Institutional theory: A Brief Sermon

Some of us may prefer to go even further in advancing the cause of insti- tutional analysis. A productive model for doing so has been provided by the lifelong work of Philip Selznick. His work has been discussed in previous chapters, but few organization theorists have followed it beyond its early phases, in particular his study of the Tennessee Valley Authority (Selznick 1949) and his treatise on institutional leadership (Selznick 1957; see Chapter 2). Although as noted, the early thrust of his efforts appeared to focus on the “dark side” of organizations—the forces undermining their original mission—in fact, a close reading of his writ- ings throughout his long career reveals that his work “reflects a peculiar combination of pessimism and optimism, realism and romanticism, resignation and hopefulness” (Kraatz 2009: 66). Krygier (2002; 2012) suggests that Selznick was a “Hobbesian idealist,” deeply aware of the pathologies that can plague social organizations and institutions, and yet insisting that our task as analysts and involved participants is to seek and enact measures to strengthen their integrity.

The social sciences are defined by “the values at stake in human expe- rience” (Selznick 1992: xiii). As Weber has long insisted and as I have suggested in the discussion of organization fields and institutional logics, social life is organized into meaningful spheres by the values being upheld and pursued (Friedland 2012). “Each subdiscipline is governed by implicit notions of personal or institutional well-being, which may take the form of economic rationality, administrative rationality, demo- cratic government, cultural integrity, or effective socialization” (Selznick 1992: xiii). Selznick (1980: 215) proposes the development of a “norma- tive theory of social science” that is “not the pursuit of one’s ‘own thing’”; rather, “it is the study of values in the world and the conditions under which they are fulfilled or frustrated.” Employing a medical metaphor, Selznick (1992: 120) insists: “The larger objective of the study of human nature is to discover what personal well-being consists of, what it depends on, and what undermines it.” Krygier (2002: 24) adds: “This is so whether one is studying persons, institutions, or groups.”

Selznick’s work is rooted deeply in American pragmatist philoso- phy, drawing particularly on the work of John Dewey (Selznick 1992: Ch. 1). In this sense, my sermon suggesting that we take seriously Selznick’s approach has secular roots. The message has taken on new salience in a time when worldwide developments dispose us to distrust our institutions (Heclo 2008: Ch. 2; Lipset and Schneider 1987). Evidence of social dysfunction accumulates: the loss of legitimacy and respect for political bodies and public agencies, whether national, state of local; the misdeeds of financial institutions and accounting agencies; corpo- rate corruption; scandals within religious bodies; and the breakdown of family and community structures.

If we examine the bulk of scholarship amassed by institutional theorists over the past half-century, I think it is accurate to say that this work tells us far more about how and why contemporary organi- zations and institutions fail to work than it does about what might be done to strengthen them.3 Kraatz (2009) is even more critical, suggest- ing that the overall effects of the institutional perspective have been to “delegitimate power, to expose hidden forms of domination, and to reveal fragmentation and hypocrisy in the actions of organiza- tions and their elites. It says very little about how to govern, reform, or productively improve any given existing   social   institution” (pp. 85–86). He suggests that institutional scholars attend more to the institutional work required to design and defend organizational structures, attending carefully to the critical importance of “mundane administrative systems” that preserve “precarious organizational values” (Kraatz, Ventresca, and Deng 2010: 1521). And Heclo (2002: 296) argues that, following Selznick’s example, we “ought to think through the problem of maintaining ideals amid grubby organizational realities.” Both are, I think, correct that our organizations require thoughtful care and feeding. But if this volume has taught us anything, it is that organizations are subsystems of wider systems. Institutional work is required at not only micro but also macro levels—in subgroups, organizations, organization fields, and societal systems—if values of importance to human life are to be preserved and advanced.

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

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