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Reflections on Institutional
Theories of Organizations
John W. Meyer

Contemporary institutional theorizing in the And within sociological versions, I concen-

field of organizations dates back thirty-odd trate on phenomenological theories. These
years. This particularly describes what are reflect my own interests, are continuing loci
called new or neo-institutionalisms. These of research creativity, and contrast most
terms evoke contrasts with earlier theories of sharply with other lines of social scientific
the embeddedness of organizations in social theorizing about organizations. In practice,
and cultural contexts, now retrospectively ‘organizations’ tends to be both a research
called the ‘old institutionalism’ (Hirsch & field, and a realist ideology about modern
Lounsbury, 1997; Stinchcombe, 1997). They society: phenomenological thinking steps
went through a period of inattention, so that back from that commitment, and is useful in
when institutional thinking came back in analyzing, for example, why so much formal
force after the 1960s, it seemed quite new. organization exists in the modern world
Institutional theories, as they emerged in (Drori, Meyer,& Hwang, 2006).
the 1970s, received much attention in the
field, along with other lines of thought
emphasizing the dependence of modern
organizations on their environments. Perhaps BACKGROUND
surprisingly, they continue to receive atten-
tion, and seem to retain substantial measures Throughout most of the post-Enlightenment
of vigor. One secondary aim, here, is to history of the social sciences, notions that
explain why. human activity is highly embedded in institu-
I primarily review the status and prospects tional contexts were central. Individuals were
of the principal themes of institutional theory. seen as creatures of habit (Camic, 1986),
I concentrate on sociological institutionalism, groups as controlled by customs (famously,
as capturing core ideas in their most dramatic Bagehot’s cake of custom or Spencer’s folk-
form, rather than the limited arguments ways and mores), and societies as organized
emphasized in economics or political science. around culture.
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The nature of the institutions and their con- older institutional theories tended to crum-
trols over activity, in social scientific thinking, ble. Studies of persons no longer attended to
was never clear and consensual. Theories notions of habits (Camic, 1986), and con-
ranged from economic to political to cepts of culture and custom as driving forces
religious. And they variously emphasized receded. If the old institutions remained, they
more cultural forms of control or more remained as dispositional properties of the
organizational ones. Then, as now, anything actors involved – tastes and values of individ-
beyond the behavior of the people under study uals, core values of states and societies.
could be seen as representing a controlling The key concept in the new system was the
institutionalized pattern (a strikingly clear def- notion of the ‘actor’ – variously, individual
initional discussion is in Jepperson, 1991). persons, national states, and the organiza-
Over the long history of social scientific tions created by persons and states. Society
thinking through the mid-twentieth century, was produced by these powerful entities. It
institutional theories grew and improved. was made up exclusively of actors, and even
Sophisticated syntheses like Parsons’ were pro- the rapidly disappearing peasants could be
duced, with many variations on broad evolu- analyzed as individual actors. Social change
tionary schemes and typologies, as high was a product of such actors: thus the contin-
Modernity progressed. But they came into uing use of an individualistic version of
dialectical conflict with another aspect of the Weber’s Protestant Ethic thesis as a proof
same Modernity. As ‘men’ came to believe they text for proper social analysis (e.g., Coleman,
understood the institutional bases of human 1986; Jepperson & Meyer, 2007). And all
activity, they also came to believe they could this had a normative cast – social institutions
rise above, and control, them – no longer sub- that restricted the development and choices
ject to, but playing the parts of, the now-dead of real social actors could be seen as ineffi-
cultural gods. Embeddedness in culture and cient at the least, and perhaps as destructive
history was a property of the superstitious past, of freedom and progress.
over which the Moderns had triumphed. So The new models remain in force, and it is
institutional thinking could survive in anthro- now conventional in social science publica-
pology and about primitive societies (including tions to refer to ‘actors’ rather than people and
earlier Western history), but only tenuously in groups. But over time there have been doubts
the social sciences of Modernity (Meyer, 1988). about models of society and the world as
In short, the old institutionalisms were made up of interested actors, and only of
driven into marginality by the rise of (often actors. Too many studies of individual persons
policy-oriented and scientistic – see Toulmin, showed astounding levels of embedded non-
1990) conceptions of social life as made up actorhood in what were supposed to be politi-
of purposive, bounded, fairly rational, and cal, economic, and cultural choices.
rather free actors. Society was discovered, A whole literature on organization in actual
headed by the sovereign state as its central social life showed the overwhelming impor-
actor, freed by the constitution of Westphalia. tance of uncertainty in organizational
The human person as individual actor was (non)decisions (Cyert & March, 1992) and of
discovered, unleashed by markets, democ- the informal resolutions involved in practice
racy, property rights, and religious freedom. (Dalton, 1959; and many others): formalistic
And rationalized social life, made up of or technicist analyses (e.g. Perrow, 1970; Blau
bureaucracies essentially delegated from the & Shoenherr, 1971) seemed much too limited.
state (as in Weber or Fayol) or associations And notions of rational sovereign nation-state
built up by individual actors (as in Barnard), action as driving development did not stand up
was discovered and celebrated. against the realities of chaotic Third World
In the new schemes, built around notions nation-states, and the surrealities of the First
of society as made up of empowered actors, and Second Worlds’ Cold War.
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So since the 1970s, in every social science called ‘path dependence.’ So that individuals
field except anthropology (where older institu- or organizations, faced with a new problem,
tionalisms had never receded), ‘new’ institu- use their accustomed older solutions whether
tionalist theorizing appeared, with models or not these ever worked or can reasonably be
again envisioning people and groups as expected to work (see the various essays by
embedded in larger structures and cultures of March and his colleagues, 1988).
one sort or another Jepperson 2002 for a review. In the present essay, we leave aside this
There have been as many different varieties as line of institutional theory, and concentrate
in the ‘old’ institutionalisms, but they all have only on lines of argument locating institu-
had one main element in common. They all tionalized forces in wider environments than
have come to terms with one or another ver- the history of the actor itself. These tend to
sion of the idea that society is made up of inter- fall on a broad continuum ranging from more
ested purposive, and often rational actors. realist theories to more phenomenological
If the old institutionalisms had seen people ones. After reviewing this range of argu-
and groups as rather naturally embedded in ments, we turn to focus more intensively on
broad cultural and structural contexts, the new the phenomenological side of the spectrum,
institutionalisms incorporate a tension in the which is of special interest here, the locus of
conceptualized actor–environment relation. the most distinctive advances in the field, and
This is often seen as a stress between structure an important contribution to a field which
(i.e., the environment) and agency or actorhood tends to merge theory and realist ideology in
(see e.g., Giddens, 1984; or Sewell, 1992), in ways that are often unexciting.
replication of the debates in the old institution-
alism about free will and determinism.
