Greatest thing to happen to STS since the Bijker/Pinch paper

New interest in the micro-foundations of institutions has got to be one of the best things to happen to STS since the Bijker/Pinch paper…

The new institutionalism in organizaitonal analysis has been a well-spring for research. A quick summary of neo-I that Fabio Rojas and I wrote (in a paper on museusms):

The hallmark of the ‘new institutional’ school is the relentless focus on how life inside organizations is regulated by stable social practices that define what is considered legitimate in the broader external environment in which an organization operates (DiMaggio 1987, 1991, DiMaggio and Powell 1991b, Meyer and Rowan 1991, Scott 2000). The influence of institutions on organizational behaviour is supposedly most obvious in organizations like museums – organizations that new institutional scholars label as ‘highly institutional and weakly technical’ (Scott and Meyer 1991: 124). By this, scholars usually mean the following: that the organization’s leadership is highly sensitive to the expectations and standards of its industry; that the organization of work within the bureaucracy depends on broader ideologies and cultural scripts found in modern societies; that managers are likely to copy the practices of other organizations, especially high-status organizations; that professional groups are the arbiters of organizational legitimacy; that rational organizational myths and rules structure work practices; and that the ultimate performance of an organization’s set of tasks does not depend much on tools like assembly lines, computers, and the like (see also DiMaggio and Powell (1991a, DiMaggio and Powell 1991b).

The new approach/point of emphasis for neo-I folks is laid-out by Walter Powell and Jeannette Colyvas in their 2008 chapter in “the big green book” of organizations and institutions — copy of the paper is available in draft form at right here.

And so the story goes:

1. Older research is cast as calling for “the need to make the microfoundations of intitutional theory more explicit” (p.276). This is something that institutional theorists have had much success with — positioning papers to create the feeling that this idea is both something new and exciting but also that the call for micrcofoundations is an old one (that we need to now make good on). The opening lines of D&P’s 1983 paper does a good job of saying “that was then” and “this is now.”

2. The upshot: “much analytical purchase can be gained by developing a mirco-level component of institutional analysis” (p.276) which would link “micro-concepts, e.g. identity, sense making, typifications, frames, and categories with macro-processes of institutionalization, and show how these processes rachet upwards” (p.278).The invocation of “hierarchy” or “upward” levels is somewhat disconcerting for those of us set on flatter analysis, but there is likely room to show (and convince) that even the tallest, most stable actors and actions occur locally and laterally on a flat surface of interactions.

3. How can we, in STS, get some purchase on this?

A. Emphasize the interpretations of contexual factors (p.277) rather than assuming them (as has happened now and again in organizational theory devoted to field-level analysis — these are assumptions that occasionally must be made in order to do the diffusion studies so common in neo-I).

B. Display the on-going micro-maintenances of apparently stable institutional forms in daily practice AND/OR discover how stable institutional forms in daily practice result in change over time such that they transform the forms they are intended (in the behavioralist sense) to prolong.

C. Enliven analysis of actors — old new institionalism (let’s say) emphasized two types of actors, “cultural dopes” or “heroric ‘change agents'” the reason being that action was essentially assumed to operate at a level unnecessary to fully capture during large-scale field studies (i.e., so managers simply sought legitimacy at all costs, we assumed, and mimicked their peers) OR in the move to caputre the actions of real actors (instead of assuming organizational entitivity) the studies overwhelmingly invovled entrepreueurs and celebrated/worshipped their field-altering accomplishments, respectively. The new emphasis (of, let’s say, new new institutionalism) sort of smacks of STS lab studies where we saw the how the mundane facets of scientists’ behaviors in labs resulted in field-altering science. Now, neo-I wants to avoid momentous events, or, at minimum, show how seeming huge events were a long time in the making and like all experiments involved loads of failure, which demands of writers the ability to show how local affairs prompt shifts in conventions (locally or broadly) (p.277).

Why is this so good for STS? We have already done much of this type of work, and have oodles of folks committed to these axioms for analysis. The only thing we really need now is a bridge between these two camps — while STS could not break into neo-I on the topic of technology, Powell and Colyvas might have just opened the door to an new institutionalism in STS…