Key Components of Organization Fields

While it is possible to identify the presence of regulative, normative, and cultural-cognitive elements at work in all organization fields, for empirical purposes it is helpful to focus attention on a number of key components that vary among fields.

1. Institutional Logics

As discussed in Chapter 4 and elsewhere in this volume, institu- tional logics call attention to shared conceptual frameworks that pro- vide guidelines for the behavior of field participants (Friedland and Alford 1991; Thornton et al. 2012). They comprise both normative and cultural-cognitive elements. Some of these logics provide the basis for field construction, allowing a “shared understanding of what is going on in the field,” while other more limited logics offer different and competing cognitive frames for subsets of participants in varying field locations (Fligstein and McAdam 2012: 10–11). Moreover, as Friedland and Alford (1991) first emphasized, multiple frameworks are available within developed societies, which are differentiated around numerous specialized arenas—political, political, economic, religious, kinship, and so on—and each is governed by a different logic. Organizations, working at a meso level within these arenas, are hence confronted by, and have available to them, multiple often con- tradictory logics:

Some of the most important struggles between groups, organiza- tions, and classes are over the appropriate relationships between institutions, and by which institutional logic different activities are to be regulated and to which categories of persons they apply. Is access to housing and health to be regulated by the market or by the state? Are families, churches, or states to control education? Should reproduction be regulated by state, family, or church? (Friedland and Alford 1991: 256)

Thus, institutional logics vary in their content—the nature of beliefs and assumptions—but also in their penetration or “vertical depth” (Krasner, 1988). For example, Fligstein (2001a: 32) distinguishes between “general societal understandings about how to organize firms or markets . . . and specific understandings about how a particular market works.” Institutional logics also vary in their breadth or extent of horizontal linkage (Krasner, 1988). One of the most significant pre- dictors of institutional stability and influence is the extent to which it is compatible with or complementary to related institutional arrange- ments (Hall and Soskice 2001a: 17). Finally, institutional logics within a field vary in terms of their exclusiveness or, conversely, the extent to which they are contested (Scott 1994a: 211).

Another concept that has proven helpful in examining cultural- cognitive systems is that of cultural frame. Goffman (1974: 21) first employed the concept to refer to “schemata of interpretation” that enable individuals “to locate, perceive, identify, and label” events occurring to them in ways that establish their meaning. The concept was employed after modification by David Snow and colleagues, who eschewed the noun for the verb, emphasizing framing processes in order to better inform social movement theory (Benford and Snow, 2000; Snow, Rochford, Worden, and Benford 1986). As Benford and Snow (2000) note, “This denotes an active, processual phenomenon that implies agency and contention at the level of reality construction. It is active in the sense that something is being done, and processual in the sense of a dynamic, evolving process” (p. 614).

The concept of framing has proved to be useful to social movement theorists who realized that much of the work of activist and reform groups involves a “reframing” of issues and problems in ways that illuminate injustice or identify possible ways forward (McAdam 1996; Zald 1996). In short order, also, the concept was embraced by organiza- tional and institutional scholars.

In their study of the recycling industry, Lounsbury, Ventresca, and Hirsch (2003) describe the contest waged between two competing visions—“field-level frames”—for managing solid waste. Favored dur- ing the 1970s was the waste-to-energy (W-T-E) model that involves capturing usable energy from the burning of trash. This approach cre- ated opposition among environmental activities who promoted an alternative frame that favored recycling—the collection and breaking down of materials such as paper and glass that can be remanufactured into consumer products. The recycling view remained marginal until it was repackaged from a volunteer model into a for-profit model sup- ported by federal, state, and local legislation to resist the building of incinerators and encourage recycling efforts. Lounsbury and col- leagues prefer the concept of framing to that of institutional logic because, for them, the latter is “conceptualized as exogenous to actors,” whereas the former emphasizes “the more active struggles over mean- ings and resources” occurring among actors in the field (p. 72). The researchers tracked changes in discourse reflected in the meetings of the Solid Waste Association of North America and its trade magazine as well as archival sources such as Congressional hearings and to obtain cognitive representation of how key industry issues were thought about and discussed. In addition, multiple interviews were conducted with a variety of field actors. Attention to cultural frames stresses “the interweaving of structures of meaning and resources as well as their wider cultural and political context” (Hoffman and Ventresca 1999).