The new institutionalisms see the social
Realist institutionalisms
environment as affecting the behaviors and
practices and ideas of people and groups now Some institutionalist lines of thought, arising
conceived as bounded, purposive and sover- particularly in economics and political sci-
eign actors. Many different lines of thought ence, retain very strong notions of society as
are involved, varying in their conception of made up of bounded, purposive, sovereign,
what an actor is, and what properties of and rational actors. In economics, these
which environments are relevant. might be individuals or organizations, oper-
ating in market-like environments. In politi-
cal science, they might be sovereign
national-states operating in an almost anar-
TYPES OF INSTITUTIONAL THEORY chic environment. Institutionalism, in such
schemes, involves the idea that some funda-
Most institutional theories see local actors – mental institutional principle must be in
whether individuals, organizations, or place before systems of such actors can
national states – as affected by institutions effectively operate. The classic core principle
built up in much wider environments. required in economic versions is property
Individuals and organizations are affected by rights (North & Thomas, 1973). In interna-
societal institutions, and national-states by a tional relations theory it is the principle of
world society. In this chapter, we focus on nation-state sovereignty (Krasner, 1999).
these lines of theory. Once the core principle is in place, sys-
But it can be noted that some other lines of tems of actors freed from further institutional
thought treat modern actors as affected by the influences are thought to function stably and
institutionalization built into their own histo- effectively over time. Indeed, further institu-
ries. Older ideas about habit, custom, and cul- tional interventions in the market or interna-
ture are resurrected as theories of what is now tional polity are thought, in extreme versions
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of these traditions, to be counter-productive the institutional context of actorhood, and a

disturbances of rationality. There is a ten- conception of the modern actor as rather more
dency to see the situation as one of punctu- penetrable. The institutions have cultural or
ated equilibrium. Collective history operates discursive dimensions, and also structural or
briefly, creating the crucial change, and then organizational ones. The key term describing
stable equilibria ensue. So there are accounts institutionalized culture, here, is ‘norm,’ espe-
of the unique circumstances producing the cially common in political science (see for
construction of property rights in Western extended examples, Katzenstein, 1996). The
history. And there are discussions of the sim- key notions of institutionalized organization,
ilarly unique circumstances producing the especially utilized in sociology, are ‘relation’
magic of Westphalia, thought to undergird or ‘network’ (Granovetter, 1985).
the rise to world dominance of the Western A norm is a rule with some degree of bind-
nation-state system. ing authority over actors – for instance, in
Extreme realist institutionalism, thus, international relations, the principle that a state
retains very strong assumptions about the should not kill the diplomats representing
capacities of actors, and very limited pictures other states; or the proscription of chemical
of the institutional environment. The envi- weapons in war. In the most realist theories, a
ronment really contains only one narrow norm is created by the actors involved, and has
institutional rule – and in most versions it is binding power over an actor only inasmuch as
a rule created by the actors themselves, that actor continues to support it. In less realist
whose existence and character are seen as versions, norms may have been created by
entirely prior to the institutional regime. forces in the past, and may have binding power
Over time, realist institutionalism has whether or not present actors support them. In
tended to become a good deal less extreme, these latter accounts, norms are internalized by
and more realistic (see e.g., North, 1981). To actors through some sort of socialization
property rights, the economists add a variety of process: thus, in a compromised realism,
other important institutions needed to make the actors are partly creatures of the rules, not only
modern system go (Jepperson & Meyer, 2007). creators of them.
A variety of institutions must to reproduce and Similarly, a network relation between
socialize the population, for instance, and a actors is a simple form of organizational
knowledge system is required to encourage institutionalization. Such relations are
technical improvements (Mokyr, 1992). And thought to constrain actors, as well as pro-
perhaps even some cultural supports for entre- vide opportunities for their activities. In the
preneurship are needed (Landes, 1998). most realist versions, actors create their net-
Similarly, realist political scientists add institu- works: in less realist models, the networks
tional elements necessary to make the world are more institutionalized, have prior
political system work: guarantees of agree- histories and external determinants and thus
ments, and trust, for example. In political sci- generate considerable path dependence.
ence realism, as well as in economics,
however, the institutions thought to be required
are also mainly thought to be products of the Sociological institutionalism I:
interested activity of the basic actors involved. social organizational versions
Moving further away from realist models, we
come to some core ideas of modern sociolog-
Compromises with realism
ical institutionalism (see DiMaggio & Powell,
Moving away from more extreme realist 1983; Powell & DiMaggio, 1991; Scott, 2001;
thinking, much modern social science is built Jepperson, 2002; Hasse & Kruecken, 2005).
up around more complex pictures of Here, actors are substantially empowered and
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controlled by institutional contexts, and these spective in which the actors of modern soci-
contexts go far beyond a few norms or net- ety are seen, not simply as influenced by the
work structures. Further, these contexts are by wider environment, but as constructed in and
no means simply constructions built up by the by it (see Jepperson, 2002 for a review).
contemporary actors themselves, but rather Related ideas in political science are called
are likely to have prior and exogenous histori- ‘constructivism.’ Rationalized organizations
cal origins. as actors are creatures of rationalized envi-
Institutions, in these conceptions are pack- ronments (Meyer & Rowan, 1977; Meyer &
ages or programs of an expanded sort. Scott, 1983; see also Zucker, 1977). The indi-
‘Regimes’ is a term employed in political sci- vidual as actor is a continually expanding
ence for the idea—organizational packages construction of modernity (Meyer, 1986, fol-
infused with cultural meaning (often from lowing on a long discussion in the literature,
professions as “epistemic communities”).. including Berger, Berger, & Kellner, 1973).
So one can refer to a neo-liberal regime in the The nation-state as actor is a construction of
contemporary world. Or an anti-trust pro- a world polity (Meyer, 1980; Thomas,
gram in earlier America (Fligstein, 1990). Meyer, Ramirez, & Boli, 1987; Meyer, Boli,
Sociologists capture this idea by referring to Thomas, & Ramirez, 1997).
societal sectors, or social fields, or arenas of The concept of ‘actor,’ in this scheme, is far
action. Institutions, in these senses, are com- removed from that envisioned in realist per-
plex and often coherent mixtures of cultural spectives. The realists imagine that people are
and organizational material. really bounded and purposive and sovereign
Similarly, the institutions involved pene- actors, and that nation-states are too. And so
trate actors in multiple and complex ways, are the organizations deriving from these. The
ranging from more realist formats to more sociological institutionalists, on the other
phenomenological ones. DiMaggio and hand, suppose that actorhood is a role or iden-
Powell (1983) provide a list that is much uti- tity, as in a theatrical world (Frank and Meyer
lized (see Scott 2001, for a related one). On 2002): individual actors, in this usage, have
the realist side, they argue that institutional socially conferred rights and responsibilities,
structures affect actors through what they and socially conferred agency to represent
call ‘coercive’ processes, including nation- these (and other) interests (Meyer &
state legal actions. On the middle ground, Jepperson, 2000). Actorhood, in this usage, is
they envision ‘normative’ controls of envi- scripted by institutional structures; and the
ronments over actors, emphasizing the influ- relation between actor and action is no longer
ence of professionalized standards. And then, a simple causal one – both elements have
moving to a more phenomenological per- institutional scripts behind them, and their
spective, they suppose that environments relation has, causally speaking, strong ele-
create standards that actors adopt ‘mimeti- ments of socially constructed tautology. That
cally,’ reflecting taken-for-granted standards. is, the actor–action relation is a package, and
At this point, actors are not really well- as people and groups enter into particular
bounded entities any more, but may be built forms of actorhood, the appropriate actions
up of cultural and organizational materials come along and are not usefully to be seen as
from their environments. choices and decisions. Institutional theories,
thus, do not depend on particularly elaborate
social psychological assumptions about
Sociological institutionalism II: people or groups: almost any social psycho-
phenomenological versions logical model is good enough to explain what
institutionalization has made socially obvious.
