Carriers and Institutional Mechanisms

Four types of carriers were identified in Chapter 4: symbolic systems, relational systems, activities, and artifacts. As I have emphasized, type of carrier affects the message being carried in multiple ways and, hence, the trajectory of institutionalization processes.

1. Symbolic Systems

Attention to symbolic systems as carriers of institutional rules and beliefs emphasizes the important role played by such mechanisms as interpretation, theorization, framing, and bricolage—“mechanisms that operate through alterations of individual and collective percep- tion” (McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly 2001: 26). For ideas to move from place to place and time to time through the use of symbols, they must be encoded into some type of script that is then decoded by recipients who are necessarily embedded in different situations and possessed of differing agendas. As discussed in Chapter 5, Strang and Meyer (1993) employ the concept theorization to refer to this coding process. The pro- cess of theorization applies both to actors, because diffusion occurs more readily when “the actors involved are perceived as similar (by themselves, and others), and within social institutions more generally” (p. 491), and to the diffusing practices themselves, as practices are abstracted, codified, and converted into models.

Under these conditions, we suppose that what flows is rarely an exact copy of some practice existing elsewhere. When theorists are the carriers of the practice or theorization itself is the diffu- sion mechanism, it is the theoretical model that is likely to flow. Such models are neither complete nor unbiased depictions of existing practices. Instead, theoretical models systematically capture some of the features of existing practices and not others, or even fundamentally revise the practices altogether. (Strang and Meyer 1993: 495)

A general problem encountered in focusing exclusively on isolated symbolic materials is that to do so disembeds them from their social context. As Brown and Duguid (2000: 31) note, “This makes [the infor- mation] blind to other forces at work in society.” Thus, for example, although the appearance of a newspaper makes it appear to be a simple record of what happened on a given day,

news is not some naturally occurring object that journalists pick up and stick on a paper. It is made and shaped by journalists in the context of the medium and the audience. The newspaper, then is rather like the library—not simply a collection of news, but a selection and a reflection. And the selection process doesn’t just “gather news,” but weaves and shapes, developing stories in accordance with available space and priorities. (Brown and Duguid 2000: 185–186)

Brown and Duguid point out that the older usage of the word media was employed to refer not only to the information, but also the associ- ated technology and social institutions. Yet in today’s digital world, any reference to media does not typically conjure up the background role of actors and social institutions. Such inattention to social context is not just a problem on the input side, where symbolic information is created, but also on output side, where it is translated and applied. In her study of the implementation of Western models in Meiji Japan, discussed earlier, Westney (1987: 25) points out that departures from models occurred in part because the models needed to be adapted to “a differ- ent societal scale” and also because social organizations and institu- tional frameworks that provided essential support for the models were missing in Japan.

Students of social movements and institutions have recently stressed the important role played by the framing of information or issues. Adapting Goffman’s (1974) original concept, Snow and col- leagues (Snow and Benford 1992; Snow, Rochford, Worden, and Benford 1986) emphasize the ways in which meaning is mediated by the use of varying cognitive frames. Campbell (2005: 48–49) usefully defines frames as “metaphors, symbols, and cognitive cues that cast issues in a particular light and suggest possible ways to respond to these issues.” Frames are employed by disseminators to distil and sharpen messages and by recipients to capture and interpret them, so that a critical component of successful transmission involves processes of “frame alignment” (Snow et al. 1986). While symbolic frames may emerge from a more informal sense-making process (Weick 1995) as actors collectively work to interpret some event, they can also be created by more strategic sense-giving processes in which contesting groups struggle to define and disseminate ideological positions to internal and external constituents (Gioia and Chittipeddi 1991). As Fiss and Zajac (2006: 1173) emphasize, strategic change within organiza- tions entails not only a “shift in structures and processes, but also a cognitive organizational reorientation.” Their study examines how the alignment of interests within German firms affected the extent to which they adopted and enacted the shareholder model or, alterna- tively, blended it with the prevailing broader stakeholder model. Government-owned companies, companies owned by domestic banks that themselves endorsed the stakeholder model, and family-owned companies were more likely to adopt a blended strategy, while compa- nies having greater visibility, as measured by media coverage, were more likely to embrace the globally favored shareholder model (Fiss and Zajac 2006).

