Institutional theory: A Cautionary Comment

If one examines the grand march of ideas across the centuries, it is pos- sible to make a case for the regular repetition, and alternating domi- nance, of either more liberal or more conservative accounts of the human condition. Thus, for example, European intellectual circles dur- ing the 18th and 19th centuries experienced the heady period of the Enlightenment, with its celebration of Reason and Nature and Progress as the defining virtues—as espoused by such notables as Voltaire, Hume, Locke, Rousseau, and Mill. This exhilarating and optimistic moment gradually gave way (particularly after the failures of the 1848 revolutions) to a sober consideration of the limits of rational design and the impotence of mere individuals confronted with suprapersonal forces. Scholars such as Burke, Dilthey, Schleiermacher, and, most centrally, Hegel emphasized the overpowering force of History: the constellation of structures and the flow of historical processes as having a life of their own (Berlin 1956; 2006; Collingwood 1948; Dupri 2004; Robinson 1985). Such arguments became incorporated into the work of the early institutionalists—including Marx, Durkheim, Weber, and Schmoller (see Chapter 1)—who stressed the play of larger “histori- cal” forces in the affairs of man.

Fast-forwarding to 20th century organization theory, a period of relatively optimistic work on organization design and strategy by such scholars as Taylor, Galbraith, Lawrence and Lorsch, and Thompson, along with the more strategic, political perspective of resource-dependence theorists, such as Pfeffer and Salancik and Porter, gave way during the late 1970s to much more pessimistic views, crafted by ecologists and institutional theorists, of an organization’s ability to control its own destiny. These accounts variously emphasize the importance of imprinting and inertial forces or, alternatively, constitutive and embedding processes that foster increasing returns, commitments, and objectification processes that reinforce current paths of development. These arguments inevitably introduce a sense of constraint and caution to those who would attempt to intervene in or alter trajectories of change.

In short, institutional interpretations seem tailor-made to support conservative forces and voices in the social realm. As Albert Hirschman (1991), the perceptive observer of contemporary economic and political matters, has pointed out in his treatise on The Rhetoric of Reaction, con- servative critics are poised to employ a “futility thesis” that asserts that any attempt at reform is doomed to failure because of the “intractable” nature of society’s social fabric. Let me be clear. This is not a text about social reform. I am not advocating that it is our responsibility to take arms against inequities and injustice in our social structures (although some of us may choose to do so). However, we should see to it that our scholarship does not give aid and comfort to those who would seek to stifle such efforts.

To redress the imbalance, it is important that we recognize and publicize the more complex view of institutions as a double-edged sword. By stressing the role of institutions as curbing and constraining choice and action, we ignore the ways in which institutions also empower actors and enable actions. Those interested in redressing inequalities or pursuing other types of reforms can find inspiration and support from surveying and making judicious use of the variety of schemas, resources, and mechanisms that are to be found in any complex institutional field. Institutional forces can liberate as well as constrain. They can both enable and disarm the efforts of those seeking change. We must call attention to these possibilities in our scholarship.

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

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