A key turning point in the rise of the new Thus, when a group of modern people
institutionalism is the development of a per- gather to assemble or change an organization,
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they do not do so from scratch. Everywhere, extreme cultural dependence of modern organi-
there are models put in place by law, ideol- zational structures. Thus, the institutionalists
ogy, culture, and a variety of organizational emphasize that much modern social rationali-
constraints and opportunities. People are zation has mythic functions encouraging the
likely to install these in the organization they formation of organizations and their compo-
are building with little by way of thought or nents. This sometimes leads to criticisms that
decision: exotic psychological assumptions institutionalism is only about ‘symbols’ rather
are not required. There will be offices and than ‘realities,’ and institutionalist research
departments that were unknown a few occasionally in fact makes this mistake. On the
decades ago (CFO, or Chief Financial Officer; other hand, the realists, ignoring the depend-
HR, or Human Relations Department). Few ence of modern organizational structure on the
will spend time deciding to adopt these insti- rapidly-expanding myths of rationality, have
tutions, and thus perhaps the word ‘mimetic’ no serious explanation for the rise – in every
applies. But it is an imprecise word, in this con- country, every social sector, and almost every
text, because the people adopting the new detailed social activity – of so much modern
structures will often be able to articulate organization itself (Drori et al., 2006).
clearly the legitimating rationales for their Phenomenological ideas are by no means
action, as if these were thought-out purposes. incompatible with more realist ones - in most
The purposes come along with the enterprise. situations, both can be true and often are.
As an illustration at the individual level, Tensions arise because realist models tend to
any good student in a prestigious American be exclusionary core modern ideologies,
university ought to be able, almost instanta- undergirding polity, economy, culture, and
neously, to write some paragraphs about society. They are normative models as well
‘why I decided to go to college.’ But on as cognitive ones, and thus alternative lines
inspection, it turns out that almost none of of thought are seen as in part normative vio-
these students actually decided to go to col- lations. Further, closed-system realist models
lege, as they had never contemplated any are often central to policy advice, and this
alternative. Going to college was taken for function is limited by more open-system
granted. Indeed, any student who had spent institutional theories.
serious time deciding whether or not to go to
college would be very unlikely to have a
record enabling admission to a prestigious The career of sociological
one. Nevertheless, many researchers study- Institutional theory
ing college attendance formulate their task as
analyzing a ‘decision’ – a decision they prob- The phenomenological perspectives of socio-
ably never made, and their subjects probably logical institutionalism have prospered over
never made. A number of methodological the last three decades. Before discussing why
errors follow, and beset the research tradition this is so, we need to note why it should not
involved. Parallel errors characterize much have been so.
research in the field of organizations and
states: decision analyses of matters never in The ideological absorption of
fact decided. Mistakes of this sort routinely institutional ideas
follow from the established realist assump- Modern social science, following on modern
tions that human activity, more or less by ideology, celebrates a social world made up
definition, follows from choices. of strong actors, in the realist sense. Theory
Sociological institutionalism of the phenom- and ideology give great emphasis to notions
enological sort is not only furthest from real- of society as a product of such actors and
ism, but arises in some opposition to it. Realist their purposes. Methods of social research,
theory, it is argued, grossly understates the and public data collection, build data on and
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around these units, and define proper analyses developments, in American organizational
as focused on both their independence and life, around affirmative action pressures and
their purposive action. And normative ideolo- requirements (see Dobbin & Sutton, 1998;
gies infusing both research and public life Edelman, 1992; Dobbin, Sutton, Meyer, &
give much preference to treatments that take Scott 1993; Edelman, Uggen, & Erlanger,
individual persons (and also nation-states and 1999). After the long wave of legalizing pres-
organizations) as highly interested and agen- sures on organizations, a whole set of
tic actors (Jepperson & Meyer, 2007). schemes are produced – policies, offices, and
More concretely, modern democratic professions – responding to these pressures.
political systems rest, for their legitimacy, on Organizations incorporate packages of these.
doctrines of free individual choice. If the But after a time, it is all naturalized in the pre-
individuals and their choices are construc- ferred models of relatively rational actorhood.
tions of the powers of the system itself, the And by now, any reasonable organizational
legitimacy of democracy tends to disappear. manager would be able to explain why his or
Similarly, if choices of individuals and her organization has affirmative action poli-
organizations in markets are in fact ‘wired’ cies – these policies are obviously the best
consequences of the market system, the legit- way to ensure hiring the most able people.
imacy of the free economy is undercut. The Given that the processes stressed by the
same points can be made about religious and phenomenological versions of institutional
cultural choices in the nominally free society. theory are in many ways constantly undercut
Thus, there are cultural tendencies in the or absorbed by evolving modern organiza-
modern actor-centered society to celebrate tional systems, the question arises as to what
actors in a very realist sense: these tenden- forces keep these lines of theory alive, well,
cies are very strong ideological currents in and in fact prospering. If the social world
the social sciences. Social science influence were moving toward a modern equilibrium,
over policy tends to depend on them we have noted above, institutional theories
(Jepperson & Meyer, 2007). would tend to be absorbed in a socially con-
Consider that much organizational research structed realist ideology. Obviously, equilib-
and theory go on, worldwide, in schools of rium is not what is going on.
business and education and public policy. The rapid social changes distinctive to the
These schools are built on the notion that period since World War II have tended to
organizational leaders are decision-makers, create rapid cultural expansions of the sorts
and their main tasks are to train their students attended to by institutional theories. The
to be such decision-makers. They are in no period, in other words, creates both institu-
position to emphasize that their students are, tional theories and a globalizing social world
or should be, drifting non-decision-making which operates along the lines suggested by
followers of institutionalized currents. Scott those theories.
