Challenges of Institutional Theory – Reflections from the EGOS 2014 conference

I have commentated central debates about the developments of institutional theory – in the case of the NIW2014 conference in Rome, institutional logics have been of central concern. Institutionalism also has been debated at EGOS 2014 – at least in the two subthemes of Greenwood et al. Rethinking Responses to Institutional Complexity and Pinheiro et al. Public Sector Reforms and Organizational Responses: Comparing Universities and Hospitals and Engwall et al. Universities in Unsettled Times as well as in the sub-plenary New Directions in Institutional Innovation with talks from Eva Boxenbaum, Marc Ventresca and Roy Suddaby.

Boxenbaum promoted an institutional imperialism by suggesting to incorporate findings from other sciences like neuro-sciences. This remembers of the Institutional Logics-book by Thornton, Occasio and Lounsbury (2012), which is presented as an attempt to position their developments of new institutionalism as a new and comprehensive meta-theory competing with Giddens structuration theory and other grand theories of society.

Since there was no moderator, a direct collusion of attitudes and ideas have been avoided, but during his talk, Ventresca revealed a sceptical position towards the imperialistic position Boxenbaum represented: “If everything is institutional, then it doesn´t help us to understand the world.” Ventresca rightly observes a “downfall as a discrete analytical stance”. Institutionalism now seems to claim explaining everything by labeling everything as something institutional.

Roy Suddaby made this point even more sharp. He started his presentation with an idom: “has institutional theory jumped the shark?” He observes a lack of construct clarity and coherence as well as tendency towards the trivialization of change and institutions. Excessive interest in studying institutional change has lead to perceive any changes as institutional change: “Any change process, however trivial, has become institutional change.” This means studying every social phenomena as institutional. So we have to bethink the very idea of institutions – endurance (this point has been also made by Elke Weik at NIW2013 in Warsow)

But reclaiming to contribute to the understanding of our world, Institutionalism might rather recognize his limits and concentrate on further elaborating the foundations. On the other hand, imperialistic tendencies can emerge into positive effects of interdisciplinary (recall my thoughts from the Bucharest-Workshop: an economist studying behavior of academics can understand the limits of its market approach).

All in all, EGOS was worth going and we came home with some constructive feedback on our papers and inspirations for our further research.

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  1. Pingback: Universities in Unsettled Times – More Reflections from EGOS | Science Studies

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