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The Institutional Logics PerspectiveA New Approach to Culture, Structure and Process$

Patricia H. Thornton, William Ocasio, and Michael Lounsbury

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780199601936

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2013

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199601936.001.0001

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Introduction to the Institutional Logics Perspective

Introduction to the Institutional Logics Perspective

(p.1) Chapter 1 Introduction to the Institutional Logics Perspective
The Institutional Logics Perspective

Patricia H. Thornton

William Ocasio

Michael Lounsbury

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter introduces the institutional logics perspective as an analytical framework for institutional analysis. It lays out the goal of the book as a primer and programmatic statement that distinguishes the perspective from neo-institutional theory and proposes novel theory to flesh out the meta-theory initially suggested by Friedland and Alford (1991). Second, it discusses the suitability of the perspective for inter-disciplinary integration of institutional research across the social sciences. Third, it sets out the purpose of four of the central meta-theoretical principles of the institutional logics perspective and introduces an integrated model of the cross level effects that is discussed in detail in the following chapters.

Keywords:   neo-institutional theory, institutional logics perspective, meta-theoretical principles, social science research, cross-level effects model


This book is about how the institutional logics perspective transforms institutional theory. We three authors have come together to meld our insights in analyzing the origins, interpretation, and growth of this rapidly developing literature. In the process, we elaborate and extend its theoretical and methodological reach and suggest new ideas for future research. While we include substantial literature reviews to illustrate our arguments, a comprehensive survey of the literature is not our purpose. Instead, our aims are twofold pronged: to produce a primer that imparts a programmatic statement on the institutional logics perspective that distinguishes it from neoinstitutional theory and to synthesize and propose novel theory to further flesh out the metatheory initially suggested by Friedland and Alford (1991). Ultimately, advancing theory construction and testing involves a process of discovery that is best accomplished by sharing ideas among a community of junior and senior scholars. Thus, our purpose is to elaborate and pollinate the core ideas of the institutional logics perspective with hopes of further galvanizing a community of scholars to develop new theory and empirical research.

In this chapter we first introduce the institutional logics perspective as an analytical framework for institutional analysis. Second, we describe the overall aims of the book and the analytical style in which the material is presented. Third, we briefly discuss the suitability of institutional logics for interdisciplinary integration of institutional research across the social sciences. Last, we discuss the purpose of four central metatheoretical principles of the institutional logics perspective and introduce an integrated model of the cross-level effects that will be discussed in detail in the following chapters.

The concept of institutional logics is intuitively attractive, but arguably difficult to define and even harder to apply in an analytically useful manner. (p.2) Thornton and Ocasio (2008) define an institutional logic as the socially constructed, historical patterns of cultural symbols and material practices, including assumptions, values, and beliefs, by which individuals and organizations provide meaning to their daily activity, organize time and space, and reproduce their lives and experiences. While institutional analysis has a long history in the social sciences, institutional logics researchers are now experimenting with new theory and methods that address long-standing problems of interest in the social sciences. We craft a synthetic and extended analysis of institutional logics research and develop significant elaborations and novel theory. We present this material in an advanced yet user-friendly analytical framework for scholars engaged in the many provocative questions about how we are all affected by the world of institutions—questions of relevance across the social sciences.

Institutional Logics as an Analytical Framework

The institutional logics perspective is a metatheoretical framework for analyzing the interrelationships among institutions, individuals, and organizations in social systems. It aids researchers interested in questions of how individual and organizational actors are influenced by their situation in multiple social locations in an interinstitutional system, for example the institutional orders of the family, religion, state, market, professions, and corporation. Conceptualized as a theoretical model, each institutional order of the interinstitutional system distinguishes unique organizing principles, practices, and symbols that influence individual and organizational behavior. Institutional logics represent frames of reference that condition actors’ choices for sensemaking, the vocabulary they use to motivate action, and their sense of self and identity. The principles, practices, and symbols of each institutional order differentially shape how reasoning takes place and how rationality is perceived and experienced.

The origin of the theoretical and empirical research that we know today as the institutional logics perspective was first presented by Friedland and Alford in 1991 as a chapter in an edited volume that ironically attempted to solidify and redirect a research program in quite a different direction—on structural and cognitive isomorphism of organizational fields (Powell and DiMaggio 1991). The ideas in Friedland and Alford’s chapter were later drawn upon by scholars examining how institutional logics moderated the selection theory of organizations (Haveman and Rao 1997) and how institutional logics moderated the attention of organizations in making strategic decisions (Thornton and Ocasio 1999). While not part of Friedland and Alford’s (1991) chapter, it is noteworthy that important precursors to the institutional logics perspective (p.3) had been developing with the work on logics and practice (Bourdieu 1977), corporate institutional logics (Jackall 1988), interpretive schemes (Greenwood and Hinings 1988), conceptions of control (Fligstein 1985, 1987, 1990), and dominant logics as filters on attention (Prahalad and Bettis 1986).

