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The case for an inhabited institutionalism in organizational research: interaction, coupling, and change reconsidered

Abstract

This paper makes the case for an inhabited institutionalism by pondering questions that continue to vex institutional theory: How can we account for local activity, agency, and change without reverting to a focus on individual actors—the very kinds of actors that institutional theory was designed to critique? How is change possible in an institutional context that constructs interests and sets the very conditions for such action? Efforts to deal with these questions by inserting various forms of individual, purposive actors into institutional frameworks have created inconsistencies that threaten the overall coherence of institutional theory and move it farther from its sociological roots. To provide alternative answers, we turn to the growing line of work on “inhabited” institutions. Our exegesis of this literature has two goals. The first goal is to shift focus away from individuals and nested imagery and towards social interaction and coupling configurations. This move opens new avenues for research and helps to identify the spaces—both conceptual and empirical—and the supra-individual processes that facilitate change. This shift has important theoretical implications: incorporating social interaction alters institutional theory, and our second goal is to specify an analytic framework for this new research, an inhabited institutionalism. Inhabited institutionalism is a meso-approach for examining the recursive relationships among institutions, interactions, and organizations. It provides novel and sociologically consistent means for dealing with issues of agency and change, and a new agenda for research that can reinvigorate and reunite organizational sociology and institutional theory.

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Notes

  1. This understanding spans Scott’s legal, normative, and cognitive pillars (Scott 2014). Institutional meanings have a regulative manifestation when they are codified into laws and rules with formal punishments when broken. They have a normative manifestation when they exist as folk expectations that are informally sanctioned. They have a cultural-cognitive manifestation when people are unable to think in alternative ways.

  2. DiMaggio, personal communication.

  3. As with the expansion of the concept of “institutional logic” discussed earlier, this expansion is likewise problematic. As a result, Alvesson and Spicer (2019: 267) lament that “nearly any kind of purposeful action,” however ordinary, becomes institutional: “the mailman reliably delivering letters maintains the institution of the post office; a doctor delegating work to a nurse is preserving the institution of the elite medical profession.”

  4. Although Zilber has published on institutional work (2013), her deft use of ethnography is richly inhabited. We consider her an inhabited institutionalist, but we do not foist that label on her, especially since her work is wide-ranging.

  5. Goffman (1983) goes so far as to describe interaction as its own “order.”

  6. Accountability is an institutional rationale for educational reform that holds that schools should be held to account for their educational outcomes. This rationale emphasizes surveillance, rewards, and punishments, often based on quantitative measures such as test scores.

  7. For a discussion of where II sits relative to various linguistic approaches, see Leibel et al. (2018). The connections between process approaches and II are important and a topic for another paper (see also Reay et al. 2019).

  8. The identification of the many coupling possibilities that are evident in the inhabited institutional research is a legacy to old and new institutionalism, and they share an important kinship. Although Selznick (1943, 1948) did not use the term loose coupling, he described how the short-term contingencies of day-to-day operations generates an informal system of organization and introduces gaps between work practices and official, formal goals. Likewise, NI developed from local, empirical observations of loose coupling in San Francisco schools (Meyer and Rowan 1977, 1978). To explain the widespread prevalence of loose coupling, Meyer and his colleagues moved up a level of analysis to emphasize the external environment and the legitimacy imperative. As NI continued to evolve in a macro direction so did its data, and studies of field-level diffusion featuring quantitative measures of surface organizational conformity flourished. These studies provided valuable knowledge about the macro dynamics of institutions, but in the process loose coupling became something of an assumption and not a process to be observed or questioned.

  9. As processual approaches go, II would probably be characterized as a “weak” processual approach (although we prefer “tempered”) instead of a “strong” one, because it does, at times, treat organizations and institutional myths as entities (Chia and Langley 2004), although it does not prioritize entities (see also Reay et al. 2019).

  10. We are indebted to one of the reviewers for this phrasing.

  11. As Garfinkel (1967) has shown, a small disruption can go a long way in upending a social order. Garfinkel’s methodological strategy was to use such disruptions to gain insight into the routine, taken-for-granted order that is made visible by the disruption, and the continuity that existed prior to the disruption. Instead of viewing Chicago style interactionism (Blumer 1969) as a competing view, II uses it to examine something else—the emergent meanings that may arise after such disruptions (see also Tavory and Fine 2020).

  12. For example, Blumer argued that even large-scale social changes such as industrialization were ‘neutral’ in the sense that they are ‘indifferent to what follows socially in its wake’ (1990: 9).

  13. Nunn and Cobb demonstrate that II can be as effective for examining reproduction as it is for examining change.

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Acknowledgments

We thank the Indiana University Institute for Advanced Study and Beth Bechky, Nahoko Kameo, Gary Fine, Mark de Rond, Brayden King, and Esther Leibel for their comments.

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Hallett, T., Hawbaker, A. The case for an inhabited institutionalism in organizational research: interaction, coupling, and change reconsidered. Theor Soc 50, 1–32 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11186-020-09412-2

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Keywords

  • Coupling configurations
  • Institutional theory
  • Loose coupling
  • Organizational sociology
  • Symbolic interaction