Early Institutional Theory in Sociology

Attention to institutions by sociologists has been more constant than that exhibited by either economists or political scientists. While there are a number of different discernible strands with their distinctive vocabularies and emphases, we also observe continuity from the early work of Spencer and Sumner through Davis to the recent work of Friedland and Alford; from Cooley, Thomas, and Blumer to Hughes and his associates, including Abbott, Becker, and Freidson; from the early efforts of Marx, Durkheim, and Weber through Parsons to DiMaggio and Powell; and from the early work on the social sources of mind and self by Mead and Schutz to the emphasis on cognitive pro- cesses and knowledge systems by Berger and Luckmann as well as Meyer and Rowan.

1. Spencer and Sumner

Without question, the most influential conception of institutions pervading mainstream sociology throughout the 20th century has its origins in the work of Herbert Spencer. Spencer (1876, 1896, 1910) viewed society as an organic system evolving through time. Adapta- tion of the system to its context was achieved via the functions of spe- cialized “organs” structured as institutional subsystems. Spencer devoted the main body of his work to a comparative study of these institutions, attempting to draw generalizations from comparing and contrasting their operation in different societies.

Spencer’s general conceptions were embraced and amplified by William Graham Sumner (1906) in his major treatise, Folkways. Teeming with ethnographic and historical materials, the book generated numer- ous hypotheses concerning the origins, persistence, and change of folkways and mores (albeit many of these have a strong biopsycho- logical basis). For Sumner, “an institution consists of a concept (idea, notion, doctrine, interest) and a structure” (p. 53). The concept defines the purposes or functions of the institution; the structure embodies the idea of the institution and furnishes the instrumentalities through which the idea is put into action. Societal evolution progresses from individual activities to folkways, to mores, to full-fledged institutions. Such institutions are “cressive”—evolving slowly through instinctive efforts over long periods of time (e.g., languages)—although institu- tions can also be “enacted”—the products of rational intention and invention (e.g., written constitutions).

Later generations of sociologists discarded the strong biological/ evolutionary analogies and functional arguments devised by Spencer and Sumner, but nevertheless recognized the centrality of institutions as a sociological focus. Thus, in his influential mid-20th century text Human Society, Kingsley Davis (1949: 71) defined institutions as “a set of interwoven folkways, mores and laws built around one or more functions,” adding that in his opinion, “the concept of institutions seems better than any other to convey the notion of segments or parts of the normative order.” Every major sociological text and curriculum of the last hundred years has reflected not only the important distinc- tion of levels (e.g., individuals, groups, communities, societies), but also the functional division of social life into spheres or arenas (e.g., kinship, stratification, politics, economics, religion) governed by vary- ing normative systems. The conception of institutions as functionally specialized arenas persists in contemporary notions of organization field or sector (DiMaggio and Powell 1983; Scott and Meyer 1983; see Chapters 3 and 8) and is strongly represented in the work of Friedland and Alford (1991), who stress the importance for social change of the existence of multiple, differentiated, and partially conflicting institu- tional spheres, each governed by distinctive “logics.”

2. Cooley, Thomas, and Blumer

Charles Horton Cooley and his followers emphasized the interde- pendence of individuals and institutions, of self and social structure. Although the great institutions—“language, government, the church, laws and customs of property and of the family”—appear to be inde- pendent and external to behavior, they are developed and preserved through interactions among individuals and exist “as a habit of mind and of action, largely unconscious because largely common to all the group. . . . The individual is always cause as well as effect of the institution” (Cooley 1902/1956: 313–314).

W.I. Thomas and Herbert Blumer were two other influential theo- rists who examined the complex and interdependent relations between social actors and action and social structure. Thomas (see Janowitz 1966) explored the relation between social organization and culture on the one hand and personality and individual behavior on the other. He emphasized, in particular, the role of interpretation: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (Thomas and Thomas 1928: 572). Blumer, influenced by the American pragmatists, developed an early form of structuration theory (see Chapter 4), in which institutions provide a framework for human conduct, but must be interpreted through the development of shared meanings—through symbolic interaction.

Cooley, Thomas, and Blumer were early leading figures in the development of empirically based research on the micro-foundations of institutional processes. Their contributions merit more attention than they have received from contemporary institutional scholars.

