Crafting an Analytic Framework: Agency and Institutions

Throughout the history of social science, there has existed a tension between those theorists who emphasize structural and cultural con- straints on action and those who emphasize the ability of individual actors to “make a difference” in the flow of events. This is a version of the ancient antinomy between freedom and control. Obviously, the thrust of institutional theory is to privilege continuity and constraint in social structure, but that need not preclude attention to the ways in which individual actors take action to create, maintain, and transform institutions.

Early neoinstitutional scholars, such as Meyer and Rowan (1977), DiMaggio and Powell (1983), and Meyer and Scott (1983b), empha- sized the ways in which institutional mechanisms constrained organi- zational structures and activities. However, more recent work, which I review in subsequent chapters—including that of DiMaggio (1988, 1991), Oliver (1991), and Christensen, Karnøe, Pedersen, and Dobbin (1997)—gives more attention to the ways in which both individuals and organizations innovate, act strategically, and contribute to institu- tional change.

Many theoretical frameworks treat freedom and constraint as opposing ideas, requiring us to “take sides”—to privilege one social value or the other. Fortunately, recent developments in sociological theory allow us to see the two thrusts as interrelated, compatible pro- cesses. In particular, the work of Anthony Giddens (1979, 1984) on “structuration” provides a productive framework for examining the interplay between these forces.

Although structuration is a rather infelicitous word, the term, coined by Giddens, reminds us that social structure involves the patterning of social activities and relations through time and across space. Social structures only exist as patterned social activities, incor- porating rules, relations, and resources reproduced over time. Giddens (1984: 25) envisioned what he termed the “duality of social structure,” recognizing it to be both product and platform of social action. Social structures exhibit a dual role in that they are “both the medium and the outcome of the practices they recursively organize” (p. 25). Individual actors carry out practices that are simultaneously constrained (in some directions) and empowered (in others) by the existing social structure. In Giddens’ (1984: 21) model, social structures are made up of rules— “generalized procedures applied in the enactment/reproduction of social life”—and resources, both human and nonhuman, “that can be used to enhance or maintain power” (Sewell 1992: 9). Institutions are those types of social structures that involve more strongly held rules supported by stronger relations and more entrenched resources. Insti- tutional practices are “those deeply embedded in time and space” (Giddens 1984: 13).

Structuration theory views actors as creating and following rules and utilizing resources as they engage in the ongoing production and reproduction of social structures. Actors are viewed as knowledgeable and reflexive, capable of understanding and taking account of everyday situations and routinely monitoring the results of their own and others’ actions. Agency refers to an actor’s ability to have some effect on the social world—altering the rules, relational ties, or distribution of resources. The presence of agency presumes a nondeterminant, “volun- taristic” theory of action: “to be able to ‘act otherwise’ means being able to intervene in the world, or to refrain from such intervention, with the effect of influencing a specific process or state of affairs” (Giddens 1984: 14). Agency provides for a consideration of the role of power in institutional processes.4

The basic theoretical premise underlying the concept of agency is strongly aligned with the phenomenological assumptions that under- gird sociological versions of neoinstitutional thought. Between the context and response is the interpreting actor. Agency resides in “the interpretive processes whereby choices are imagined, evaluated, and contingently reconstructed by actors in ongoing dialogue with unfold- ing situations” (Emirbayer and Mische 1998: 966).

Structuration theory joins with numerous other theoretical argu- ments to support a more proactive role for individual and organiza- tional actors, and a more interactive and reciprocal view of institutional processes. For example, to view behavior as oriented toward and governed by rules need not imply either that behavior is “unreasoned” or automatic. March and Olsen (1989) point out that rules must be both selected—often more than one rule may be applicable—and interpreted— adapted to the demands of the particular situation. Weick (1969/1979; 1995) emphasized that understandings and scripts emerge out of actions as well as precede them, and that collective symbols are as likely to be used to justify past behaviors as to guide current ones. As noted in Chapter 3, newer versions of culture theory view individuals as playing an active part, using existing rules and social resources as a repertory of possibilities for constructing strategies of action. Analysts have posited a “politics of identity,” in which individuals or organized groups create goals, identities, and solidarities that provide meaning and generate ongoing social commitments (Aronowitz 1992; Calhoun 1991; Somers and Gibson 1994). They increasingly recognize the extent to which organizational participants do not always conform to conven- tional patterns, but respond variably, sometimes creating new ways of acting and organizing and being.

A collection of more recent scholars, while embracing the struc- turation framework, assert that too much attention has been accorded by institutionalists to the processes by which institutions guide and govern actors and not enough to the ways in which actors and their actions affect institutions. One approach to redirecting attention to this “second moment” of structuration suggests that renewed emphasis be given to “institutional work” that “highlights the awareness, skill and reflexivity of individual and collective actors” as they strive, variously, to create, maintain, or disrupt institutions (Lawrence and Suddaby 2006: 219; see also Lawrence, Suddaby, and Leca 2009). A focus on insti- tutional creation has led some to revive DiMaggio’s (1988) concept of “institutional entrepreneurship” as usefully stressing the ways in which some actors are able to mobilize resources to realize interests which they value (see Maguire, Hardy, and Lawrence 2004; see also Chapter 5). Attention to maintenance reminds us that the reproduction of institutions is never automatic—deinstitutionalization processes are often observed (Oliver 1992)—so that work is required for institutions to persist. A focus on institutional disruption has been fueled by the arrival of social movement theorists who have fruitfully comingled with institutionalists to examine the ways in which suppressed or margin- alized interests and players mobilize resources to effect institutional change (Davis, McAdam, Scott, and Zald 2005). These and other examples of institutional work are discussed in subsequent chapters.

All actors, both individual and collective, possess some degree of agency, but the amount of agency varies greatly among actors as well as among types of social structures. Agency itself is socially and insti- tutionally structured.

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

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