Frames can unify as well as divide. In closely related work, Beamish and Biggart (2012) employ the term social heuristic to refer to an interpretative frame and decision making model that embodies col- lectively held understandings that provide a socially defensible foun- dation for actors’ decisions. They studied the emergence of a social heuristic within the commercial construction industry that led devel- opers, financiers, construction firms, contractors, and regulators to embrace a “default design” reflecting shared standards and guidelines for developing a commercial building. While this heuristic greatly sim- plifies decision making and reduces transaction costs among all par- ties, it framed these buildings as conservative financial investments and inhibited the consideration of innovative practices that could lead to improved energy efficiency, enhanced aesthetics, or improvements in building design.

Another useful concept linking culture and social structure was first introduced into the analysis of social movements by Charles Tilly. Tilly (1978: 143) was among the first to point out that even apparently “disorganized” and disruptive behaviors were likely to take on “well- defined forms already familiar to the participants,” including collective actions such as strikes, rallies, and demonstrations. Moreover “given the innumerable ways in which people could, in principle, deploy their resources in pursuit of common ends . . . at any point in time, the reper- toire of collective actions available to a population is surprisingly lim- ited” (p. 151). If such an observation holds for social movements, which tend to operate under less structured conditions, think how much more applicable it is to the world of everyday organizations operating in settled fields. As Hoffman (1997) observes:

The institutional environment, in large part, defines the range of the organizational reality. In setting strategy and structure, firms may choose action from a repertoire of possible options. But the range of that repertoire is bound by the rules, norms, and beliefs of the organizational field. (p. 148)

Clemens (1996; 1997) connects the idea of repertoires of collective action to that of organizational archetype (see Chapter 5 and below). She suggests that any field contains a limited repertoire of organiza- tional forms that themselves contain a limited set of culturally defined tools (Swidler 1986) or repertoires of collective action. Clemens also suggests ways in which social movement organizations participate in inducing institutional change, work I review in a later section.

Concepts such as institutional logics, organizational archetypes, framing processes, and repertoires of collective action help us better understand the ways in which cultural-cognitive models act both to constrain and to empower social action. By providing clear templates for organizing—whether designing structures, strategies, or procedures— institutional forms constrain actors from selecting (or even considering) alternative forms and modes, on the one hand, but, on the other, pro- vide essential support for actors carrying on the selected activities in the guise of comprehensibility, acceptability, and legitimacy.

2. Actors

A great variety of actors people social landscapes. Although they (we) are biological creatures, they (we) are also social constructions, possessing institutionally defined identities including capacities, rights, and responsibilities. The institutional elements at work are primarily cultural-cognitive, especially in their constitutive capacity, and norma- tive. The types of actors include (1) individuals (e.g., in the health care sector, a specific doctor), (2) associations of individuals (e.g., the American Medical Association), (3) populations of individuals (e.g., patients, physicians, nurses), (4) organizations (e.g., the Stanford University hospital), (5) associations of organizations (e.g., multi- hospital systems), and (6) populations of organizations (e.g., hospitals or nursing homes; Scott, Ruef, Mendel, and Caronna 2000).

In a typical organization field, one expects to observe a delimited number of models, both for individual actors (roles) and for collective actors (archetypes). As described in Chapter 5, Greenwood and Hinings’ (1993) concept of organization archetype provides a useful mode of char- acterizing the ways in which a given interpretive scheme or conceptual model is embodied within organizational structure and its operating systems. Of course, the extent to which organizational activities correspond with the model is always a matter for empirical investiga- tion, but archetypes provide templates around which rules, adminis- trative systems, and accounts of activities can be structured. Following the lead of population ecologists as well as “configurational” argu- ments (Van de Ven and Drazin, 1985), Greenwood and Hinings (1993: 1058) propose that field-level pressures will encourage organizations to utilize structures and systems that manifest a single underlying inter- preting scheme, and that, once adopted, organizations tend to retain the same archetypes.2

