Crafting an Analytic Framework: Varying Carriers

Institutions, whether regulative, normative, or cultural-cognitive elements are stressed, are conveyed by various types of vehicles or “carriers” (Jepperson 1991: 150). I identify four types: symbolic systems, relational systems, activities, and artifacts.5 These distinctions are largely orthog- onal to the three pillars, permitting us to cross-classify them (see Table 4.1). Theorists vary not only in which elements they favor, but in which carriers they emphasize, just as institutional frameworks differ in which elements are central and what type of carriers are utilized. It is readily apparent that carriers are important in considering the ways in which institutions change, whether in convergent or divergent ways. They point to a set of fundamental mechanisms that allow us to account for how ideas move through space and time, who or what is transport- ing them, and how they may be transformed by their journey.

A substantial literature exists that deals with the subject of carri- ers, but it is illusive because it is associated with a variety of labels, including diffusion of innovation, technology transfer, organizational learning, adoption of reforms, intermediaries, management fads and fashions, and processes of modernization. An emerging theme recog- nized by observers across all of these areas is that carriers are never neutral modes of transmission, but affect the nature of the message and the ways in which it is received. Thus, although analysts often employ what Reddy (1979) termed “conduit metaphors,” such as delivering and circulating messages, how a message arrives affects its interpretation and reception. Thus, it makes a difference, as Abernethy (2000) details in his survey of European colonization efforts in Africa, whether Western ideas arrived in the guise of missionaries seeking to make converts, merchants looking for trading partners, or armies bent on the acquisition of booty and territorial conquest.

Table 4.1 Institutional Pillars and Carriers

As ideas and artifacts move from time to time and place to place, they are altered, modified, combined with other ideas or objects, translated, and transformed (Czarniawska and Joerges 1996). In Sahlin-Andersson’s (1996: 82) terms, they are edited: “The models are told and retold in vari- ous situations and told differently in each situation.” Editing occurs because of differences in context, differences in logics or rationale, and differences in formulation or framing (Sahlin and Wedlin 2008). How and how much models are edited varies, however, by the type of carrier. The entries in Table 4.1 describe the content of the message—what is being transported. Carriers emphasize the features of the medium.

Note also that the entries in Table 4.1 do not refer to the simple transmission of an idea, a practice or an artifact. As Colyvas and Jonsson (2011: 28) point out, we should not conflate simple diffusion with insti- tutionalization. Diffusion concerns itself with “spreading, or how things flow” whereas institutionalization is concerned with “stickiness, or how things become permanent.” It is possible for materials to flow and for practices to be widespread that are not regarded as institution- ally supported (e.g., fads, fashions, tastes), and for practices that are not prevalent to be legitimate (e.g., hiring in firms is supposed to be based on neutral and universalistic criteria but more often involves insider knowledge or favoritism). To address this issue, the typology proposed here emphasizes not only that materials and practices flow across boundaries of time and space, but so also do rules, norms, and beliefs. In short, the carriers we emphasize are those bearing institu- tional elements, not simply objects or activities.

1. Symbolic Carriers

As noted in Chapter 2, most recent students of culture treat it as a semiotic system: as collections of symbols. For institutionalists, the symbols of interest include the full range of rules, values and norms, classifications, representations, frames, schemas, prototypes, and scripts used to guide behavior. As the entries in Table 4.1 suggest, which aspects of symbolic systems are emphasized vary depending on which elements of institutions are accorded prominence. Cognitive theorists stress the importance of common categories, distinctions, and typifications as shaping perceptions and interpretations; normative theorists accent shared values and normative expectations that guide behavior; and regulative theorists point to the role played by conven- tions, rules, and laws.

The emergence of language as a human capacity greatly facilitated the transmission of symbols over time and place. As discussed in Chapter 2, spoken language provided the foundation for localized mythic cultures, but the power and mobility of words advanced immeasurably with the creation of a theoretic culture involving written language and its externalization in various media ranging from books to digital information. In his admirable survey of media and empire, economic historian Harold Innis (1972; 1995) described differences between reliance on an oral tradition versus all forms of writing:

Introduction of the alphabet meant a concern with sound rather than with sight or with the ear rather than the eye. Empires had been built up on communication based on sight in contrast with [the more geographically restricted] Greek political organization which emphasized oral discussion. (1995: p. 332)

With the invention of writing, the nature of medium employed to carry the words greatly affected transmission possibilities. Innis (1995: 325) observed how writing on stone or clay, for example, functioned to preserve knowledge over time, whereas writing on papyrus or paper was better suited to transport ideas across space. The appearance of the printing press opened up the possibility of mass dissemination of iden- tical texts. Anderson (1983: 44–45) argues that the use of print languages created unified fields of exchange and communication employing languages “below Latin and above the spoken vernaculars” and the convergence of “capitalism and print technology” provided the basis for the systematic construction of nationalism.