(2007), for instance, defends realist institu-
tional theory on precisely these grounds. Stateless globalizations
Thus as new institutional forces are built up Recent centuries of development have system-
in the modern system, the system atically tended to create interdependencies
itself tends to absorb them in expanded theo- transcending the organizational capacities of
ries of actorhood and decision-making. extant political systems to maintain control
Organizational members and research ana- (classically, Wallerstein, 1974). Rapid expan-
lysts tend over time to see the organizational sion and globalization have created sweeping
elements newly adopted under institutional economic, political, social and cultural forms
pressures as if they were functional, rational, of (often conflictful) movement and integra-
and reasonable organizational choices. This tion extending far beyond the boundaries of
process is analyzed with care in studies of the controlling organizational structures. Forces
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for social control and stability, thus, emphasize sion of a world polity or society around
both the authority and the responsibilities of notions of lawful nature, inherent rationality,
the existing actors in national and world soci- and the natural rights of humans (or, in gen-
ety. At the world level, meanings have piled up, eral, natural law: Thomas et al., 1987; Meyer
rationalizing and expanding the powers and et al., 1997). These movements take the form
responsibilities of national states. And simi- of broad global wave-like developments, and
larly, individualisms, stressing the rights, a ‘wave theory’ like sociological institution-
powers, and capacities of individuals, have alism is appropriate for the massive changes
expanded enormously, supporting for example involved.
the long-term and dramatic expansion of edu- Thus the character of worldwide social
cation around the world (Boli & Ramirez, change since World War II continually rein-
1987; Meyer, Ramirez & Soysal, 1992). The forces the more phenomenological versions of
whole process is analyzed in Tocqueville’s dis- sociological institutional theory. I briefly note
cussion of social control in stateless America some of these massive social changes, and
(1836/1969), and his emphasis on the resultant their wave-like diffusive character. All the
empowerment and control of the individual, changes involved refer to laws and rationalities
including the rapid expansion of a great deal of and rights built into nature rather than particu-
mobilized and rationalized social organization. lar societies. They are built around rapidly-
The term globalization now tends to refer expanding meaning systems and formally
to (a) economic interdependencies, and (b) structured in decentralized associational for-
very recent time periods. But for our pur- mats rather than around sovereign actorhood.
poses, the time frame is much longer, and the First, there is in place of positive law the
interdependencies involved more political, dramatic expansion of science (Drori, Meyer,
social, cultural, and military than economic. Ramirez, & Schofer, 2003). Science expands
The post World War II period represented a exponentially in terms of numbers of people
dramatic up-turn in the long history. The fail- and amounts of resources involved, and also
ure of social control in an interdependent in terms of the social authority it carries. It
world was dramatic and incontrovertible. expands enormously in terms of content cov-
Two devastating world wars (both between erage, as essentially all aspects of natural and
supra-state forces), a disastrous depression social worlds come under scientific scrutiny.
seen as rooted in nationalist provincialisms, And it expands spatially, finding a strong
the holocaust and sweeping destruction of presence in essentially all the societies of the
social life, and the end of normal war given world. Science, as reality and even more as
nuclear weaponry, all made it obvious that metaphor, provides a cognitive and norma-
new forms of order and control were neces- tive base for all sorts of integrating world
sary. This was all enhanced by the Cold War regulation – making the world more govern-
conflict, and by the destruction of the older able (Foucault, 1991; Rose & Miller, 1992;
stabilizing colonial arrangements. An old Drori & Meyer, 2006).
nominally-anarchic world of conflicting Beyond science, there is the enormous
nation-states was no longer remotely justifi- expansion of rationalizing social science – by
able: war, for instance, lost meaning as a far the most rapidly expanding fields in the
heroic achievement in interstate competition. life of the university in the last half of the
But on the other hand nothing like a world twentieth century (Drori & Moon, 2006;
state was plausible. Frank & Gabler, 2006). Theories, and occa-
In the absence of much possibility for sionally evidence, expand rapidly and take
state-like world organization, with a cultural the center stage in much policy-making
system organized around positive law, the around the world. In a world celebrating the
world has produced an astonishing set of equality of persons and societies, rationalis-
socio-cultural movements building up a ver- tic social theories are seen as applicable
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everywhere: any country can develop, any 2006). The old nation-state, with its passive
person can be equipped with cultural capital, bureaucracies, is reformulated as a modern
independent of time and place. And any organization, filled with agencies that are to
organization, anywhere, can and should be a function as autonomous and accountable
rational actor. organizations (i.e., actors: Brunsson &
Second, in partial replacement for an older Sahlin-Andersson, 2000). Old family firms
Modern celebration of the primordiality of are reconstructed as modern organizations
the national-state, there is the dramatic rise with empowered managerial capabilities, and
of a natural law emphasis on human rights. with work forces full of participatory modern
The standing of persons as citizens of individual actors. Traditional structures
national states is replaced by a greatly housing professionals – hospitals and schools
expanded set of doctrines of the person as an and legal and accounting partnerships – are
entitled and empowered member of the reformulated as real agentic social actors,
human race in a global society (e.g., Soysal, capable of the highly purposive pursuit of
1994). More and more categories of humans their own goals (Scott, Ruef, Mendel, &
are directly capacitated in this system – Caronna, 2000).
women, children, old people, handicapped All of the institutionalizations of the new
people, gay and lesbian people, indigenous globalized (or ‘knowledge,’ or ‘post-
people, racial and ethnic minorities, and so modern’) society noted above find a core
on (for examples, see Ramirez, Soysal, & basis in the dramatically expanded educa-
Shanahan, 1998; Berkovitch, 1999; Frank & tional systems of the post-War world (Meyer
McEneaney, 1999; Abu Sharkh, 2002). And et al., 1992, for mass education; Schofer &
the moral and legal principles involved rap- Meyer, 2005, for the university). The univer-
idly take coverage (though commonly not sity, in particular, is the core home of the
practical effect) worldwide (Hathaway, 2002; explosions of scientific analyses of nature,
Tsutsui & Wotipka, 2004; Cole, 2005; and rationalistic analyses of social life that
Hafner-Burton & Tsutsui, 2005). try to tame the modern supra-national envi-
The new human, in this expanding system, ronment. And it is the core home where ordi-
has greatly enhanced rights, and responsibil- nary persons of an older world are
ities. But also greatly expanded attributed transformed into knowledgeable and empow-
capacities for economic, political, social, and ered carriers of ‘human capital’ for the new
cultural action. These capacities support the society (Frank and Meyer, 2007). If classic
extraordinary worldwide expansion in both bureaucratic structures of the Modern society
mass and elite education in the world since rested on populations equipped with mass
World War II (Meyer Ramirez and Soysal., education (Stinchcombe, 1965), the organi-
1992; Schofer & Meyer, 2005). zations of the Knowledge Society rest on
The expanded model of empowered and university-installed knowledge and empow-
entitled individuals, operating in a tamed and erment (Frank and Meyer, 2007). Worldwide,
scientized natural and social environment, about 20 per cent of a cohort of young per-
generates – as in Tocqueville’s America – the sons is enrolled in university-level training
expanded modern picture of the human actor; (Schofer & Meyer, 2005).
and of the host of social organizations this
actor creates. The world is now filled with Actors and others
human persons who assume the posture of The post-War period has, thus, experienced
empowered actor, and have the capacity to dramatic expansion in cultural rationaliza-
create and participate in collective organiza- tion. On the one side there has been the expo-
tions formed as social actors. nential and global growth of the scientific
So organization and organizations blossom and rationalistic analysis of natural and
everywhere (see the studies in Drori et al., social environments. On the other lies a sim-
9781412931236-Ch34 11/23/07 9:55 AM Page 797


ilarly exponential and global growth in the occupations, agency with very constrained
rights and powers attributed to the human interested actorhood has been a great
beings who enter into society. And in the cul- success: everywhere there are consulting
turally-constructed crucible at the center of firms, therapists, advisors, researchers, and
all this, the result is the extraordinary modern other creatures of a higher purity.