Now, more than ten years hence, the institutional logics perspective has coalesced into a vibrant community of scholars, and is recognized as a core perspective in sociology and organization theory (Greenwood et al. 2008). Research in this fast-forming arena has been conducted in a variety of commercial and public domains such as savings and loan organizations (Haveman and Rao 1997), universities (Townley 1997), book publishing companies (Thornton and Ocasio 1999; Thornton 2001, 2002), health care organizations (Scott et al. 2000), French cuisine (Rao, Monin, and Durand 2003), equity markets (Zajac and Westphal 2004), symphony orchestras (Glynn and Lounsbury 2005), mutual funds (Lounsbury 2007), banking (Marquis and Lounsbury 2007), architects (C. Jones and Livne-Tarandach 2008), medical education (Dunn and Jones 2010), microfinance (Battilana and Dorado 2010), and shareholder value (R. E. Meyer and Höllerer 2010), among others.

Friedland and Alford (1991) initially gained the attention of a handful of scholars with their critique of the deficits of organization and neoinstitutional theory for not situating “actors” in a societal context. As we will discuss in subsequent chapters, their critique continues to be the wellspring of fertile ideas in need of further development. They argued that society and social relations are not just about the diffusion of material structures, but also about culture and the symbolic. They posited not a theory of environmental effects on organizations, but instead a metatheory of institutions that includes individuals and organizations—with more than enough import to reach across the social sciences.

Friedland and Alford’s (1991) critique covered much more: It asked why network theory doesn’t explain why people are connected, what they are likely to say, and why power and status do not have universal effects. It railed against rational-choice theory, arguing that the meaning of rationality varies by institutional order—within the sphere of the market, sensemaking occurs through the lens of self-interest; but under the influence of the professions it does not or does so in a tempered way, for example through concerns over personal reputation, professional association, and quality of craft. Their view of society as constituted by multiple institutional orders helps us to understand the broader array of organizing by both people and organizations. Their critique also marked political sociology and by implication political science in the sense that they argued that the meanings of power and resources vary by institutional order. Self-interest is not generally applicable across institutional settings. Instead, the institutional logics perspective is fundamentally about how to specify the countervailing and moderating effects on self-interest and (p.4) rationality and, for that matter, to realize that while markets are institutions too, the professions cannot be completely dominated by markets (Scott et al. 2000). Similarly, individuals and organizations, if only subliminally, are aware of the differences in the cultural norms, symbols, and practices of different institutional orders and incorporate this diversity into their thoughts, beliefs, and decision making. That is, agency, and the knowledge that makes agency possible, will vary by institutional order; we develop this idea in chapters 4 and 5. In essence, the institutional logics perspective developed from neoinstitutional theory, yet is distinct from neoinstitutional theory; the chapter by Friedland and Alford (1991) lit the way to this new approach to institutional analysis. We will in the subsequent chapters carve out various segments of their far-ranging critique for discussion and theory development in the context of the literature on the institutional logics perspective.

Friedland and Alford’s (1991) original formulation motivated significant research by focusing on the macro aspects of bringing the influences of society back into institutional analysis. However, the institutional logics perspective has the capacity to motivate and guide research questions at both the micro and macro levels of analysis. In this book, we focus in an integrative fashion on both levels—on how institutions both constrain and enable individuals and organizations. While actors may reproduce behaviors consistent with existing institutional logics, they also have the capacity to innovate and thus transform institutional logics. What is important from an institutional logics perspective is that more micro processes of change are built from translations, analogies, combinations, and adaptations of more macro institutional logics. At the end of this chapter, we foreshadow an integrated model of cross-level effects that we flesh out in the subsequent chapters of the book.

Aims of the Book

In this book, we clarify and elaborate the institutional logics perspectives and lay the foundations for the progressive development of the perspective. In the process, we take stock of exemplary research and illustrate the relationships among these studies. Where possible, we integrate research to foster research community (B. Cohen 1991). We consolidate prior research and write new material in an attempt to address sources of confusion and to resolve or differentiate theoretical and methodological issues raised by scholars in recent professional workshops on the institutional logics perspective. Overall, our goals are to analyze, synthesize, differentiate, and further develop theoretical and methodological tools relevant to junior and senior scholars in the subdisciplines of organization and management theory, business strategy and policy, economic and cultural sociology, and cognitive psychology.

(p.5) Analytical Style of the Book

We probe the edges of institutional logics by presenting new views yet to be tested by empirical research. As three scholars, each with our own distinct perspectives and particular expertise in institutional analysis, we have had intense working discussions striving for consensus. However, we do not view differences as necessarily deleterious; they are important to the growth of our research community.

To guard against ideological debates and to increase the social science rigor in our discussion, where possible given the state of development of the institutional logics perspective, we apply the theoretical research program approach in our analyses (J. Berger and Zelditch 1993). Using an organic metaphor, the theoretical research program approach structures our analysis of the field to address a number of questions: Who planted the ideas? Who stimulated the growth of the theory? Why did the theory and empirical research branch in the directions they did? Why did some branches wither and die out while others flourished? Who is doing the pruning to force new growth—and why? The theoretical research-program approach gives us some guidance in how to assess such criteria as empirical corroboration, analytical power, scope conditions, precision, and value in motivating applications (J. Berger and Zelditch 1993).

