political problems. For example, there is a highly informative discussion of the United Negro College Fund, which remains one of the most important financial instruments for supporting Black students seeking a college education. The UNCF is also one of the most important accreditation agencies in the HBC field. The gist of the argument about the UNCF is that was both a financial project and also a legitimacy building project. It also had some important unintented consequences – by favoring standards selected by UNCF donors, HBCs were encouraged to adopt the forms that did not directly challenge the social and political practices that ensured low status for Blacks.
Aside from being an important sociological study of the HBC field, In the Face of Inequality is an important example of institutionalism 3.0 – the research project linking institutional theory with other major streams of modern sociology. This text connects institutionalism with race theory. For these reasons, it’s a good book. Recommended!
Africanists like to toss around the words “failed state.” But what they falsely assume is that there is only one option – building a stronger state. What would happen if the state just withered and people just let it go? Are people better off by just ditching the weak state? A 2006 article in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization by Benjamin Powell, Ryan Ford, and Alex Nowratseh asks exactly this question. They ask, what happened in Somalia after their state collapsed 1991?
Somalia is a nation that was hammered by war, famine, dictators, and an out of control socialist state. In the 1991, the state collapsed and people reverted to tribal forms of governance based on Islamic courts and kinship (the Xeer system). In 2005, Powell et al. collected basic data on longevity, health, roads, money, and law. Then they asked, how does Somalia compare with other African states?
The answer is surprising. On many measures, Somalia post-1991 actually does well compared to 42 other sub-Saharan states. On at least five measures (including life expectancy and mortality), Somalia is in the top half (p. 662). On a few important measures (such as water access and immunization), they are near the bottom. Even then, they often improved in absolute terms, though not in relative terms. When you compared Somalia with neighbors that had been at war, they report improvements in most measures while other warring states saw declines. Somalia has also seen an expansion of its pastoral economy, a functional currency, and the best mobile phone system in the region. The major setback for Somalia is a depressing performance with regard to infant mortality, which probably relates to poor immunization rates. Still, statelessness did not lead to chaos. Rather, Somalia continued to resemble other African societies on most measures.
This is not an argument for selling off the White House, but it does make an extremely important comparative institutional point. High quality Western systems of governance are simply not on the table. There is no way these impoverished societies can create the level of wealth needed for Western style states in the short term. It is also the case that the options are horrible – dictatorships or Marxist states. If those are your choices, it might be plausible to evolve into a decentralized legal system.
When I was finishing grad school, I thought we were done with institutionalism. At that time, folks were publishing study after study of diffusion within organizational communities. Didn’t seem like there was much more to say. Then, there was an explosion of interest in contentious politics and organizational fields. Brayden is part of that cohort, as was Huggie Rao, Lis Clemens, Marc Schneiberg, Sarah Soule, Michael Lounsboury, and myself. Later, people like Tom Lawrence and Roy Suddaby articulated the idea that effort needed to be expended to create or attack institutions, which is now the foundation of the “institutional work” branch of institutional theory. The idea was simple. Institutions not only regulate behavior, but they can become the target of politics.
Then, again, I thought we were done with institutionalism. What else could be said? Well, I realize that I was very, very wrong. The next stage of the theory is linking the main ideas of institutionalism to other more established areas of sociology. For example, I was reading Melissa Wooten’s book, In the Face of Inequality, which looks at race and institutions through the example of HBCs. My suspicion is that institutionalism 3.0 (or 4.0 if you consider the Selznick/Merton/Parsons generation) will be about theoretical and empirical integration with core sociology like stratification, small group processes, and a re-engagement with the “Measuring Culture” generation of scholars. Overall, this makes me happy. Early on, I thought that institutional theory was too inward looking and only cited external authors in a ritualistic fashion. With this new effort, I hope that institutionalism will be more strongly enmeshed in wider sociological discussions.