growth in social actors. Passive old national Thus actors themselves often step out
state bureaucracies turn into actors filled of their narrow actorhood, and take on
with plans and strategies. And persons every- the higher calling of agency for universal
where shift from traditional (i.e., peasant) truths and the collective good. So we have
identities into modern schooled ones: as an successful national-states offering them-
indicator, persons turned actors are able to selves to their competitors as models of the
opine on all sorts of general questions – and proper conduct of business. And successful
survey research can now be done almost organizations delighted to display their
anywhere (Meyer and Jepperson 2000). virtues, rather than concealing them from
But the question arises, who is doing all the competition. And individual persons
this cultural construction? Who or what sup- entering into public life with disinterested
ports the rationalization of the natural and analyses of what their President should do
social environments? Who props up all the (Jepperson, 2002a).
new human rights and powers? If ‘interested actor’ is one core role in the
The world of actors – entitled and empow- modern system, we need a term for the roles
ered beings with the rights to have goals and of actors that adopt a legitimated posture of
the capacities to be agents in pursuit of those disinterest, and tell more interested actors
goals – is also a world in which the same how to be and what to do. I suggest the old
actors have the legitimated capacity to use Meadian concept of ‘Other’ (Meyer, 1999).
their agency in pursuit of collective goods of The modern world is filled with these others.
all sorts. Indeed, the agency of actors is There are the representatives of the whales
collectively legitimated and dependent. In and other creatures, of the distant ecological
this sense, a properly constructed actor is future, and of the rights of humans in the
always partly an agent for one or another most distant places and cultures (e.g., over
collectivity – in the modern system, often a issues like female genital cutting – see Boyle,
fairly universal one – as well as an agent for 2002). And there are the proponent of social
his or her own needs and goals as actors rationality and critics of corruption anywhere
(Meyer & Jepperson, 2000). Thus modern in the world. Closer to home, there are the
actors are partly above petty interest, and are advisors and therapists, offering consultation
agents for more general and universal goods. to individuals and organizations and
So the most rapidly expanding individual national-states on how to be more virtuous
occupations, worldwide, are the nominally and more effective actors.
disinterested professions: they may partly This whole system offers explanatory
serve particular interests, but they are in opportunities calling for sociological institu-
good part agents for the collective – more tional theories. The modern nominally-realist
accurately for what used to be called God interested actor is at every side surrounded
(Truth, and the like). And the most rapidly by institutions with much cultural character
expanding organizational structures in the and legitimacy – the sciences and professions
world may, similarly, be the non-govern- constructing the rationalized environment of
mental and often non-profit organizations proper ‘action,’ the legal and intellectual con-
that serve as agents for various universal structers of expanded human rights and
goods, often at the global level (Boli & capacities, and the ‘Others’ who create these
Thomas, 1999). And even among the more arrangements and who often directly instruct
mundane profit-making organizations and the expanded actors. And of course, the
9781412931236-Ch34 11/23/07 9:55 AM Page 798


expanded actors themselves, who enhance that national population control policies tend
their value by displaying their virtuous actor- to arise in countries with ties to modern
hood, and whose expanded and virtuous demography, and typical institutional argu-
actorhood is utterly dependent on a host of ment. But they are not surprised to find that
sciences, legal and intellectual supports, and national population control policies tend also
therapists and consultants. In fact, the to arise in countries with great population
modern individual actor tends to incorporate density. Institutional theory is not closely
much of this material in the expanded ‘self.’ tied to broader philosophical concerns, but
And the modern organizational or nation- has rather developed as a set of very general
state actor certainly incorporates enormous sociological explanatory ideas.
amounts of this material – often as profes- To assess the status of sociological institu-
sionalized roles – within its formal structure. tionalism, we review its four most important
explanatory ideas. These ideas make up a
simple causal chain accounting for stability
The core arguments of sociological and change in modern organizational struc-
institutional theory: status and tures. First, expansive modern institutional-
prospects ized models of states and societies are
commonly generated, not only by interested
Sociological institutional theory employs actors, but by what above we called ‘others’ –
general phenomenological perspectives collective participants like professions and
which often have many dimensions and social movements and non-governmental
which can make up a broad vision of social structures. Second, states and other organiza-
life and of methods for studying it. tions tend prominently to reflect institution-
Methodologically, a taste for qualitative and alized models in standardized ways, not
highly interpretive research is sometimes simply the local resources and powers and
involved. Substantively, critical perspectives interests that vary so greatly around the
on the modern liberal society are often world. Third, there is the idea that because
emphasized, sometimes from the conserva- states and other organizations reflect highly
tive right, and on other occasions from the standardized institutionalized models, but
left. Sometimes, society itself is seen as also variable local life in practice, a great
entirely an interpretive construction, with deal of decoupling between more formal
other realities entering in only insofar as they structures and practical adaptation is to be
enter social interpretive systems. expected. Fourth, there is the idea that insti-
As it has developed, sociological institu- tutionalized models are likely to have strong
tional theory is tied to none of these broader diffusive or wave-like effects on the orienta-
philosophical perspectives. Methodologi- tions and behavior of all sorts of participants
cally, it has commonly been pursued with in organizational life, whether or not they are
quite standard (often quantitative) proce- incorporated in formal policies.
dures. Its ties to any normative perspective
on modern society are weak: at the most, it Cultural and institutional forces affect the
carries an ironic distance from a naïve development of institutional models
liberalism. And there is no special tendency As a result of extensive research showing the
to deny the operation of many different impact of institutionalized models on organi-
theories (and variables) in the analysis of the zations of all sorts, argumentation in the field
modern system – sociological institutional- of macro-social research has shifted to the
ism emphasizes causal structures rooted in question about the origins of the models
culture and interpretation, but is not given to involved. For instance, we know that the
denying other lines of causal process. Thus worldwide emphasis on the rights of women
Barrett, Kurzman and Shanahan (2006) note has greatly impacted policy and practice
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everywhere (Bradley & Ramirez, 1996; the assumption of very strong and agentic
Ramirez et al., 1998). So it becomes impor- human actorhood. So attacks along the line
tant to ask what produced the worldwide that powerful and interested actors in the
emphases involved. background drive the creation of institutional
Very extreme realists argue that institutions models have been intensive (e.g,
are produced by the mixture of power and Stinchcombe 2001; Hirsch 1997; Hirsch &
interest in the actors of the system – the only Lounsbury 1997). And to a stiking extent,
entities such realists recognize as existing. some institutionalists have taken positions
This makes the institutions involved relatively that are almost apologetic in response (Scott,
minor in importance, since an adequate 2007; DiMaggio 1988), apparently conced-
analysis can be obtained simply by under- ing that behind the faÁade of institutional
standing the extant structures of actor power structure inevitably lie real men of power.