While orienting strategies such as the institutional logics perspective have been associated with the growth of theories, we do not mean to suggest any ideological commitment that theorists have sometimes shown to paradigms (Kuhn 1962). We aim to distinguish an institutional logic from an ideology. The term ideology aligns itself with the doctrine of materialism, whereas the institutional logics perspective emphasizes the interpenetration of the symbolic and material aspects of institutions. The term ideology implies a relatively rigid and value-laden doctrine of thought, whereas the institutional logics perspective is a metatheoretical perspective for studying how individual and organizational actors are influenced by and create and modify elements of institutional logics—which conceivably changes values. Indeed, an institutional logics analysis may point out some of the social mechanisms by which ideologies become attached to particular social contexts. Thus, the key distinction between the two terms is that the study of institutional logics pertains to abstract analysis and ideology operates in relation to a socially defined audience whose members seek to obtain certain practical advantages through social action (Ashcraft 1986: 7).

Institutional Analysis as Interdisciplinary

Institutional theories include a variety of approaches by scholars spread across the social sciences, in the disciplines of political science, economics, and (p.6) sociology. This research does not represent a unified body of thought (Scott 2008a), but a group of alternative theories (J. Berger and Zelditch 1993). Hall and Taylor (1996) comment that it is striking how distinct these schools of thought are in burnishing their own paradigms and how little theoretical integration has occurred. While these disparate literatures are not wrongheaded, each provides only a partial description of the forces accounting for institutions’ impact on human and organizational behavior. Moreover, each approach commands a partial set of methods of analysis. This leaves the broader field of institutional analysis with fragmented orienting strategies and spotty knowledge of the whole. Our goal in presenting the institutional logics perspective is to reach out to potentially allied research communities, integrating insights and theories to illuminate the whole more fully.

Pointing the Way to a New Approach

A discussion of the foundational principles of the institutional logics perspective is necessary to address whether or not there is such potential for integration of institutionalists across the social sciences. This leads us to outline four of the fundamental metatheoretical principles of the institutional logics perspective: the duality of agency and structure, institutions as material and symbolic, institutions as historically contingent, and institutions at multiple levels of analysis. These principles guide and frame our discussions throughout the chapters to follow.

Social Structure and Action

A core premise of the institutional logics perspective is that the interests, identities, values, and assumptions of individuals and organizations are embedded within prevailing institutional logics (Thornton and Ocasio 2008). This idea distinguishes an institutional logics perspective from macro structural approaches, which emphasize the primacy of structure over action (DiMaggio and Powell 1983), as well as Parsonian (1956) perspectives on institutions, which separate the institutional from the economic or technical sectors of society (e.g., J. W. Meyer and Scott 1983).

The history of the social sciences reveals a long antinomy between scholars on the one hand who have emphasized social structural constraints on action (Wrong 1961) and those who have focused on how individuals and organizations make a difference in creating, maintaining, and transforming institutions through their actions (Child 1972). By actions we refer to the concept of agency. Scott (2008b: 77) defines agency as an actor’s ability to have some (p.7) effect on the social world—altering the rules, relational ties, or distribution of resources. We highlight several orienting strategies that have guided theoretical development on this thorny problem of agency and structure to highlight the foundation upon which we will build. An orienting strategy is a metatheoretical structure consisting of a system of interrelated assumptions and conceptions of the actor, action, and order (J. Berger and Zelditch 1993).

The key distinguishing characteristic between the institutional logics perspective and the orienting strategies we discuss below is that it incorporates theoretical mechanisms that explain the partial autonomy of actors from social structure. As we will explain in the core of the book, it is the avenues for partial autonomy that help explain how institutions constrain and enable individual and organizational actors, thus creating a theory of institutional stability and change.

An orienting strategy that bears on the theoretical dilemma of structure and action is DiMaggio and Powell’s (1983) theory of structural isomorphism. Of the three forms of isomorphism—mimetic, normative, and coercive—only the last implies some theory of agency other than conformity and habitual behavior—for example through powerful regulatory actors. The other two forms of isomorphism align with the structuralist view that social relations are patterned and constraining to free initiative of individuals and organizations. As Scott (2008b: 76) notes, the main emphasis of institutional theory more generally has been to privilege continuity and constraint in social structure. This view, in contrast with economic and political game theoretic models of rationality (Scott 2008b: 67), has made neoinstitutional theory a target of criticism for its inability to explain agentive behavior (Barley and Tolbert 1997; Hirsch and Lounsbury 1997). We will elaborate in subsequent chapters, discussing how strategic behavior fundamentally relates to the capacity of individuals and organizations to conceptualize and act upon alternative views of rationality. We will argue that a partial solution is inherent in the near-decomposability of elements of the interinstitutional system: Each institutional order has its own sense of rationality.