Attention to the power of organizational archetypes underlines the importance of the constitutive properties of cultural-cognitive elements: their capacity in the guise of typifications, scripts, or conceptions of agency to provide the forms and “categories and understanding that enable us to engage in economic and social action” (Dacin, Ventresca, and Beal 1999: 329; see also DiMaggio 1994: 35). And as emphasized in previous chapters, both individual and collective actors serve as the creator and carrier of institutional elements, including logics as well as ways of thinking and working.

Following Bourdieu (1986), actors control and compete for capital, including various forms of economic, social, and cultural resources. What is valued depends on the way in which the field is constructed. Indeed, “a capital does not exist and function except in relation to a field” (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992: 101). Fligstein and McAdam (2011: 13) emphasize this conception of fields as competitive arenas, insisting that the most important distinction involving actors to be made by field analysts is that between incumbents—those actors in control of the most important types of capital—and challengers—those actors with relatively little influence but “awaiting new opportunities to challenge the struc- ture and logic of the system.” This conception emphasizes the need to take into account the role of peripheral, subjugated actors who may come together in coalitions, as well as less inchoate social movements struggling to mobilize around a collective action project.

Most fields include a limited variety of organizational forms (pop- ulations) that constitute the primary modes of producer organizations (e.g., various types of provider organizations in the health care sector, colleges in higher education), along with those different, supporting organizations that supply essential resources, including funding and exercise controls. In addition, it is important not to overlook the critical role played in most fields by a variety of intermediary organizations and occupations, for example, stock analysts in markets or such infor- mation brokers as librarians, computer scientists, and rating agencies. For example, Wedlin (2006) examines the surprisingly influential role recently played by media organizations such as the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal in structuring the international field of management education with their rankings of business schools. These rankings helped to shape the status structure of these programs and to assist in constructing distinctions around which schools shaped their identities, for example, the amount of emphasis placed on academic versus busi- ness capital, or the boundary drawn between a European versus an American model (the former more likely to be independent, the latter, inside or tied to a university). Wedlin (2006: 170) argues that “the rank- ings are not just reflections of the field; they are also part of creating the field and the boundaries of the field . . . [helping to shape] both mental and social structures.”

Another example of the importance of intermediaries is provided by research conducted by Jooste and me (Jooste and Scott 2011) in our study of private-public partnerships engaged in infrastructure con- struction projects. Because such partnerships represent new ways of working for many governmental agencies, they need assistance in creating capacity to negotiate and manage the complex contracts involved. While some of these skills may be available in or added to the public bureaucracy, we observed that in many situations, these skills were lodged in external organizations that emerge to participate in what we term an “enabling field” of project participants. Such organi- zations include public and nonpublic regulators, transaction advisors, advocacy associations, and local, regional, and multinational develop- ment agencies.

When we talk about the changing “structure” of a field, we refer not only to more regularized patterns of interaction among the main players, but also to growth in the number and importance of organizations whose principal function is to oversee, steer, and mediate the transactions among the primary players. (Jooste and Scott 2011: 389)

3. Relational Systems

DiMaggio and Powell’s (1983) original conception focused much attention on the relational systems linking organizations into larger networks. Similar to DiMaggio and Powell, Meyer and I (Scott and Meyer 1983) stressed relational or structural features at the field (or sector) level, as discussed in Chapter 7. And in a related fashion, in his discussion of business systems, Whitley (1992b) examines the extent of specialization within firms, whether market ties are characterized by arms-length or more relational contracting, and variety of authority and coordination mechanisms at the system level. More so than other organizational scholars at the time, in his examination of corporate systems at the societal level, Fligstein (1991: 314), like Bourdieu, stressed the centrality of power and control processes—“the ability of a given organization or set of organizations to capture or direct the actions of the field.” For Fligstein (1990: Ch. 1), the relevant relations for large corporations are (1) those involving other, similar organiza- tions and (2) those with the nation-state, which is in a position to ratify settlements or modify the terms of competition. Other scholars, such as Podolny (1993) and Washington and Zajac (2005), highlight the role of status processes, as more or less prestigious actors work to shape the directions of field development.