3. Marx, Durkheim, Weber, and Parsons

The European tradition in institutional analysis was spearheaded by Karl Marx, whose influence permeated economics and political sci- ence as well as sociology. While Marx inspired a diverse array of theo- ries and political movements, the work of primary importance to institutional theory involved his struggle with and reinterpretation of Hegel, the great German idealist philosopher. Hegel viewed history as the self-realization through time of abstract ideas or spirit (Geist). This self-creative spirit is reflected in the objective world, which most of us mistakenly take to be the true reality. It is the task of man to overcome this alienated state in which the world appears to be other than spirit (Hegel 1807/1967; Tucker 1972). Marx, famously, turned Hegel’s argu- ments upside-down.

For Marx, the materialist world is the true one, and the alienation we experience occurs because humankind is estranged from itself in existing political and economic structures. Marx, working in the early decades of the industrial revolution, saw the key realm as economic: Productive activity had been transformed into involuntary labor. Under a capitalist system, work was no longer an expression of creative productivity, but alienated labor. The nature and meaning of work and work relations were seen to be transformed by structures of oppression and exploitation. These structures—including the accompanying beliefs, norms, and power relations—are the product of human ideas and activities, but appear to be external and objective to their partici- pants. Ideas and ideologies reflect, and attempt to justify, material reality—not the other way around (Marx 1844/1972; 1845–1846/1972). Thus, in important (but historically specific) respects, Marx gave early expression to the social construction of reality.

Marx also borrowed from Hegel the idea of dialectics—the view that “conflict, antagonism, or contradiction is a necessary condition for achieving certain results” (Elster 1986: 34). The concept can be viewed as pertaining to the relation between ideas or viewed as a description of selected social conditions. Marx employed the concept in both senses, but emphasized the latter in his analysis of the conditions of social change. For example, Marx pointed to the paradox that capital- ists want to pay their workers low wages to increase their profits but want other capitalists to pay high wages to their workers to create demands for products. Such paradoxes give rise to a prisoner’s dilemma in which all capitalists lose by following their rational interest. In this and other analyses, Marx employed the idea of dialectics to analyze the unintended consequences of actors following their interests. A number of more contemporary scholars have appropriated Marxian views of dialectical processes operating in economic and political systems to help account for macro change in institutions, as we discuss in Chapter 8. More generally, Marx was the first major theorist to “highlight the broader social forces that act on and through organizations . . . [the] way the broader environment and the organization are structured by class relations and conflict” (Adler 2009: 78).

The other two major European figures engaged in establishing sociological variants of institutional analysis were Durkheim and Weber. The French sociologist Émile Durkheim was preoccupied with understanding the changing bases of social order that accompa- nied the industrial revolution, but, as previously noted, he appears to have modified his views over time. His early classic, The Division of Labor in Society (1893/1949), differentiated between the mechanical solidarity based on shared religious and cultural beliefs that inte- grated traditional societies and the newly emerging organic solidar- ity associated with an advanced division of labor. Initially, Durkheim viewed this new collective order as “based on the belief that action was rational and that order could be successfully negotiated in an individualistic way”—social order as “the unintended aggregate of individual self-interest” (Alexander 1983, Vol. 3: 131, 134). But his revised arguments led him away from an instrumentalist, individu- alist explanation to focus on collective, normative frameworks that supply “the noncontractual elements” of contract (Durkheim 1893/1949, Book 1, Chapter 7).

Durkheim’s mature formulation emphasizes the pivotal role played by symbolic systems, systems of belief and “collective representations”— shared cognitive frames and schemas—that, if not explicitly religious, have a moral or spiritual character.

There is something eternal in religion which is destined to survive all the particular symbols in which religious thought has succes- sively enveloped itself. There can be no society which does not feel the need of upholding and reaffirming at regular intervals, the collective sentiments and the collective ideas which make its unity and its personality. (Durkheim 1912/1961: 474–475)

These systems, although a product of human interaction, are expe- rienced by individuals as objective. Although subjectively formed, they become crystallized. They are, in Durkheim’s (1901/1950) terms, social facts: phenomena perceived by the individual to be both external (to that person) and coercive (backed by sanctions). And, as is the case with religious systems, ritual and ceremonies play a vital role in expressing and reinforcing belief. Rituals and ceremonies enact beliefs. They “act entirely upon the mind and upon it alone” (Durkheim 1912/1961: 420) so that to the extent that these activities have impact on situations, it is through their effects on beliefs about these situations.

These symbolic systems—systems of knowledge, belief, and “moral authority”—are for Durkheim social institutions.