Bricolage involves the creative combination of symbolic and structural elements garnered from varying sources and traditions (Douglas 1986; Levi-Strauss 1966). Actors may arrive with ideas and templates derived from their previous experience, but when apply- ing them to new situations often join them with local structures and ideas to form new hybrid combinations. Stark (1996) provides a graphic description of this process as Eastern European capitalists struggled to craft new types of enterprise after the collapse of the socialist framework. He found that rather than completely discard- ing all aspects of the former enterprises, Hungarian businesspeople mixed and matched selected elements from the socialist and capital- ist repertories of structures and routines, constructing hybrid public- private organizations. Unclear as to which models to follow, they employed “organizational hedging that crosses and combines dispa- rate evaluative principles” (Stark 1996: 1014). Crafting new combina- tions of symbolic and structural elements, Hungarian agents were engaged in “rebuilding organizations and institutions not on the ruins but with the ruins of communism as they redeploy available resources in response to their immediate practical dilemmas” (Stark 1996: 995; italics in original).9

2. Relational Systems

Connections or linkages characterize all manner of things, from words and sentences in paragraphs, to websites, and the food chain. Here we emphasize social connections among individuals, groups, and organizations and the ways in which these channels carry institutional materials. McAdam et al. (2001: 22) stress the value of a relational perspective that allows us to view “social interaction, social ties, com- munication, and conversation not merely as expressions of structure, rationality, consciousness, or culture but as active sites of creation and change.” Strang and Meyer (1993) distinguish between relational and symbolic carriers of institutions. They point out that designs emphasiz- ing relational carriers are based on social realist models, which assume that social actors are relatively independent entities who must be con- nected by specific networks or communication links if diffusion is to occur. By contrast, if symbolic carriers are privileged, “diffusion processes often look more like complex exercises in the social construction of identity than like the mechanistic spread of information” (Strang and Meyer 1993: 489).

In recent years, researchers interested in the diffusion of institu- tional ideas and forms have made extensive use of network measures and methods in examining these flows. Measures, including distance, centrality, clustering, density, structural equivalence, and centraliza- tion, have been employed to examine their effects on the rate of flow or type of information disseminated.10 For example, researchers have pointed out that similar or closely related ideas are likely to flow between friends and close associates. “Particularly when organized by homophily, strong ties lead actors to take the perspective of the other and to exert powerful pressures for conformity” (Strang and Soule 1998: 272). By contrast, following research by Granovetter (1973) and others, contacts with individuals or organizations differing from oneself—“weak” ties—are associated with the transmission of new or different ideas so that, as noted in Chapter 5, institutional agents intro- ducing innovations are likely to be situated in networks that cross conventional boundaries.

A multitude of studies on interlocking directorates in corporations— organizations that share board members—suggests that such connections are more likely to function as “weak” ties, providing organizations with information regarding the ways in which other organizations are dealing with one or another problem. Differing kinds of information travel through different networks. For example, a study by Davis and Greve (1997) compared the diffusion patterns of two recent governance innovations, “golden parachutes” and “poison pills,” adopted by many U.S. corporations in response to the takeover waves of the 1980s.11 Parachutes, perceived to principally advantage incumbent executives of takeover targets, were found to diffuse among Fortune 500 firms slowly during the period 1980 to 1989. Their adoption was primarily related to geographic proximity: “Firms adopted to the extent that other firms in the same metropolitan area had done so” (p. 29). By contrast, pills, perceived as protecting the integrity of the firm against hostile takeover attempts, diffused rapidly after their intro- duction in 1985, their spread being strongly related to the pattern of board interlocks among firms. Thus, the spread of parachutes was associated with firm ties to local (regional) companies, whereas the spread of pills was associated with links to national elite networks. More important, Davis and Greve propose that the two innovations were associated with different carriers and exhibited different diffu- sion patterns because they involved different institutional elements. Pills acquired “substantial normative legitimation in the eyes of the directors adopting them” (p. 33) and diffused via formally consti- tuted national networks, whereas the spread of parachutes was based more on their cognitive legitimacy—the information available locally to managers that others occupying the same role had secured such protections.

Gaps or “structural holes” often exist in networks. Such condi- tions provide important opportunities for actors who can seize the chance to link together two or more previously unconnected social sites (Burt 1992). As McAdam et al. (2001: 26) point out, brokerage is an important relational mechanism for relating groups and individuals in stable sites; alternatively, mobilization can be employed during periods of unrest to bring together previously disconnected parties.

