The Maturation of Institutional Theory and Research

More than 25 years ago, I wrote an article titled “The Adolescence of Institutional Theory” (Scott 1987). In reexamining that article, I think it accurately portrayed, even more than I realized, the undeveloped state of theoretical development of the field at that time, while also recogniz- ing its promise and potential. Taking stock now, I believe it is possible to point to indicators of substantial progress. During the past few decades, we have moved

  • from looser to tighter conceptualizations of institutions and their distinctive features

As reviewed in Chapter 1, early formulations about institutions and their effects were literally “all over the map.” I believe that by focusing on a few key elements and examining the distinctive mecha- nisms associated with their operation, we have arrived at a more coher- ent conception of the phenomena of interest. Institutional forces are recognized to be complex and diverse in their makeup and modes of acting, but identifiable in their manifestation and measurable in their behavior and effects.

  • from determinant to interactive arguments

Early formulations saw institutions as being monolithic and uni- form in their features and determinant in their consequences. Research- ers sought evidence of institutional effects on organizational forms and structures. More recent work recognizes that the institutional environ- ments of many organization fields are fragmented and conflicted; because organizations have varying attributes and occupy different positions within the field, institutional effects are far from uniform. In addition, organizations viewed early as passive victims of institutional pressures are increasingly recognized to exercise varying degrees of agency, responding in diverse ways, ranging from abject conformity to outright defiance. Much attention has shifted from a focus on structure to attention to institutional work.

  • from assertions to evidence

Early institutionalists, and I was among them, often simply asserted the existence of institutional effects. Thus, in our early study of U.S. public schools, my colleagues and I (Meyer, Scott, Strang, and Creighton 1988) assembled data over a 40-year period to substantiate increased uniformity of structure. We demonstrated empirically that this evidence of increased structuration was not a consequence of heightened centralization of funding, concluding instead that the changes reflected “the expansion and imposition of standard models” of organizing (p. 166). However, no data were adduced to validate this claim.

Over time, though, as I have tried to demonstrate, institutional researchers have devised imaginative and appropriate ways of testing their arguments. Our study designs and measures are far from perfect, but signs of progress are apparent in contrasting recent with earlier studies.

  • from organization-centric to field-level approaches

The earliest organizational studies focused almost exclusive atten- tion on the inner workings of organizations and the behavior of their participants (for a review, see Scott and Davis 2007). When the impor- tance of the environment first became apparent to scholars, during the 1960s, substantial work followed, which adopted an organization- centric perspective—viewing the environment from the vantage point of a single focal organization. The organization’s exchanges and strate- gies became the focus on interest. With the development of organiza- tional ecology and institutional approaches, however, analysis shifted to higher levels, to organizational populations and fields. Attention shifted from the organization in an environment to the organization of the environment. I tried to describe in Chapter 8, and I elaborate below, why I believe the organization field level to be an especially appropri- ate venue for the application and testing of institutional arguments.

An interest in more macro approaches has not supplanted, but been supplemented by work at more micro levels. As I have noted, some of the more fruitful designs are those that attend to the interde- pendence and interaction of actors and forces at multiple levels— individual, organization, population, and field. Studies of top-down structuration processes, together with equal attention to bottom-up processes, have illuminated important facets of organizational life.

  • from institutional stability to institutional change

Institutions, by definition, connote stability and change; therefore, it is not surprising that early scholars and researchers focused primarily on settled institutions to observe their effects on organizations. It was not long, however, before organizational researchers began to examine the social processes by which institutional frameworks come into being and by what means the more successful of them became more widely dif- fused and accepted. Studies attending to construction and convergent change processes were joined, during the 1990s, by new research exam- ining processes of conflict and contention and of divergent change. This latter work was both inspired and infused by parallel studies by social movement scholars; over time, each of these two camps has stimulated and enriched the work of the other.