Institutions, Durkheim writes, are a product of joint activity and association, the effect of which is to “fix,” to “institute” outside us certain initially subjective and individual ways of acting and judg- ing. Institutions, then, are the “crystallizations” of Durkheim’s earlier writing. (Alexander 1983, Vol. 2: 259)

The third major European figure contributing to institutional the- ory was Max Weber. As I will note in more detail in Chapter 2, more contemporary analysts of institutions lay claim to Weber as their guid- ing genius than to any other early theorist. While Weber did not explic- itly employ the concept of institution, his work is permeated with a concern for understanding the ways in which cultural rules—ranging in nature from customary mores to legally defined constitutions or rule systems—define social structures and govern social behavior, includ- ing economic structures and behavior. For example, his justly famous typology of administrative systems—traditional, charismatic, and rational-legal—represents three types of authority systems differing primarily in the kinds of belief or cultural systems that legitimate the exercise of authority (see Weber 1924/1968: 215; Bendix 1960; Dornbusch and Scott 1974: Ch. 2).

There remains much controversy as to how to characterize Weber’s theoretical stance because he stood at the crossroads of three major debates raging at the turn of the 20th century: first, that between those who viewed the social sciences as a natural science and those who argued that it was rather a cultural science (the Methodenstreit described earlier); second, between idealist arguments associated with Durkheim and the materialist emphasis of Marx; and third, between the institu- tionalist historical school of economics and the neoclassical interest in developing general theory. More so than any other figure of his time, Weber wrestled with and attempted to reconcile these apparently con- flicting ideas.

Weber argued that the social sciences differ fundamentally from the natural sciences in that, in the former but not the latter, both the researcher and the object of study attach meaning to events. For Weber (1924/1968, Vol. 1: 4), action is social “when and in so far as the acting individual attaches a subjective meaning to his behavior.” Individuals do not mechanically respond to stimuli; they first interpret them and then determine their response. Researchers cannot expect to under- stand social behavior without taking into account the meanings that mediate social action. Weber employed his interpretive approach to attempt a synthesis in which both the material conditions and interests stressed by materialists (such as Marx) and the idealist values (emphasized by Durkheim) combined to motivate and guide action (see Alexander 1983, Vol. 2; see also Chapters 3 and 9).

In developing his Wirtschaftssoziologie (economic sociology), Weber embraced the institutionalist arguments that economics needs to be historically informed and comparative in its approach, but at the same time he sided with Menger and the classicists in supporting the value of theoretical models that allowed one to abstract from specific, his- torically embedded systems to formulate and evaluate general argu- ments. Weber believed that economic sociology could bridge the chasm by attending to both historical circumstance and the development of analytic theory (Swedberg 1991; 1998). Weber suggested that by abstracting from the specificity and complexity of concrete events, researchers could create “ideal types” to guide and inform comparative studies. If researchers were careful not to mistake the ideal types for reality (e.g., that individuals under all conditions would behave as rational “economic men”), such models could provide useful maps to guide analysis and increase understanding of the real world (Weber, 1904–1918/1949). More precisely, “Weber views rational behavior as evolving historically, or, to phrase it differently, to Weber—unlike to today’s economists—rational behavior is a variable, not an assump- tion” (Swedberg 1998: 36). Weber recognized that there was not one, but several variants of rationality—some (Zweckrationalität) primarily concerned with means-ends considerations, some (Wertrationalität) focusing more on the centrality of the end or ultimate value, and still others focusing on a belief in the importance of maintaining traditional structures (Clegg and Lounsbury 2009; Du Gay 2009; Kalberg 1980).

His insights paved the way for the construction of more recent formu- lations emphasizing the extent to which all sectors and their constitu- ent organizations contain multiple, competing conceptions of rational behavior—varying institutional logics.

The American sociologist Talcott Parsons attempted to synthesize the arguments of major early theorists—in particular, Durkheim, Weber, and Freud—in constructing his voluntaristic theory of action (see Parsons 1937; 1951). Parsons was the most influential social theo- rist in sociology throughout the middle of the 20th century, although he is much less in vogue today.2 Like Weber, he attempted to reconcile a subjective and an objective approach to social action by emphasizing that whereas normative frameworks existed independently of a given social actor, analysts needed to take into account the orientation of actors to them. A system of action was said to be institutionalized to the extent that actors in an ongoing relation oriented their actions to a com- mon set of normative standards and value patterns. As such a normative system becomes internalized; “conformity with it becomes a need- disposition in the actor’s own personality structure” (Parsons 1951: 37). In this sense, institutionalized action is motivated by moral rather than by instrumental concerns: “The primary motive for obedience to an institutional norm lies in the moral authority it exercises over the indi- vidual” (Parsons 1934/1990: 326). The actor conforms because of his or her belief in a value standard, not out of expediency or self-interest.