Giddens (1984) developed another orienting strategy through his concept of structuration in which he coined the phrase “the duality of social structure and action,” arguing that individual actors are simultaneously constrained and enabled by existing social structures. According to Giddens (1984), social structures are composed of rules, resources, and practices that are both product and platform in the enactment and reproduction of social life. His recursive interdependent model purportedly allows for the simultaneous theorizing of the sources of both social structure and social change.

While actors are knowledgeable, reflexive, and voluntary in enhancing and maintaining their power, Giddens’ (1984) structuration concept does not indicate what influences the cognitive framing of actors’ self interests, (p.8) power, and proclivities. Just what is it about social structure? What rules are selected by actors and what resources are the foci of their attention, particularly given conditions in which more than one set of rules and resources may be applicable (March and Olsen 1989). What meanings do individuals attach to their own and to others’ behavior? Overall, what are the limits to Giddens’ plastic view of a structure substantiated in action?

To address these questions, one would need to understand Giddens’ (1984) concept of structuration within a larger social and cultural system. However, Giddens’ (1984) theory has no conception of social system (Winder 2001). Moreover, the assumption that resources are used to enhance or maintain power (Giddens 1984: 21), contrasts with the assumptions of the institutional logics perspective in which how and why an individual uses power to express their interests takes on different meanings depending on their location within the interinstitutional system (Friedland and Alford 1991). While we agree with Giddens in that a theory of practice is needed, and we applaud his idea of the duality of agency and structure, we think his perspective is incomplete, not growing past the abstract level through systematic empirical research (Barley and Tolbert 1997).1 In the subsequent chapters, we develop our arguments within three levels of social systems: organizational and institutional fields and societies.

In reaction to the lack of a theory of agency in the neoinstitutional perspective, a third orienting strategy was launched by scholars linking ideas and interests through the concept of the “institutional entrepreneur” (DiMaggio 1988; Fligstein 1997, 2001; Garud, Jain, and Kumaraswamy 2002; Munir and Phillips 2005; Levy and Scully 2007). Institutional entrepreneurs engage in a competition for the ability to own and frame an idea in hopes that they can express their self-interest in shaping how the idea is institutionalized (Hardy and Maguire 2008). For example, research has shown that institutional entrepreneurs manipulate cultural symbols and practices by story telling (Lounsbury and Glynn 2001; Zilber 2007; Martens, Jennings, and Jennings 2007), rhetorical strategies (Suddaby and Greenwood 2005; Greenwood and Suddaby 2006); and macrocultural discourse (T. B. Lawrence and Phillips 2004).

However, in their review, Hardy and Maguire (2008) warn against resorting to the hero entrepreneur to construct a theory of action and institutional change. While this literature has burgeoned, it has been criticized for (p.9) an overuse of descriptive case studies of institutional entrepreneurs who have the unbridled ability to freely manipulate institutions. Absent in this research is a theory of how institutional entrepreneurs discover their ideas and are embedded in or autonomous from the social systems that motivate their ideas (Leca and Naccache 2006). In chapter 5, we begin to develop a theory of institutional entrepreneurship through comparative case analysis.

A fourth orienting strategy germane to the problem of structure and action is Swidler’s (1986) concept of how individuals use culture as a “toolkit.” Through case study analysis of the culture of poverty, she deconstructs the long-standing Parsonian (1951) theory of voluntary action. According to Parsons (1951), social systems comprise value orientations that are internalized by individuals through socialization. This in turn orients them to make certain choices. “Culture thus affects human action through values that direct actors to some ends rather than others” (Swidler 1986: 274). Swidler (1986), however, argues that cultural values are not necessarily an indication of what people want or a predictor of their actions. The case studies she reviews show “people may share common aspirations, while remaining profoundly different in the way their culture organizes their overall pattern of behavior” (Swidler 1986: 275).

Swidler’s (1986) insights spawned a potential variant to the problem of explaining action by suggesting that culture exists in fragments, not the monolithic system proposed by Parsons (1951). The questions are how do toolkits fit with the metatheory of institutional logics and what advantage is there to linking the two perspectives (cf., DiMaggio 1997)? As we will discuss in chapter 3, the interinstitutional system provides a nearly decomposable model of culture in which fragments or categorical elements are available and differentially accessible to individuals and organizations to apply in novel social situations in order to fit practical needs in specific local settings (Thornton 2004; Lounsbury and Crumley 2007; see chapters 4 and 5). In this sense, linking the toolkit and the interinstitutional system has the potential to move beyond descriptions of institutional entrepreneurs to foreshadow a theory of institutional entrepreneurship. In subsequent chapters, we illustrate both the micro and macro mechanisms of this process and apply a typology of institutional logics to show how three institutional entrepreneurs discovered their ideas and mobilized support for them.