  • from institutions as irrational influences to institutions as frame- works for rational action

A good many early formulations carried the implicit assumption that institutions undercut rational decisions and actions. Terms such as myth, ceremonial, and superficial conformity all smacked of subterfuge or skullduggery. Many organizational scholars dismissed institutionalists as dealing with superficial aspects of nonserious organizations. Although I believe this was a misreading of some of the early founding texts, it is an interpretation that has been hard to combat and eradicate. For me, the concept of institution provides a way of examining the complex interdependence of nonrational and rational elements that together comprise any social situation. Values, beliefs, and interests,2 along with information, habits, and feelings, are critical ingredients of social behavior. Which of us would claim that all our decisions repre- sent “rational” choices? Of course, organizations were thought to be different from ordinary, less disciplined social actors like you and me. As discussed in Chapter 4, the kinds of ideas that gave rise to organi- zational forms are those that can be formulated as “rule-like principles” that give rise to “means-ends chains”—the basis for rationalized systems. However, as noted, rationalization is a broad tent. These for-mulations vary enormously in their empirical foundation.

The subtitle of DiMaggio and Powell’s (1983) seminal article was “Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organiza- tional Fields.” Much attention has been lavished on the first idea, “institutional isomorphism” (see Chapter 7), but far less on the second. Nevertheless, the second idea is the more powerful, and it is the reason that I am so enamored of the possibilities offered by the field level of analysis. As I have tried to argue, it is at the field level where organiza- tions in interaction construct their “collective rationality.” It is at this level that one can most readily comprehend the construction of socially constructed frameworks of beliefs, rules, and norms—where we can observe contentious processes involving the participation of various types of actors with varying levels of understanding and influence, and always under the watchful eye and, sometimes, the active intervention of the state. If one looks across the myriad fields that comprise a modern society—banking, manufacturing, mental health, education— one finds multiple worlds of collectively rationalized action, each different from the other. Each defines different interests; each is peopled with actors bearing distinctive identities.

Even within the same field, if one looks across societies, it is to observe the same activities being carried out in diverse, rational ways. This truth is graphically documented in Frank Dobbin’s (1994b) com- parative study of the building of the railroad industry in the United States, England, and France during the 19th century. Dobbin details the divergent models of organizing, funding, and state involvement that emerged due to what he terms the diverse “political cultures”—I would call them societal and field institutional frameworks—at work in these countries. The institutions in each country constructed an arena of rational action within which individual and collective actors pursued their interests in diverse competitive and cooperative ways as guided by their cognitive frames and cultural assumptions. We observe collective rationality at work.

Progress in a given realm of social inquiry takes many forms, including theoretical elaboration and clarification, broadened scope of application of the ideas, improvement in empirical indications, and strengthened methodological tools. Another type of progress is signi- fied by a growing set of connections intellectually linking the area of study with related fields—in the case of institutional scholarship— with work in organizational ecology, law and society, social move- ments, technology and society, and cultural sociology. Although there is not cause for complacency, there is much to celebrate in the recent history of our field.

Some observers skeptically wonder whether recent developments in institutional theory may have overly extended the scope of the enterprise (see, e.g., Palmer, Biggart, and Dick 2008). Is there a signifi- cant danger that institutional theory will become too broad, too encompassing? Have we staked out too wide a theoretical and empir- ical domain? Perhaps, but I doubt it. It is true that the range of concepts we employ is large (but the fact is that institutions are complex social systems) and that the levels of analysis to which they are applicable seems boundless. But no one study attempts to comprehend all mean- ings and levels in a single design. We have devised a rich tool kit of concepts and methods from which scholars may choose as they approach selected problems of interest. Rather than being apprehen- sive about the direction of our work, I am continually impressed and emboldened by the imagination of my colleagues and the sophistica- tion of their research designs and analytic methods. The fecundity of recent contributions to the field lays to rest any doubts raised in my mind by the skeptics.

However, there is a concern that accompanies one of the major approaches used to construct new theoretical arguments.

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *