Institutionalism and Infrastructuralism – some first thoughts on differences

In a recent post following Nicholas’s thoughts about blackboxing and taken-for-grantedness and about what that could mean for discussing the benefits of STS and neo-institutional theory, I asked: what are the difference between institutions and infrastructure? Nicholas and I discussed that today for the first time in detail and we thought it might be worth to post it to see if it makes sense.

Neo-Institutional theory is – to tell a very long story short – based on the question of how many different things (organizations, models, cultural forms) become similar over time. This is the basic problem in DiMaggio/Powell (1983): understanding the institutional isomorphisms if the impetus of rationalization is taken away. It is the problem that Strang and Meyer works on when studying the institutional conditions of diffusion (1993). It´s central focus was – like Powell argued in 2007 – on “the field level, based on the insight that organizations operate amidst both competitive and cooperative exchanges with other organizations.” (2007). DiMaggio (1988) and Powell (1991) both noted that this was a bit too smooth and that institutional arguments would need a more detailed perspective on contestation, fragility and struggles. Nevertheless the framework provided a fresh and new way to understand institutions – so productive that it framed a discipline or two.

Infrastructure studies, on the contrary, focussed on how things can appear systematic and highly-integrated but are actually implemented in many heterogenous, historically contingent local processes (Bowker/Star 1996/1996; Star/Ruhleder 2996). In some ways, diffusion becomes less important as implementation takes a more central role. Infrastructures are not build by system makers, but screwed together loosely by complex arrangements of interfaces, gateways and work-arounds, as Edwards has shown in 2003 and in his fabulous book on climate models (2010). However there seems to be a tendency to focus on normalizing and standardizing effects of classification systems implemented in large infrastructural settings – this is something like the Weberian “iron cage” of infrastructure studies visible already in “Sorting Things Out” and very strong in the works of Hanseth and Monteiro (1997, Monteiro 1998).

The link seems obvious, doesn´t it? Neo-Institutionalism starts looking at heterogenous stuff and finds it similar – too similar perhaps, so that it is missing the complexity of the social world sometimes. But it is a great framework for strong explanations. Infrastructure studies look at systems and find them fragile and fragmented inside. But they seem to lack the “big explanatory” power, which leads to giving up the focus on local multiplicity and emphasizing standardization/normalization instead. Could the strengths of both be added to get a good grasp at the installation of social order under (high) modern conditions?

1 thought on “Institutionalism and Infrastructuralism – some first thoughts on differences

  1. Also, as we discussed somewhat, the real potential of this approach would be to unlock the various links and relationships between infrastructure and the broader environment (or field-level). Although, how, it is not yet clear.


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