However, the toolkit approach has a more limited view of the role of norms and values in shaping action than that of the institutional logics perspective; the role of values for supposed toolkit users is assumed to be for justification rather than moral motivation (see Boltanski and Thévenot 1991). But, even if the concept of values is a thin theory of motivation, the concept of toolkit in its original formulation is without a clear mechanism for motivation. (p.10) DiMaggio (1997), in linking the toolkit concept to cognitive and social psychology, offers a solution to this problem by arguing that cultural toolkits are dependent on situational cues available in the environment, placing the mechanism for action outside the person.

DiMaggio’s (1997) reasoning stems from the discovery that much of the cultural information that individuals internalize is inherently contradictory and cognitively stored without reference to a truth value, and thus cannot provide a coherent theory of motivation. As we will discuss in subsequent chapters, these two aspects—the nearly decomposable nature of the interinstitutional system and its capacity for framing cultural contradictions cued by the environment—makes the toolkit concept compatible with the institutional logics perspective and provides a potential solution to the motivation/justification paradox (Vaisey 2008).

While the institutional logics perspective does not discount the structuralist view or the concept of the institutional entrepreneur, it is not limited to them. The key to understanding the structure–action question is not a binary contrast between rational and nonrational actors. Instead, the goal is to examine how action depends on how individuals and organizations are situated within and influenced by the spheres of different institutional orders, each of which presents a unique view of rationality.

The topic of structure and action and embedded agency continues to interest scholars of organizations and institutions (e.g., Sewell 1992; Holm 1995; Emirbayer and Mische 1998; Seo and Creed 2002; Battilana 2006; Greenwood and Suddaby 2006). In the following chapters, we will discuss in greater depth that there is the means to theorize and measure structure and action simultaneously through the interdependence yet partial autonomy of the institutional orders of the interinstitutional system.

Institutions as Material and Symbolic

A key principle of the institutional logics perspective is that each of the institutional orders in society has both material and symbolic elements. By material aspects of institutions, we refer to structures and practices; by symbolic aspects, we refer to ideation and meaning, recognizing that the symbolic and the material are intertwined and constitutive of one another. Zilber (2008) defines symbols as embodied in structures and practices, while structures and practices express and affect the meaning of symbols. This is not to say that the material and the symbolic cannot be analytically separated; indeed studies show that the seemingly same institutional practices and structures may be infused with different actors and as a result have different (p.11) meanings and institutional effects (Zilber 2002; DiMaggio and Mullen 2000). Moreover, symbols are not forever stable; their meaning can never be determined once and for all by a given linguistic system. Instead, they always have the capacity to break with context and take on different connotations (Zilber 2008: 161).

Friedland and Alford (1991) illustrate why any institutional analysis needs to consider symbols and practices. Both the family and religion, while typically not considered part of the economic sphere, are directly involved in the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services (Becker 1976). Similarly, markets, while often not considered part of the cultural sphere, are directly shaped by culture and social structure, including networks of social relationships as well as structures of power, status, and domination (Granovetter 1985).

The institutional logics perspective accounts for the dynamics of both the material and the symbolic. This is perhaps the key distinction between the institutional logics perspective and early neoinstitutional theory (J. W. Meyer and Rowan 1977). We are not, however, advocating a research language of mutual constitution that melds cultural symbols and material structures together and rules out distinguishing the two on metatheoretical grounds (Archer 1996; Vaisey 2008). Instead, we are developing the theoretical and methodological tools that enable researchers to partition symbolic from structural effects (DiMaggio 1994) so that researchers can better understand the causal ordering and operative mechanisms. This type of research is already underway, showing for example that cultural taste can shape network structure (Lizardo 2006). Such fundamental knowledge has many implications when applied to business strategy and public policy, particularly in countries like France, which unequivocally understands the strategic value of symbols and cultural resources (Jourdan, Thornton, and Durand 2011).

There is another important aspect to considering both the symbolic and the material. Without the symbolic aspects of institutions, there is hardly opportunity to theorize institutional heterogeneity and change because social practices become institutionalized only in the sense that they achieve collective meaning (Dobbin 1994: 228). This is because it is first through symbols that the meaning of material practices translates and travels—theorization is a diffusion mechanism (Douglas 1986; Strang and Meyer 1993; G. F. Davis, Diekmann, and Tinsley 1994; G. F. Davis and Greve 1997; Zilber 2006, 2008). However, how does one link together all the pieces and levels of theory? By integrating the symbolic with the material, the institutional logics perspective integrates research on culture and cognition to provide an orienting strategy for a theory of how culture shapes action.

(p.12) Institutions as Historically Contingent

The institutional logics perspective assumes that institutions are historically contingent, which is generally consistent with institutional theory. Friedland and Alford (1991) recognized that many studies of organization and economic phenomena reveal findings that are valid in one time period but not in others. Using anecdotal data, they argued that institutions are historically contingent—claiming that the definitions of the common terms profit and debt change with a shift in accounting procedures and tax laws as these concepts are subject to larger societal change pressures. We note their example on regulatory institutions refers not only to the passing of new laws, but also to the inherent flexibility of existing laws as exemplified by changing interpretations over historical time. As Scott (2008b: 54) notes, many laws are ambiguous and even controversial and are therefore opportunities for collective sensemaking. For example, the dynamic unfolding of legal interpretations is well documented in institutional theory (Edelman 1992; Edelman, Abraham, and Erlanger 1992; Suchman and Edelman 1997). As Edelman, Uggen, and Erlanger (1999: 406–7) find with grievance-procedure laws, the content and meaning of law is determined within the social field it is designed to regulate.

