Institutional Processes: A Revised Agenda and Framework

Davis and Marquis (2005) have suggested that the time has come to seriously consider whether the organization is the appropriate level of analysis for most of the questions we social scientists want to address and the processes we seek to understand. The view of “an organiza- tion” as a relatively independent and self-contained actor engaged in mobilizing resources to accomplish specific goals has always been more applicable to the Anglo-American scene than that of Europe or Asia, where organizations are heavily embedded in state-level or broader collective systems. And even in the United States, as global interdependence increases and new industries emerge, the notion of a stable firm conducting business in regularized ways over time seems less applicable to a wide range of economic activity. As far back as 1937, Coase noted that in a market economy we find “islands of conscious power in this ocean of unconscious cooperation like lumps of butter coagulating in a pail of buttermilk” (p. 388). And the lumps seem to be melting ever more quickly!

In a related vein, a number of social scientists are urging that we turn our attention to the study of processes rather than the study of structure—to organizing rather than organizations (Scott and Davis 2007: Ch. 14). In preceding chapters, I noted a new emphasis on structuration processes, on institutional “work” rather than institutions, and on social mechanisms. Davis and Marquis (2005) argue that attention to field-level processes may be the salvation of organization studies, sug- gesting that “an appropriate aspiration for organization theory in the early 21st century is providing a natural history of the changing institu- tions of contemporary capitalism.” While I tend to concur, I would add that others, such as social psychologists, can also usually participate in this project by examining the role of individual actors as they respond to and shape these processes. So, more broadly, this may be an appro- priate agenda for all of social science.

A number of these themes are summarized and captured by a dis- cussion of field studies and the natural environment by Hoffman and Ventresca (2002). Their detailed comments will not be reviewed here, but I think it instructive to reproduce their table “expanding” the ele- ments of field-level analysis (see Table 8.1). They celebrate the advan- tages of adopting this higher, more encompassing level of analysis, emphasize the shift from structure to process, insist on attention to the empowering as well as the constraining effects of institutions, attend to both structural and cultural elements, and recognize a larger role for power processes and strategic action.

Table 8.1 Expanding the Elements of Environmental and Field-Level Analysis

SOURCE: From Organization, Policy, and the Natural Environment: Institutional and Strategic Perspectives by Hoffman, Andrew J., and Marc J. Ventresca, editors. Copyright © 2002 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford University. All rights reserved. Used with the permission of Stanford University Press,

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

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