An important subset of relational systems are the governance sys- tems that operate at the field level. Governance systems are “those arrangements which support the regularized control—whether by regimes created by mutual agreement, by legitimate hierarchical authority or by non-legitimate coercive means—of the actions of one set of actors by another” (Scott et al. 2000: 21). Each organization field is characterized by a somewhat distinctive governance system com- posed of a combination of public and private actors employing a combination of regulatory and normative controls over activities and actors within the field. Among the common actors exercising these functions are public regulatory bodies, trade associations, unions, professional associations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and judicial systems. For a sampling of empirical studies of field governance systems, see Brunsson and Jacobsson’s (2000) examination of standard-setting by professional associations, Campbell and colleagues’ study of the governance of economic sectors (Campbell, Hollingsworth, and Lindberg 1991; Campbell and Lindberg 1990; 1991), Djelic and Quack’s (2003b) and Djelic and Sahlin-Andersson’s (2006) collection of studies of transnational regulatory systems, Holm’s (1995) study of Norwegian fishing regimes, and our study of the changing governance systems controlling health care delivery organizations in the United States (Scott et al. 2000).

4. Organization Field Boundaries

Like all social systems, organization fields are, by nature, open systems. This means that any attempt to determine their boundaries must involve some combination of science and art. As noted, field boundaries must be empirically determined, but because social systems comprise many ingredients, analysts must choose from among a vari- ety of indicators (Scott and Davis 2007: 152–155). These include a focus on actors (e.g., membership boundaries), on activities (e.g., identifying common repertories), on relations (e.g., interaction networks), or on cultural markers (e.g., shared normative frameworks, cultural beliefs, contentious issues). Laumann, Marsden, and Prensky (1983: 21) also identify two approaches to boundary construction: a “realist” approach that adopts the “vantage point of the actors themselves in defining the boundaries” of the system versus a “nominalist” approach in which the investigator “imposes a conceptual framework constructed to serve his own analytic purposes.” Moreover, in addition, both spatial and temporal boundaries must be established.

Spatial Boundaries

Actors are located in specific spaces, and for many years space was conceived primarily in geographical dimensions—in terms of propin- quity. For many kinds of activities, being physically close, operating in the same locality, remains an important consideration. Indeed, analysts have recently emphasized the continuing importance of co-location for understanding organizational functioning (Marquis, Lounsbury, and Greenwood 2011). Nevertheless, a part of the genius of the field concept is its recognition of the significance of relational and cultural connec- tions, regardless of how distant. For many contemporary organizations, nonlocal ties are more fateful than proximate ones, for example, the relation between local firms and their headquarters office or between companies and state or federal agencies.

The drawing of boundaries is always a somewhat arbitrary process in our highly interconnected social worlds, but the boundaries selected need to serve the analytic focus of the study: What is the primary ques- tion being addressed? Sometimes, boundaries are misspecified. McAdam provided an instructive example of this problem when he returned some years later to examine his analysis of the U.S. civil rights movement (McAdam and Scott 2005). He notes that his initial study of the factors leading to the success of this effort focused exclusively on domestic change processes, discounting the importance of the role played by the Cold War (McAdam 1982). Subsequent work by Dudziak (1988), McAdam (1999), and others stressed the role of competition with the Soviet Union in prompting President Truman and other fed- eral officials to embrace civil rights reforms. A full understanding of this movement called for attention to international as well as domestic relations and meanings.