and interest. A more moderate realism sees a Sociological institutionalists, of course, do
‘sticky equilibrium’ as involved – institutions not take issue with the argument that many
are created by mixtures of actor power and institutionalized patterns may directly reflect
interest, but may take on something of a life the power and interest of dominant states or
of their own afterwards. A still more moder- other organizations. But, especially under
ate realism supposes that there are some conditions of modern globalization as we
mediators in the power and interest game – discuss above, institutionalists observe dra-
some participants (possibly professionals, matic effects that do not reflect the mechan-
or other honest brokers) who help in the ics of power and interest. In global society,
enterprise. and also in other organizational arenas, many
Beyond this point, realism may be com- other phenomena operate — reflecting the
bined with a more political or sociological dependence of modern expanded actors on
view. Stinchcombe (2001) develops an argu- institutionalized scripts operating in their
ment along these lines, imagining that actors environments. For example:
and perhaps some mediators struggle to work
out general institutional rules that reflect – Professionalized and scientized forces may gen-
local power and interest circumstances but erate rules coming to terms with modern sci-
also reflect functional requirements of the ences and rationalities, and with modern notions
whole enterprise. In his work, he often thinks of human rights and welfare. Despite powerful
interests working in the opposite direction, for
of institutional arrangements in complicated
instance, environmental policies like the ozone
sectors like the construction industry as
layer agreements have taken on considerable
instances. His arguments apply less clearly to force (Meyer, Frank, Hironaka et al., 1997b; Frank,
the worldwide rise of something like gay and Hironaka & Schofer, 2000). Similarly, it is difficult
lesbian rights (Frank & McEneaney, 1999). to see power and interest – and easy to see pro-
Given the great successes of institutional- fessionalized forces – behind the worldwide
ist analyses in showing the great impact of movement to restrict female genital cutting
environmental models on the structures and (Boyle, 2002). Large-scale social movement struc-
programs of organizational actors in the tures and non-governmental organizations are
modern system, realism has been on the obviously involved in the construction of many
defensive. One position to which it has institutional systems. Thus many programs for
organizational rationality, like the International
retreated is the stance that, while moden
Standards Organization, or various bodies stress-
actors copy environmental models, these
ing improved accounting arrangements, find their
models themselves must have been put in origins in forces considerably removed from
place by hard-line realist forces of power and simple matters of power and interest (see the
interest. Realism has, as noted above, papers in Sahlin-Andersson & Engwall, 2002;
strongly legitimated and legitimating roots in Djelic & Quack, 2003; Djelic & Sahlin-Andersson,
the modern system, which clearly rests on 2006; Drori et al., 2006 for extended examples).
9781412931236-Ch34 11/23/07 9:55 AM Page 800


– Constructions of institutional models may reflect social audiences are so eagerly responsive
successes and failures in organizational or inter- (Drori et al., 2003).
national stratification systems, without necessar- Similarly, realists tend to see any diffusive
ily reflecting the interests of the powerful bodies influence of the stratification system as indi-
in that system. Because globalization involves cating the power and interest of the elites of
the construction of myths of underlying world
that system. This is implausible. Thus, in
similarity, an extraordinary amount of diffusion
goes on as a matter of fashion (Strang & Meyer,
global society, the world environment move-
1993). So Japanese economic success of the ment clearly reflects the values and orienta-
1980s produced a little wave of Japanified poli- tions of American society. But the American
cies around the world, in no way reflecting the national-state actor clearly resists subscrib-
purposive power or interest of the Japanese ing to this system, as do leading American
national-state. Similarly, there is much imitation corporations. As another example, the world
of elite firms in any industry, whether or not the human rights movement clearly reflects
elite firms encourage, or gain from, this imitation. American values: but the American national-
– When powerful or successful organizations in state actor was reluctant to have a human
fact portray themselves as models for others, it is rights declaration built into the United
often unclear that they are acting in what is ordi-
Nations; and continues to refuse to ratify var-
narily conceived to be their interest. The
American national-state, for instance, likes to
ious human rights treaties. In exactly the
encourage others to do things the ‘right’ way – same way, massive worldwide efforts at all
the American way – as a matter of encouraging sorts of organizational reform and rationali-
virtue in the world. There is no evidence that zation clearly reflect American ideologies of
much of this aid activity particularly benefits the organization: but the American national-state
interests of the American state. aggressively resists participation.
Exactly the same criticisms can be made
In many areas, institutional and realist expla- of realist argument in other organizational
nations of the development of institutional- arenas. Elite universities may be sources of
ized models overlap. And conflicts between much educational rationalist ideology, but
them are often conflicts over the interpreta- are often organizationally primitive (e.g.,
tion of the effects of the same variables. Thus Oxford, Harvard). The same is true of elite
when institutionalists note the impact of pro- firms and agencies.
fessionalized models (e.g., in the accounting All in all, in the modern stateless but glob-
area), the realists talk grimly of the profes- alized world, institutionalist arguments
sions involved as carrying out ‘professional explaining the dramatic rise of cultural
projects’ presumably to enhance their inter- models of expanded actorhood show every
ests and powers (see Abbott, 1988 for exam- prospect of continued success. Only in a
ples often incorporating this sort of more stabilized world society would the
reasoning). The impact of the scientists who process of social construction of actor
discovered the ozone layer problem is, how- motivations catch up, creating the proper
ever, difficult to interpret as a simple appearance of an apparently realist world
Machiavellian scheme to enhance the power society.
of the sciences. And, indeed, the whole ‘pro-
fessions as plots against the body politic’ Institutionalized models affect
scheme runs into the problem that the picture the construction of actors
of the profession as a rational self-interested The most conspicuous success of sociologi-
actor requires the assumption that the general cal institutional theory has been in the
population is naïve and foolish. This is unre- demonstration of powerful effects of institu-
alistic: explaining the expanded authority of tional models on the construction and modi-
the sciences in the modern system requires fication of actors. Thus national-state
an institutional analysis of why so many structures reflect standard world models,
9781412931236-Ch34 11/23/07 9:55 AM Page 801


despite the enormous resource and cultural 2005). Coercive pressures were clearly not
variability of the world (Meyer et al., 1997). involved – indeed the centers of power in
Schools similarly reflect both world and world society (e.g., the United States, the
national social forms. And so do firms. and World Bank, or the major corporations)
hospitals. and organizations in essentially tended initially to be skeptical about the
any other sector (Drori et al., 2006). virtues of ‘overeducation’ for impoverished
Furthermore, extant actors of these sorts countries. Similarly, global standards of
change over time reflecting changes in insti- women’s rights tended to produce national
tutionalized models. reactions quite apart from any coercive
Now that effects of this sort are widely forces. And in other areas – like environmen-
and routinely recognized in the field, discus- tal policy, or efforts to build international
sion shifts to questions of mechanisms. quality standards – where realists try to dis-
Institutionalists, convincingly, show that cern coercive pressure, empirical analyses
organizational conformity to standard models tend to be unconvincing.
is widespread and can occur in very routine Contested areas of interpretation, here,
ways through taken-for-granted understand- revolve around the impact of professional
ings. They commonly show the effects of bodies and non-governmental organizations.