Viewed more objectively, from the standpoint of the social analyst, institutions are appropriately seen as a system of norms that “regulate the relations of individuals to each other,” that define “what the rela- tions of individuals ought to be” (Parsons 1934/1990: 327). Also, implicitly following the lead of Spencer and Sumner, Parsons devel- oped his own abstract typology of norms oriented to the solution of the four generic problems of social systems: adaptation, goal attainment, integration, and latency (maintenance of cultural patterns) (see Parsons 1951; Parsons, Bales, and Shils 1953).

Contemporary theorists note several kinds of limitations with Par- sons’ formulation. Alexander (1983, Vol. 4: 242) concludes that although Parsons attempted to develop a multidimensional view of social action, his conception of institutionalization put too much weight on cultural patterns, overemphasizing the “control exerted by values over conditions.” The importance of interests and of instrumental action and rational choice was underemphasized. DiMaggio and Powell (1991) praise Parsons for the contribution he made to the microfounda- tions of institutional theory in his attempt to understand the ways in which culture influences behavior. But they complain that his conception of culture failed to stress its existence as “an object of orientation exist- ing outside the individual” (p. 17). Instead, following Freud, Parsons viewed culture as acting primarily as “an internalized element of the personality system” (p. 17)—thus giving too much weight to a subjec- tive in contrast to objective view. Additionally, they argue that Parsons’ analysis of culture neglected its cognitive dimensions in favor of its evaluative components: Culture was limited to “value-orientations” (DiMaggio and Powell 1991: 17). Each of these emphases drew Parsons away from examining the interplay of the instrumental and the norma- tive in social action.

4. Mead, Schutz, Bourdieu, Berger and Luckmann

George Herbert Mead, like Cooley, emphasized the interdepen- dence of self and society but gave particular attention to the role played by symbolic systems in creating both the human and the social. Mean- ing is created in interaction as gestures, particularly vocal gestures (language), call out the same response in self as in other; and self arises in interaction as an individual “takes on the attitudes of the other” in arriving at a self-conception (Mead 1934).

Working at about the same time as Mead, but in Vienna, Alfred Schutz also examined in detail the ways in which common meanings are constructed through interaction by individuals. However, Schutz (1932/1967: 139) also explored the wider “structure of the social world,” noting the great variety of social relations in which we become involved. In addition to intimate, face-to-face, “Thou” relations, and “We” relations with persons thought to be similar to ourselves, we engage in multiple “They” relations with others known only indirectly and impersonally. Such relations are only possible to the extent that we develop an ideal type conception that enables us to deal with these others as needed, for example, to mail a letter or to stand beside them in an elevator. These relations are based upon typifications of the other and taken-for-granted assumptions as to the way the interaction will proceed. In this sense, the meanings are highly institutionalized (Schutz 1932/1967).

Moving closer to the present, the French scholar Pierre Bourdieu (1971; 1973) endeavored to combine the insights of Marx and Durkheim by examining the ways in which class interests express themselves in symbolic struggles: the power of some groups to impose their knowl- edge frameworks and conceptions of social reality on others. Bourdieu’s work reached and began to influence organizational scholars about a decade later (see DiMaggio 1979). In particular, Bourdieu’s concept of field (a social arena), was usefully appropriated by DiMaggio and Powell (1983) to better situate the locus of institutional processes shaping organizations (see Chapters 2 and 8).

Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, working in the United States, also provide a critical link between earlier work and that of later orga- nizational scholars. Influenced by the work of Mead, but even more by that of Schutz,3 Berger and Luckmann (1967: 15) redirected the sociol- ogy of knowledge away from its earlier concerns with epistemological issues or a focus on intellectual history to more mainstream sociological concerns, insisting that “the sociology of knowledge must concern itself with everything that passes for ‘knowledge’ in society.” The concern is not with the validity of this knowledge, but with its production, with “the social creation of reality” (p. 15). Berger and Luckmann argue that social reality is a human construction, a product of social interaction. They underscore this position in their attention to language (systems of symbols) and cognition mediated by social processes as crucial to the ways in which actions are produced, repeated, and come to evoke sta- ble, similar meanings in self and other. They define this process as one of institutionalization. In contrast to Durkheim and Parsons, Berger and Luckmann emphasize the creation of shared knowledge and belief sys- tems rather than the production of rules and norms. Cognitive frame-works are stressed over normative systems. A focus on the centrality of cognitive systems forms the foundation for the sociological version of the new institutionalism in organizations (see Chapter 2).

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

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