The variety and flexibility of spatial field boundaries can be illus- trated with two examples. As noted earlier, Fligstein (1990; 1991) stud- ied changes in the structure of the 100 largest nonfinancial corporations in the United States from the period 1920 to 1980. He began with the more conventional view of a field as demarcated by product or service markets, but during the period of study, organizations began to diver- sify, entering into multiple markets. Fligstein argues that, over time, the field boundaries of these firms shifted so that the largest corporations increasingly operated in a field comprising other actors like themselves. Fligstein hence constructed his sample of the 100 largest corporations during each decade, even though the composition of this sample changed over time. An important part of his analysis was to ascertain whether the changes observed were due to the changing composition of the top 100 or to the structural adaptations made by the largest corpora- tions. (More details on this study are provided in the next section.)

A second example of setting field boundaries is provided by the research my colleagues and I have conducted on global infrastructure construction projects (Scott, Levitt, and Orr 2011). For some of these studies, we conceptualized three interrelated fields:

  1. the field of global infrastructure players, comprising a finite collec- tion of multinational corporations that constitute the major players in these projects, a small number of law firms special- izing in international construction, a set of key bankers and developers, multilateral agencies such as the World Bank that provide both funding and oversight, and a variety of profes- sional associations and NGOs that help to set standards and safeguard environmental and human rights
  2. the organization field of the host community for a specific project at the time the project commences, including the specific project company and affiliates; relevant government organizations, possibly at local, regional, and state levels; individuals and organizations residing in the project area; social movement organizations with environmental or human rights concerns; and potential benefi- ciaries and end-users of the facility being constructed
  3. the new organization field created by the existence and development of the project, including the project company as it has developed over time, the other types of players included in field 2 as they have changed in response to the developing project, and a set of entirely new players who have arisen in either support of or opposition to the ongoing projects (Scott 2011).

In short, global projects operate at a scale sufficiently large that they always disrupt and may transform the organization fields they enter (see Khagram 2004). It is because such projects are so intrusive and activate new sources of support and resistance that so many of them fail to be successful, in either financial or operational terms. A consideration of the state of a field before and after some event leads naturally to the topic of temporal boundaries.

Temporal Boundaries

Particularly as students of institutional systems have shifted their primary attention from organizational and institutional structures to examine the nature of organizational and institutional change, inves- tigators have been confronted with decisions regarding the appropri- ate time frame within which to cast their study. Campbell (2004: Ch. 2) provides a helpful discussion of factors affecting this choice, including the differing rhythms exhibited by processes, theoretical orientation, level of analysis, pragmatic methodological consider- ations (e.g., availability of appropriate data), and attention to critical events affecting the process. I would hazard two generalizations about recent research on organization fields: (1) the most interesting and informative studies of the past several decades of organizations and institutions have been those employing a longitudinal perspec- tive, and (2) too many of these studies suffer from designs whose time periods are too short to enable one to adequately comprehend the processes at work. This failure is especially damaging to scholars interested in assessing the causes and consequences of changes in normative and cultural-cognitive elements. As Roland (2004) reminds us, some institutional elements, such as administrative directives or policy prescriptions (regulative elements), are “fast-moving,” while others, such as conventions, routines, habits, and logics (normative and cultural-cognitive elements), are “slow-moving,” unfolding over several years or decades, if not centuries.

Paul Pierson (2004: Ch. 3) provides an illuminating discussion of various types of slow-moving causal processes. He begins by differen- tiating between the time horizons of causes and of outcomes. Some types of causes, such as conditions leading to a revolution, may take place over very long periods; similarly, some types of outcomes, such as state-building, may go on for extended periods. He differentiates between three types of slow-moving causal processes: (1) cumulative causes, involving the long-term build-up of incremental changes; (2) threshold effects—processes that have modest effects until they reach some critical level; and (3) causal chains, in which the particular sequence of development has a strong effect on the outcomes observed. Pierson provides less detail regarding varieties of slow-moving out- comes, but it seems obvious that these are particularly likely to occur in highly institutionalized arenas because of the entrenched nature of many of these arrangements. Work by Greenwood and Hinings (1996) provides some help. They point out that the rate of institutional change is affected by (1) the extent to which a given institutional field is tightly coupled with related fields—the more tightly coupled, the slower the change—and (2) variations in internal organizational dynamics—the more that some subset of actors who have access to power are advan- taged by change, the more rapidly changes will occur.

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

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