Shifting to the present era, developments in information/ communication technology have played a powerful role in broadcasting images and ideas worldwide, increasing the size of markets, length- ening supply chains by connecting and transforming organizations, and generally moving us more completely into a global economy and more interdependent political community. As Appadurai (1996) observed, the cinema and TV place a premium on the image, whereas the computer, cell phone, and texting privilege the word; however, the Internet can accommodate both in transcending distance. Myths, stories, songs, and images have long provided a repertory of models for living, but today’s global media provides a richer mix of imagined possibilities: “More persons in more parts of the world consider a wider set of possible lives than they ever did before” (Appadurai 1996: 53). At the same time that new ideas arrive, however, they are translated, fused, and blended with local knowledge in a process termed indigenization or glocalization. Schemas are “transposable”: “They can be applied to a wide and not fully predictable range of cases outside the context in which they are initially learned” (Sewell 1992: 17). Symbols are transportable, versatile, and malleable.

2. Relational Carriers

Institutions can also be carried by relational systems. Such sys- tems are carriers that rely on patterned interactions connected to net- works of social positions: role systems. Flows of immigrants bring new ideas, modes of behavior, and relational commitments across societal boundaries. Many robust relational systems transcend and intersect with the boundaries of organizations, as is the case with occupational and professional connections and communities of practice (Brown and Duguid 2000).

Rules and belief systems are coded into positional distinctions and roles; relational systems incorporate—instantiate—institutional elements. As with symbolic systems, some relational arrangements are widely shared across many organizations, creating structural isomorphism (similar forms) or structural equivalence (similar relations among forms). Other forms may be distinctive to a particular organization, embodying localized belief systems and creating a unique organizational “character structure” (Selznick 1957) or “identity” (Albert and Whetten 1985).

Which aspects of relational structures are emphasized depends on which elements of institutions are featured. Cognitive theorists stress structural models. Classifications and typifications are often coded into organizational structures as differentiated departments and roles. For example, codified knowledge systems support the development of differentiated academic departments in universities. Normative and regulatory theorists are apt to view relational systems as “governance systems,” emphasizing either the normative (authority) or the coercive (power) aspects of these structures. Such governance systems are viewed as creating and enforcing codes, norms, and rules, and as monitoring and sanctioning the activities of participants. Social psycholo- gists such as Strauss (1978) examined the construction of “negotiated orders” in specific settings. The new institutional economists, such as Williamson, emphasize relational systems erected to exercise gover- nance as the principal carriers of institutional forces.

A more complex and consequential role of relational systems for institutional structures and processes is suggested by Powell and colleagues (Owen-Smith and Powell 2008; Powell, Koput, and Smith- Doerr 1996; Powell, White, Koput, and Owen-Smith 2005). These inves- tigators have examined the emergence of the biotechnology field in several locations in the United States with its evolving structure of rela- tions among small biotech companies, large corporations, U.S. institutes of health, venture capital firms, and universities. The connections among and the relative centrality of these players have changed over time as the field has gradually gained coherence and relations solidified. They argue that in such cases networks and institutions are “co-constituted,” that actors possessing different kinds of capital and driven by different logics find ways to gradually make sense of their world, resolve ambiguities, and develop mutually reinforcing modes of interacting (Owen-Smith and Powell 2008; see also Chapter 8). Institutional categories and norms shape, and are shaped by, shifting relational systems.

3. Activities as Carriers

As discussed in Chapter 1, early economic institutionalists such as Veblen and Commons, borrowing from the American pragmatist tradi- tion early in the 20th century, emphasized the importance of habit, routine, and convention in social behavior. These scholars stressed the centrality of behavior, of social action. Cohen (2007; 2009) suggests that a momentous shift in organization studies occurred with the decision by Herbert Simon (1945/1997: 1) to shift primary attention from action, “getting things done,” to decision making, “the choice that prefaces all action.” With this choice, Simon turned his back on the pragmatist tradition of John Dewey and others, who had emphasized the central- ity of action, including habit and routine, instead privileging cognition. (In spite of this turn, as we discussed, in his later work with March, Simon recognized the importance of “performance programs” for codifying rational recipes for acting.) As for neoinstitutional theorists, as we have emphasized, much contemporary institutional theory privileges symbols and beliefs over social behavior. Indeed, scholars such as John Meyer assume that institutionalization frequently involves changes in rules and formal structures (symbolic and relational systems) that have little effect on—are decoupled from—participant actions (Drori, Meyer, and Hwang 2006; Meyer and Rowan 1977).