Large-sample studies have examined the historical contingency of individual, organizational, and economic effects. Studies of the higher education publishing industry on institutional logics and organizational decisions have partitioned the consolidated findings by particular and universal effects across time (Thornton 2004). Founder and ownership effects were found to be universal across historical time, whereas relational and structural effects were particular to a historical period in which the prevailing institutional logic predicted these effects. Many findings predicted by resource dependence and economic theories were found to be historically contingent. Note that the studies included in this meta-analysis made use of both qualitative and quantitative data and methods and rigorous sampling procedures, control variables, and statistical modeling (Thornton 2004: see chapter 8).

Empirical observation indicates that the importance of the interinstitutional system’s institutional orders is not a given in their age of origin and their influence varies over historical time. Modern societies are typically more influenced by the logics of the state, the professions, the corporation, and the market. The salience of the influence of market logics in particular has risen over the last 30 years as shown in multiple studies in various contexts, (Scott et al. 2000; Lounsbury 2002; Zajac and Westphal 2004; R. E. Meyer and Hammerschmid 2004). Evidence suggests that the rise of the influence of any one institutional order relative to another is not always an evolutionary or linear progression driven by scientization (J. W. Meyer et al. 1997) or market rationalization (DiMaggio and Powell 1983).

(p.13) Though we have little research specifically on this topic, preliminary evidence suggests that the influence of one institutional order does not necessarily or completely replace another. While not the focus of the publishing industry studies, today the editorial logic still exits in many privately held firms, though it is far from dominant in the industry as a whole and its pattern of erosion was evolutionary as validated by hazard-rate models (Thornton and Ocasio 1999, see footnote 9).

Scholars using case-study methods have observed cyclical patterns and punctuated equilibria of historical change in institutional logics existing in particular instantiations of accounting and architecture, respectively (Thornton, Jones, and Kury 2005). Along these lines, institutional logics studies have examined counter logics that create dialectic tension between competing institutional orders (Barley and Kunda 1992) and stem the tide of wholesale institutional change, in effect producing a new equilibrium or period of systemic stability. For example, Marquis and Lounsbury’s (2007) study of the banking sector with its reemergence of an older institutional order, the community logic, created a counterweight force on the rise of market-based banking. We see indicators of cyclical patterns of historical contingency in other studies in which participants operate under the tensions of multiple institutional spheres, such as in genetic science with its conflicting logics of academic science (professions) and commerce (market and corporation; Murray 2010) and in medical education with its dual science and care professional logics (Dunn and Jones 2010). The historical contingencies of institutional logic emergence, re-emergence, and change are relatively novel and unexplored topics discussed in chapters 5 and 7.

The metatheoretical assumption of institutions as historically contingent is necessary to our overall goal of building a theory of institutional change and stability. Our goal is not to develop universal theories of behavior and structure, but to develop the elemental parts of theory—the mechanisms (G. F. Davis and Marquis 2005) that mediate between cause and effect and unfold over time (Gross 2009). Any true picture of social mechanisms must be observed not only across historical time, but also across multiple levels of analysis to capture the cross-level effects.

Institutions at Multiple Levels of Analysis

The institutional logics perspective assumes that institutions operate at multiple levels of analysis and that actors are nested in higher order levels—individual, organizational, field, and societal. This assumption conforms to the empirical observations that institutions are in conflict, but also simultaneously provides constraint against and opportunities for change by actors (p.14) (Friedland and Alford 1991). If we believe these assumptions, building theory requires researchers to clarify how mechanisms are analytically distinct while allowing for the combining and disaggregating of actors and situations within a given set of characteristics. Does the actor change, or does the structure change (Hernes 1998)? What are the cross-level interaction effects? To answer these questions, one has to identify the mechanisms that mediate between cause and effect. They are the elements of a theory that operate at different levels of analysis and, if specified, make the theory more precise and general (Stinchcombe 1991).

Hernes (1998) defines social mechanisms as the researcher’s construction of a virtual reality to examine, make sense of, and construct a theory of reality. The goodness of fit between the virtual and the real is determined by comparing the implications of the social mechanisms with the facts. To make such comparisons, researchers, as a part of theory building, construct devices called mechanisms to infer what outcomes will result. Mechanisms have two sets of abstract elements, the specification of actors, and the specification of the structure in which the actors are assumed to operate. For example, the mechanism for agency can represent actor differences or actors can be interchangeable within structures in which the mechanism for agency represents differences in the slots in the social structure (Hernes 1998; Collins 2004).