processes such as simple linkage between The sorts of normative pressures produced
organizational settings and the wider environ- by these forces can be given something of a
ments carrying the institutions. Thus, at the realist interpretation. The problem is that the
nation-state level, world models are adopted relevant professions and associations are
more quickly in countries with many non- amply represented inside actors, not only
governmental organizational linkages to outside them. That is, modern national and
world society (Meyer et al., 1997). Similarly, organizational actors already incorporate in
professional linkages facilitate the quick their own authority systems formal represen-
adoption of environmental policies (Frank et tatives of the wider world cultures dealing
al., 2000, call the professions “receptor sites” with the environment, organizational ration-
for the local incorporation of wider rational- alization, human rights, and so on. Modern
ized models). At the organizational level, the organizations and national-states appear to
adoption of fashionable personnel policies is be eager to construct themselves as actors,
enhanced by having professionalized person- thus incorporating, often wholesale, global
nel officers (Dobbin et al., 1993). standards (for nation-state examples, see
Realists try to see processes of coercive McNeely, 1995; or Boli, 1987).
power as involved in such relationships, and In an expanding and globalizing world
there are situations in which this is clearly society, people and groups everywhere seem
the case. But the rapid social changes we to be eager to be actors – this often takes
have discussed as globalization continue to precedence over other goals, and can produce
generate waves of organizational change that assertions of actor identity far from any actual
cannot easily be conceived as reflecting actor capability. People, in short, may put
straightforward coercive power and control more effort into being actors than into acting.
by environments. Wave-like processes are We can see this readily in the empirical
endemic on the modern system (Czarniawska studies of modern individuals in increasing
& Sevón, 1996), and institutional theories numbers of countries. They produce opinions
gain much credibility from the obvious and judgments, routinely, in matters they
empirical situations involved. know nothing about. A good American, it
Thus with the global rise in conceptions of seems clear, would produce opinions about
the nation-state as a development-oriented whether the United States should invade a
social actor, university enrollments shot up in country that does not exist. Good organiza-
every type of country (Schofer & Meyer, tions have policies about things that never
9781412931236-Ch34 11/23/07 9:55 AM Page 802


occur. National states promote world norms The institutionalist answer is that actor struc-
with which they have no capacity to conform tures, forms, and policies reflect institutional
at home. Agentic actorhood is, in the modern prescriptions and models in the wider envi-
system, a central good (Meyer & Jepperson, ronment. Such institutional models make it
2000; Frank & Meyer, 2002). possible to build great organizations in situa-
Some of the intellectual tensions involved tions where little actual control is likely or
here – between a realistic institutionalism and possible – school systems, for instance; or in
an unrealistic realism – show up in a discus- developing countries national–states.
sion by Mizruchi and Fein (1999). These This line of argument has had much
researchers, committed to an older realist tra- empirical success in the cross-national study
dition in the study of organizations, seem of national-states. It is common, now, to dis-
puzzled by the extraordinary citation atten- cover that nation-states subscribe to human
tion continuingly given to the classic paper by rights standards – but the subscribers are no
DiMaggio and Powell (1983). So they turn more likely to implement these standards
from their normal work as organizational in practice than are the non-subscribers
researchers to become sociologists of science (Hathaway, 2002; Cole, 2005; Hafner-Burton
(it is often a dangerous business for social sci- & Tsutsui, 2005). The same finding holds for
entists to study their own fields), and to inves- research on child labor rates (Abu Sharkh,
tigate the uses of the classic paper. They are 2002), and for research on the education of
disturbed by the fact that few references pick women (Bradley & Ramirez, 1996).
up on the more realist themes in the paper The line of argument has had dramatic
(coercive isomorphism, which can readily be empirical success in studies of organizations,
subsumed by realists; and normative isomor- too. Brunsson (1985; 1989), develops it as a
phism, which a realist can re-shape into con- contrast between policy talk and practical
formity). And all the research emphasis goes action. He sees a hypocritical inconsistency
to the famous ‘mimetic isomorphism,’ which between the two as a central consequence
lies far from the realist track. The reason for and requirement for the rationalized society.
this is obvious: any line of interpretation that Thus, inconsistency that to realists is a social
can be given a realist spin, in modern social problem is to Brunsson a stabilizing solution.
science, tends to be given that spin. So insti- In other work, the line of argument is
tutionalist arguments tend to survive best if extended to account for the high frequency of
they are furthest from realism. Oddly, organizational reforms, and the lack of con-
Mizruchi himself later ends up employing sequences of much reform (Brunsson &
mimetic isomorphism as an explanatory idea Olsen, 1993). If reform is commonly a
(Mizruchi, Stearns, & Marquis, 2006). process of constructing improved actorhood,
rather than improved action, the often-
The construction of actors is often noted ‘failure of implementation’ is to be
loosely oupled with practical activity expected. Given the enormously exaggerated
Sociological institutional theory, in part, models of the proper actor – individuals and
arose from the observation that organizational organizations alike – characteristic of the
policies and structures are often loosely cou- modern globalized world, any respectable
pled with practical activity (Meyer & Rowan, reform should have excellent prospects for
1977; 1978). Given this commonly recog- disimplementation.
nized reality, the question arose – why are the Despite its obvious uses, the concept of
structures and policies there? The question ‘loose coupling’ has been a considerable
took force from the fact that conventional source of tension in the field. This arises
theories of organizational structure empha- because realist thinking is quite central to
size that, for functional and political reasons, modern ideology as well as to much social
structure is put in place to control activity. theory. And from a realist point of view,
9781412931236-Ch34 11/23/07 9:55 AM Page 803


decoupling between organizational rules and piece of poetry (Bendor, Moe, & Shotts,
policies and programs and roles, on the one 2001). They proved that the illustrative simu-
hand, and local practical action, on the other, lation models (which it seems nobody had in
is deeply problematic. Rules are created by fact taken very seriously) were inconsistent
powerful and interested actors, desiring to with the real arguments of the paper, and
control action. They are put in place in par- made dramatic assertions about this as indi-
ticular organizations because the interests of cating a fundamental failure of the scientific
powerful actors demanded it. They should enterprise involved. (Again, the authors
normally be implemented in practice. Only rested the importance of their paper on asser-
limited realist theory can explain why not. (a) tions about the nature of science itself – often
Perhaps the powerful actors creating rules a warning sign in the social sciences, e.g.,
want to deceive the world around them. But p. 169: ‘We evaluate the verbal theory and
if they are so powerful, why would they need argue that it fails to create an adequate
to do this? And if they do depend on impres- foundation for scientific progress.’)
sions of others, why are these others so easily
deceived? (b) Perhaps particular actors sub- Institutionalized models impact practices
scribe formally to the rules intending to independent of organized actor adoption
deceive the powerful forces behind these In the modern system, institutionalized
rules. But if so, why are the powerful forces forces usually diffuse more as cultural waves
so easily deceived? (c) Perhaps local partici- than through point-to-point diffusion. Thus,
pants simply cheat on the organized actor, standards arise in world discourse, promul-
suboptimally going their own way and vio- gated by professional consensus and associa-
lating the rules. If so, why are organized tional advocacy. The new emphasis might be,
actors so little able to notice? say, on the improved treatment of children
The extreme tension experienced by realist with some specific handicaps. National
theorists over the ‘loose coupling’ notion can states, of course, adopt appropriate policies
be illustrated by the treatment of a renowned with some probability, which might vary
initial essay on the subject. Before the rise of depending on their linkage to the world
new institutional theories, March and his col- organizations and professions involved.