Although dominant intellectual currents in organization studies from the 1950s on were at work to privilege symbols over behavior and structure over action, counter trends developed that have grown stron- ger and more insistent over time. These include, in rough time order- ing, the work of social psychologists like Strauss (Strauss, Schatzman, Bucher, Erlich, and Sabshin 1964), with his focus on “negotiated order”; Weick (1969/1979), with his attention to “organizing” (as opposed to “organization”); Silverman (1971), with his preference for “action” over “systems” accounts of organization; Giddens (1979), with his work on “structuration” as an alternative to “structure”; evolutionary economists Nelson and Winter (1982), with their emphasis on “rou- tines”; Bourdieu’s (1977) work on “practices”; Barney’s (1991) resource- based theory, with its attention to “capabilities”; and Lawrence and Suddaby’s (2006) focus on “institutional work.”

While earlier work on activities connected to organizations and institutions placed most emphasis on repetitive actions—habits and routines—that provided a basis for order and continuity, more recent work, partly under the influence of social movement theorists, has insisted that institutional scholars should also take into account actions that construct new institutions or disrupt existing ones. Movement theorists have been less interested in how institutions persist than in the processes by which they are disrupted and overturned, giving way to new institutional forms—the processes of insurgency, contentious action, and mobilization (e.g., McAdam, McCarthy, and Zald 1996; McCarthy and Zald 1977; Tilly 1978). On reflection, in effect, it appears that for many years organization/institutional theorists and movement scholars have been attending to different moments of the same process (McAdam and Scott 2005: 8–14).

Considering activities in relation to the three pillars, it is obvious that, for the regulative pillar, attention must be focused on the monitor- ing and sanctioning behavior of “principals,” on the one hand, and on compliance/deviance responses of “agents” on the other. As discussed in Chapter 3, high costs are associated with oversight, and the choices made in what activities to monitor can have a significant influence on the effectiveness of control systems as well as which aspects of perfor- mance agents attend to. But it also happens that the agents can have their own agenda and can seek to evade or even disrupt the rule sys- tems and authorities in place. (I discuss in Chapter 7 a wider array of possible responses to institutional pressures.)

Activities associated with the normative pillar include all the ways in which social action is structured in institutional settings, including, most important, roles, generally, and jobs, more specifically. Also, as emphasized by early economic institutionalists, institutions may be embodied in—carried by—structured activities in the form of habitual- ized behavior and routines. Routines are carriers that rely on patterned actions that reflect the tacit knowledge of actors—deeply ingrained habits and procedures based on unarticulated knowledge and beliefs. Rather than privileging symbolic systems, many early institutionalists, such as Veblen, viewed habitualized action, routines, standard operat- ing procedures, and similar patterned activities as the central features of institutions.

Later, March and Simon (1958) identified repetitive “performance programs” as the central ingredient accounting for the reliability of organizations. More recently, evolutionary theorists, such as Nelson and Winter (1982), have emphasized the stabilizing role played by participants’ skills and organizational routines: activities involving little or no conscious choice and behavior governed by tacit knowl- edge and skills of which the actor may be unaware. Viewing routines as the “genes” of organizations, Winter (1990: 274–275) points out that they range from “hard”—activities encoded into technologies—to “soft”—organizational routines such as airplane inspection or fast-food procedures—but all involve “repetitive patterns of activity.” These patterns include a broad range of behaviors, extending from standard operating procedures and skill sets of individual employees to “orga- nizational activity bundles such as jobs, assembly lines, airline reser- vations systems, accounting principles or rules of war” (Miner 1991: 773). Such routines involve more than acquiring a “system of rules or representations”; they entail the “learning of modes of acting and problem-solving” (Hanks 1991: 20). These types of skills underlie much of the stability of organizational behavior—accounting for both their reliable performance as well as their rigidities.

Routines are typically learned within, and sustained and renewed by, relational systems. Experiential learning and on-the-job training often take place in situations allowing novices to engage in what Lave and Wenger (1991) term “legitimate peripheral participation”:

By this we mean to draw attention to the point that learners inevitably participate in communities of practitioners and that the mastery of knowledge and skill requires newcomers to move toward full participation in the sociocultural practices of a community. (p. 29)

The fact that they are learned in and sustained by a community means that routines are not readily transportable to new and different settings involving new actors and relationships. Routines tend to be more “sticky” and less easily carried across settings, but they are transportable.