The metatheory underlying the institutional logics perspective has grown around the concept of the interinstitutional system as it assumes that institutions operate at multiple levels of analysis with potential for cross-level interaction effects. In chapter 3, we represent the interinstitutional system as an ideal type because it is then useful to the researcher to translate social science observations into mechanisms—in Hernes’ (1998) terms, into a virtual reality—so that aggregation and disaggregation of the operable mechanisms can be theorized as analytically distinct.

This is important because a researcher’s selection of level of analysis privileges a priori the selection of problems and tools for investigating a problem and therefore what they are likely to observe. Researchers that combine multiple levels of analysis in their research are more likely to observe a more accurate picture because, by observing across levels, they can see the workings of mechanisms and—according to the institutional logics perspective—the contradictory nature of institutional logics. Part of Friedland and Alford’s (1991: 256) motivation in introducing the idea of the interinstitutional system and nested levels of analysis was to defend against prior functionalist or consensual interpretations in sociology, economics, and organization theory. In chapters 3 and 5, we discuss the model of the interinstitutional system in greater detail.

(p.15) Contents of the Book

The spine of the book is provided by our development of two models: the interinstitutional system and the cross-level effects. The elaborations and novel theory we develop around these two models motivate the content of the book and distinguish the institutional logics perspective from neoinstitutional theory. In Figure 1.1, we present a synthesis of these two concepts to outline the contributions of the book. It fleshes out the institutional logics metatheory and illustrates how the cross-level mechanisms operate from the macro to micro and micro to macro levels of analysis. The descriptions below for chapters 3 through 7 annotate Figure 1.1.


Chapter 2 analyzes how the institutional logic perspective develops from, yet is distinctive from neoinstitutional theory. Its main distinguishing feature is the capacity to theorize the duality of the material–practice-based aspects of institutions (DiMaggio and Powell 1983) and their cultural–symbolic-based aspects (J. W. Meyer and Rowan 1977). The neoinstitutional perspective is a set of concepts and theories of environmental effects on organizational and cultural homogeneity. The institutional logics perspective is a metatheory of institutions that includes organizations and explains not simply homogeneity, but also heterogeneity. We employ J. Berger and Zelditch’s (1993) approach to analyzing theoretical research programs to identify the precursors, showing how the institutional logics perspective developed in reaction to theoretical limitations in neoinstitutional theory. This analytic method allows us to analyze and benchmark the growth of theoretical orienting strategies

                     Figure 1.1. A Cross-Level Model of Institutional Logics Combining Micro–Macro and Macro–Micro

Figure 1.1. A Cross-Level Model of Institutional Logics Combining Micro–Macro and Macro–Micro

(p.16) relative to one another. We use it in subsequent chapters to analyze theory growth and foreshadow future areas of research.

Macro—Societal Level

Chapter 3 elaborates a model of society as an interinstitutional system by developing a new institutional logic—the community logic. This elaboration extends Thornton’s (2004) proliferation of Friedland and Alford’s (1991) initial formulation of the interinstitutional system. The interinstitutional system is one of the central innovations of the institutional logics perspective. Developed as a model of ideal types, we discuss the interinstitutional system’s usefulness as a theoretical and methodological tool for developing institutional logics research. In particular, we discuss how it can be used to identify solutions to theoretical problems in institutional analysis such as the partial autonomy of social structure and action, the definition of an institutional field, and the relationship between the concepts of power and agency.

Micro and Meso—Individual and Organization Levels

Chapter 4 develops a new theory on the microfoundations of the institutional logics perspective to explain how macro-level institutional logics are available and accessible to individuals and organizations. Which aspects of institutional logics are activated is contingent on the applicability of accessible knowledge structures to salient aspects of the situation and the environment. While Friedland and Alford (1991) argued that individuals and organizations use and manipulate available institutional logics, their arguments were focused at the societal level; they did not develop the micro- and meso-level theory. Grounded in the rigorous research literature in cognitive and social psychology, the theory of dynamic constructivism is utilized to cultivate a larger model of cross-level effects of the micro and macro mechanisms that undergird the institutional logics perspective.

Micro and Macro—Individual and Societal Levels

Chapter 5 grounds the theoretical discussion of the interinstitutional system presented in chapter 3 using empirical case analysis and builds on the micro theory of availability and accessibility of institutional logics developed in chapter 4. It discusses the historical contingency of the institutional orders and discusses stability and change in the interinstitutional system. We use three case narratives of entrepreneurs to illustrate how to use the interinstitutional system as an ideal type to conduct an analysis of the individual- and societal-level effects of the origins of innovative ideas and institutional change. (p.17) This demonstration shows how the availability and accessibility of institutional logics is contingent on individuals’ vertical specialization in different institutional orders and their capacity for horizontal generalization of categorical elements across institutional orders. The case narrative analyses generate a new theory of how individuals recombine institutional logics through switching referent categories from different institutional orders and blending and segregating categorical elements of those different institutional orders.