laborators, working from the ‘uncertainty’ But of course organizations internal to that
tradition, produced a precursor. Their essay state are also immersed in responsible agentic
was called ‘A Garbage Can Model of actorhood organized by the global culture. So
Organizational Choice’ (Cohen, March, & independent of national policy, schools and
Olsen, 1972). Instead of working from medical organizations and professional asso-
rational decision models outward to incorpo- ciations and even some business firms would
rate more uncertainty, this essay started from be likely to notice the new models and incor-
the frame of decision-making under almost porate aspects of them. This might depend on
complete uncertainty. The authors illustrated their own linkages to world society.
their points with some quickly forgotten sim- And independent of what policies and
ulation models, but the impact of the paper – programs states and non-state organizations
on a field that had grown a bit deadly – was put in place, modern people too tend to be
simply as a strong fundamental theoretical agentic actors immersed in wider society
image or metaphor. The paper is much cited, (including global society). So all sorts of local
almost entirely for its grounding imagery actors – parents, teachers, medical profes-
rather than its specific analytic points. sionals, neighbors, relatives – have some
Interestingly, thirty years later, several probability of picking up the new world or
researchers committed to the extreme national story lines, independent of the
rational choice version of realism, found it national state policies or of any organized
necessary to mount a massive attack on this actor at all.
9781412931236-Ch34 11/23/07 9:55 AM Page 804


Realist theories, with very limited concep- over time are too weakly standardized to tell
tions of the embeddedness of actors in wider (Hafner-Burton & Tsutsui, 2005).
cultural arrangements, tend to have blind Similar studies at the organizational level
spots on such processes. And for this reason, of analysis show similar effects. Practices in
realist theories – and thus much social scien- the treatment of employees, for instance,
tific theory and ideology – have the drift along following world or national
greatest difficulty accounting for large-scale models in good part independent of formal
modern social change, because such change policies (Drori et al., 2006). In the same way,
tends to flow through diffusive waves rather the practices of teachers or doctors reflect
than down through an organized realist shifting customs in good part independent of
ladder of world to state to organization organizational policies (Coburn, 2004).
to individual effects. The global expansion Realist theories have little to say about
of organization (and organization theory) such broader effects. So sweeping social
itself is an excellent example (Drori changes occur, at the edges of social
et al., 2006). scientific notice. Modern society is organized
The social scientific failures in explaining around general and cultural models, as
large-scale change are stunning. The move- much as around hard-wired organi-
ment for racial and ethnic equality, the zational structures. And these models are
women’s movement, the environment move- increasingly worldwide in character (Meyer
ment, the modern movements for organiza- et al., 1997).
tional transparency, the breakdown of
the Communist system, the movement for
gay and lesbian rights – all these worldwide
changes were poorly predicted, and are CONCLUSIONS
poorly explained, by social scientific thinking.
Empirically, research on the diffusive The rapid expansion of a stateless global
impacts of world models on social practice society – in transactions and perceptions
independent of national-state action is con- alike – has produced a great wave of cultural
vincing. The world models impact national materials facilitating expanding organization
policy, certainly: but they impact practice at every level. Scientific and rationalistic pro-
whether or not they impact policy. The world fessionals and associations generate highly
movement to constrain child labor seems to rationalized and universalized pictures of
have very large effects on practice, whether natural and social environments calling for
or not countries subscribe to the appropriate expanded rational actorhood of states, organ-
prohibitions (Abu Sharkh, 2002). World izations, and individuals. Legal and social
movements for women’s rights have dra- scientific professionals generate greatly
matic effects increasing the educational expanded conceptions of the rights and capa-
enrollment of women, independent of any bilities of all human persons, transcending
national policies (Bradley & Ramirez, 1996). national citizenship. Universities and other
Changed world models related to reproduc- educational arrangements expand, world-
tion impact birth rates independent of wide, installing newly rationalized knowl-
national policy (Bongaarts & Watkins, 1996). edge in newly empowered persons.
The world environment movement impacts So models of organized actorhood expand,
practice both through national policy and penetrate every social sector and country. All
around it (Schofer & Hironaka, 2005). It is sorts of older social forms – bureaucracies,
probably also true that the world human family structures, traditional professional
rights movements have impacted local prac- arrangements – are transformed into organi-
tice independent of national policy subscrip- zations. The process is driven by a cultural
tions – the data on human rights practices system that is a putative substitute for
9781412931236-Ch34 11/23/07 9:55 AM Page 805


traditional state-like political arrangements – from such sources. Naturally, successful

realist analyses that root the process in pow- models tend to be derived and edited from
erful interested actors miss out on most of the the most successful organizations – which
important changes. The process spreads realists then call hegemonic – but this does
through the diffusion of models of actorhood, not mean that the interests of those organiza-
not principally via a power and incentive tions play a causal role.
system. The changes transcend practicality, Institutionalists are instructed to investi-
leaving great gaps between policy and prac- gate the realist ‘mechanisms’ by which local
tice essentially everywhere – almost any structures conform to wider models: it is not
organization can be seen as a failure, now. a good idea to take seriously the pretenses
And the changes diffuse at multiple levels – of modern interested actorhood involved.
through central organizations and through Conformity to standard models may not
their professionalized memberships and involve much ‘influence’ or much decision-
populations. making. The relevant network linkages, for
Sociological institutional theory – especially example, may simply involve the most ele-
its phenomenological version – captures the mentary forms of information transmission.
whole post-World War II enterprise very Institutionalists are told to investigate the
well, and for this reason has been successful. assumed true linkages that powerful inter-
In a world less rapidly changing, the pre- ested actors put between policy and practice:
ferred realisms of modern ideology and it is wiser to imagine that developing the pos-
social theory might have constructed realist ture of the proper actor is a main goal of
explanations but change has been too rapid. modern people and groups, transcending
Realist theories and ideologies have not their needs to implement this posture in
caught up with the explosion of human rights actions. In a world in which an enormous
(e.g., gay and lesbian rights), of environmen- premium is placed on actorhood, entering
tal doctrines and policies, of all sorts of into this identity is obviously central.
social rationalization (e.g., a global standards Institutionalists are told that the analysis of
movement), and the transformation of all diffusion waves is unscientific – the only cor-
sorts of unlikely social structures into puta- rect approach is to assume each particle in
tively rational organizations. such a wave is a properly rational and inter-
Much social theory, however, retains its ested actor: following this advice would
theoretical/ideological preference for tradi- mean giving up on really trying to explain the
tional realisms, leaving the great social dramatic social and organizational changes
changes of the modern period poorly of our period. The great changes of our
explored. So this leaves much intellectual period – often poorly recognized by realist
space within which institutional theory can social sciences – occur much more through
develop. In this context, the best strategy for waves of conforming non-decision than
institutional theory is to keep to its last, and through networks of fully formed and
to avoid attending to the clamor arising from autonomous rationalized actors.
realist ideological assumptions.
Thus, institutionalists sometimes are
instructed to seek for the interested actors
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