A largely neglected topic playing a central role in relational carriers is the existence and increasing importance to a wide variety of interme- diary roles—roles defined almost entirely by the activities they perform in carrying information between central players in organizational fields. Ranging from consultants to librarians to lobbyists to advertis- ing and rating agencies, the existence of these and other information intermediaries is vital to the functioning of any complex field (see Sahlin-Andersson and Engwall 2002). For example, McDonough, Ventresca, and Outcalt (2000) examined the role played by high school counselors, private counselors, and college admissions officers in mediating the selection and flow of students in the field of higher edu- cation. By focusing on contrasting interests and roles and on conflicts over values and meanings, they attempt to speed “the shift away from more disembodied social processes to situated social practices, [which] directs our attention to how activities take shape, the mechanisms by which forms emerge, acquire stability, and experience challenges to that stability” (p. 378).

3. Activities

Building on the work of ethnomethodologists (see Chapter 2), a new cadre of scholars led by Bruno Latour (1987) and Michel Callon (1998) have reformulated the cognition-action duality to give priority to action: suggesting that the “doing” often precedes and constructs the “knowing.” This work emphasizes that categories and classifications often follow from, rather than guide, action by actors attempting to cope with their ongoing situations. They propose that action can be performative, contributing to the construction of the reality that it describes (Powell and Colyvas 2008). In these and other ways, schol- ars from the action-network and institutional work schools, have worked to reestablish the equal status, if not the priority of, action over structure. And, as noted, scholars stressing “institutional work” (e.g., Lawrence, Suddaby, and Leca 2009), have effectively enlarged the rep- ertory of activities having significant institutional repercussions. In addition to activities that reproduce ongoing institutions, thereby acting to maintain and reinforce them, they add others such as creation or innovation and disruption. The act of consciously and publically disrupt- ing existing societal beliefs, rules, and norms can destabilize a long- lasting regime, as demonstrated by the self-immolation of a Libyan street vendor setting off the social upheavals of the “Arab spring.” Other activity-based mechanisms identified by social movement scholars such as McAdam and colleagues (2001) include repression and radicalization.

Structuration theorists attempt to reconnect culture and behavior, ideas, and actions by theorizing their mutuality and interdependence. Feldman and Pentland (2003: 101–102) applied these arguments to routines, suggesting that routines incorporate an ideal or schematic (“ostensive”) aspect and a “performance” aspect—“the specific actions taken by specific people at specific times when they are engaged in an organizational routine.” Thus, routines involve both a generalized idea and a particular enactment. In this manner, they propose to rein- troduce ideas, but also agency, back into the concept of routines. To carry out a routine is not simply to “reenact” the past, but to engage with and adapt to the context in ways that require “either idiosyn- cratic or ongoing changes and reflecting on the meaning of actions for future realities” (p. 95).

As discussed in Chapter 4, routines are indispensable in carrying information residing in the tacit knowledge of actors. Such information travels by direct contact among actors occupying similar roles and engaged in closely related activities. We have already described the importance of on-the-job training for many types of work. The concept of “communities of practice” (Brown and Duguid 1991) helps to extend such learning opportunities beyond the confines of a single organiza- tion. A good part of the power and attraction of network forms of organization are the opportunities they afford organizations and their participants to acquire the “sticky” knowledge embedded in the rou- tines of other organizations—offset with the concern that there may be a “leakage” of their own proprietary knowledge to alliance partners or subsidiaries (see Oxley 1999).

4. Artifacts

As noted in Chapter 4, although artifacts—tools, equipment, and technology—appear as hard and unyielding, like activities they lend themselves to a structuration perspective. As Orlikowski (1992) detailed, artifacts in use are adapted and modified by their users. Barley (1986) notes that technologies are not determinant, but rather their introduction provides an occasion for structuration. The intro- duction of the same technology produced different effects on the practices of uses, as well as on the organization structures incorporat- ing them. Previously discussed mechanisms such as interpretation, bricolage, and translation can be applied to artifacts as well as other types of carriers.

Artifacts, like resources, contain important material aspects, but their meaning and use can vary over time and space. As Sewell (1992: 19) argues, they “embody cultural schemas whose meaning . . . is never entirely unambiguous.”

Source: Scott Richard (2013), Institutions and Organizations: Ideas, Interests, and Identities, SAGE Publications, Inc; Fourth edition.

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