In related work, Clemens (1997: 39) borrows from social movement scholars the concept of “repertoire” to refer to the “set of distinctive forms of action employed by or known to members of a particular group or society.” She argues that specific forms of organizations are associated with distinctive repertoires of activity providing “templates, scripts, recipes, or models for social interaction” (p. 49). These reper- toires act to facilitate collective action as collections of actors know what they are to do while their counterparts know what to expect from them.

4. Artifacts as Carriers

Anthropologists have long recognized the importance of “material culture” or artifacts created by human ingenuity to assist in the perfor- mance of various tasks. We adopt Suchman’s (2003: 98) definition: “An artifact is a discrete material object, consciously produced or trans- formed by human activity, under the influence of the physical and/or cultural environment.” Early forms were often as primitive as shaped rocks and sticks, but more recent artifacts include complex technolo- gies embodied in both hardware and software. Organizational students of technology earlier treated these features as a unidirectional and deterministic influence impacting organizational structure and behav- ior (see, e.g., Blau, Falbe, McKinley, and Tracy 1976; Woodward 1958). Later theorists reacted by emphasizing the socially constructed nature of technology and the extent to which its effects are mediated by situ- ational factors and interpretive processes (Bijker, Hughes, and Pinch 1987). In any case, the most important characteristic of artifacts is that they “all embody both technical and symbolic elements” (Suchman 2003: 99; see also Gagliardi 1990).

Orlikowski (1992) usefully proposed that artifacts and technology can be examined within the same theoretical framework devised by Giddens (1984) to accommodate social structure and human agency. Viewing artifacts as an instance of structuration allows analysts to rec- ognize that such inventions are products of human action, but also that, “once developed and deployed,” they become reified and appear “to be part of the objective, structural properties” of the situation (Orlikowski 1992: 406). This perspective is often obscured from partici- pants and analysts because the actors and actions that create the new instruments may be removed in time and space from those that employ them to accomplish work. Analysts focusing on artifact creation are better able to see the multiple possibilities: the path selected versus the “roads not taken”; analysts focusing on artifact use see primarily the constraints imposed by the design selected on those who employ it. Although such differences do exist, they should not obscure the extent to which users interact with and modify the meaning and use of arti- facts. Orlikowski (1992) observes:

While we can expect a greater engagement of human agents during the initial development of a technology, this does not discount the ongoing potential for users to change it (physically and socially) throughout their interaction with it. In using a technology, users interpret, appropriate, and manipulate it in various ways. (p. 408)

Barley (1986) provides an instructive empirical study of the adop- tion of “identical” technologies (CT scanners) by radiological depart- ments in two community hospitals, examining the ways and extent to which the technologies were associated with somewhat divergent changes in the decision making and power structure of the departments (see Chapter 8).

Artifacts, like other carriers, can be viewed as associated with, and affected by, each of the three pillars. The design and construction of some artifacts and technologies is mandated by regulative authorities often in the interests of safety. Modern societies contain a wide range of agencies— ranging from those that attempt to ensure the reliability of atomic plants to those that set performance and safety standards for commercial air- craft and passenger cars—which oversee product quality. Social contracts, existing in the shadow if not the substance of law, can be examined as social artifacts, as Suchman (2003) demonstrated. Technolo- gies are also shaped by and embody normative processes. Trade and industrial groups often convene to set standards for a wide range of machines and technical equipment, as discussed previously. Such agree- ments serve to ensure compatibility and can create added value for participants to the extent that many players adopt the standard (Katz and Shapiro 1985). Artifacts can embody and represent particular con- stellations of ideas. Indeed, the symbolic freight of some objects can outweigh their material essence (e.g., the significance of the bread and wine in the communion service or the goal posts in the football match).

These arguments and distinctions suggest some of the many ways in which organizations are deeply embedded in institutional contexts. A given organization is supported and constrained by institutional forces. Also, a given organization incorporates a multitude of institu- tionalized features in the form of symbolic systems, relational systems, activities, and artifacts within their own boundaries. Hence, it is appro- priate to speak of the extent to which organizational components or features are institutionalized. These views are shared by all or the great majority of institutional theorists. That subset endorsing a cultural- cognitive perspective adds an additional, even more fateful, assertion: The very concept of an organization as a special-purpose, instrumental entity is a product of institutional processes—constitutive processes that define the capacities of collective actors, both generally and as specialized subtypes. This version of institutional theory, in particular, tends to subvert or undermine the conventional distinction between organization and environment. Organizations are penetrated by envi- ronments in ways not envisioned by many theoretical models.

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

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