Meso and Macro—Organization and Institutional Field Levels

Chapter 6 builds on the model of microfoundations elaborated in chapter 4 to develop a model of how different kinds of social interaction, for example decision making, sensemaking, and collective mobilization, mediate between institutional logics and the dynamics of identities and practices within and across organizations. The chapter bridges the literature on institutional logics, practice, and organizational identity; it links the organization and institutional field levels of analysis. It develops two novel process models to conceptualize organizational identity and practices as the key conceptual linkages between institutional logics and intraorganizational processes. The models are recursive in that institutional logics shape organizational identities and practices and vice versa.

Meso and Macro—Institutional Field and Societal Levels

Chapter 7 examines the emergence and evolution of institutional logics at the institutional field level of analysis. It integrates the practice literature with the research on theories, narratives, and vocabularies of practice. It develops a typology of change in field-level institutional logics that distinguishes transformational changes from replacement, blending, and segregation, from developmental changes such as assimilation, elaboration, expansion, and contractions of logics. The chapter illustrates how institutional field-level logics are both embedded in societal-level logics and subject to institutional field‐level change processes that generate distinct instantiations of societal-level institutional logics.


Chapter 8 distills the implications of our analysis of neoinstitutional theory and our development of new theory in the institutional logics perspective. These theoretical extensions include a new variant of the interinstitutional system in chapter 3, a new theory of the availability and accessibility of institutional logics in chapter 4, a new variant of the contingency of (p.18) availability and accessibility of institutional logics based in the vertical specialization and capacity for horizontal generalization by institutional entrepreneurs in chapter 5, process models to conceptualize organizational identity and practices as the key conceptual linkages between institutional logics and intraorganizational processes in chapter 6, and a new typology of mechanisms explaining changes in institutional logics at the field level of analysis in chapter 7. Last, in chapter 8, we extract the ideas from the discussion sections of each of the chapters, relating these ideas to future research opportunities across the social science disciplines and business and policy arenas.


We have outlined the purpose of the metatheoretical principles of the institutional logics perspective to foreshadow the chapter to follow on the precursors, extensions, and development of new theory. We emphasize our goal is not a literature review, but to extend theory and empirical research in the institutional logics perspective. The primary distinction from neoinstitutional theory is that the institutional logics perspective considers the duality of the material and symbolic aspects of institutions. As a result, the institutional logics perspective represents a general model of cultural heterogeneity unbiased toward the Western world. In contrast, J. W. Meyer and colleagues (1997) were focused on the homogeneity of Western Culture and DiMaggio and Powell (1983) on the homogeneity of organizational fields.

Identifying the foundational principles of the metatheory of the institutional logics perspective, we discussed why these principles have been motivated by prior research and are important to the continued development of institutional analysis. First, the problem of explaining the relationship between structure and agency is perhaps the most important metatheoretical claim of the institutional logics perspective. It is central to understanding how actors change institutions in the context of being conditioned by them. The solution lies in understanding society as an interinstitutional system; doing so enables the researcher to theorize and measure the partial autonomy of agency and structure. Second, incorporating both the symbolic and material aspects of institutions is necessary to observe and measure the dynamics of institutions and hence should lead to richer theories of institutional change. Third, the concept of the historical contingency of institutions is critical to examining the critical questions of institutional logic emergence, re-emergence, and change. Last, multilevel analysis allows the researcher to observe and measure the cross-level effects, the causal mechanisms, which should lead to more precise theory. We presented in Figure 1.1 an overview of a recursive model of the cross-level effects of institutional logic mechanisms. The mechanisms (p.19) and levels of analysis represented in Figure 1.1 are identified with the chapters where the reader can find a fuller discussion of the individual parts of the model.

We provide a comprehensive primer on the institutional logics perspective with the overall goal of motivating junior and senior scholars to advance its theoretical and empirical development. To impart the essential elements of both past and present theorizing, we employed the analytic methods developed by J. Berger and Zelditch (1993) in their study of theoretical research programs. The field of institutional analysis spreads broadly across the social sciences; we believe the institutional logics perspective as metatheory holds promise for fruitful interdisciplinary integration. We believe that institutional analysis is more important to the social sciences than ever before and we can no longer rely on partial descriptions and theories of how institutions shape, motivate, and justify individuals’ and organizations’ actions. We have attempted to develop a metatheory and set of models that goes beyond prior work to integrate and further develop the core concepts of institutional analysis. The ideas in this book are a result of a rich collaboration. We hope that you find the material useful in developing your research ideas and careers and in contributing to institutional logics research.


(1) Barley and Tolbert (1997), building on Giddens (1984) and critiquing of neoinstitutional theory’s limited theory of agency, suggest ways to make structuration theory more dynamic and researchable. They develop a sequential model of institutionalization based on behavioral scripts. The cross-level model of institutions we will present is quite distinct from Barley and Tolbert’s (1997) model: It considers the cognitive, behavioral, cultural and other approaches to agency beyond the relatively mindless cognition of scripts.