At the intersection of materiality, organizational legitimacy and
A study of campus tours1
François-Xavier DE VAUJANY
Dauphine Recherche en Management (DRM), PSL-Université Paris-Dauphine, France
Sara WINTERSTORM VARLANDER
Center for Work, Technology and Organization, Stanford University, USA
Desautels Faculty of Management, McGill University, Canada
1 Earlier drafts of this chapter were presented APROS in December 2015, the 4th Organizations, Artifacts and
Practices (OAP) workshop in June 2014 and the Workshop "Giving visual and material form to ideas, identity
and imagination: architecture, urbanism and sustainable construction" in May 2014. We thank all participants
for their precious feedbacks and comments.
During the last decade or so, the phenomenon of campus tours, also called ‘the Golden Walk’
(Hoover, 2009, 2010; Miller, 2012) has become increasingly widespread, particularly among
U.S. universities, as they have been considered an effective student recruitment practice.
Facing tightened budgets, universities have had to expand their recruitment efforts to generate
substantial applicant pools (Padjen, 2002). Furthermore, higher education has often been
labeled as a business, selling intangible products to students, who are increasingly wary of
debt and consumer savvy (Padjen, 2002; Washburn & Petroshius, 2004), and who consider
multiple factors in their choice of college or university. Thus, universities today are facing
conflicting demands and pressures, dictated by various institutional logics (Jarzabkowski et
al. 2013; Greenwood et al. 2010). On one hand, the industry or market logic prescribes
business-like practices and goals. On the other hand, the social logic dictates values such as
individual learning and the cultivation of the citizens (Gumport, 2000; Carnoy and Rhoten,
2002; Kondakci and Van den Broeck, 2009).
In this complex and changing institutional context, it is crucial for universities to acquire and
maintain their legitimacy (e.g. Meyer and Rowan 1977; DiMaggio and Powell 1983; Elsbach
1994; Scott 1995; Lounsbury and Glynn 2001; Suddaby and Greenwood 2005). Building
legitimacy is imperative for organizations to be perceived as “more meaningful, more
predictable, and more trustworthy” (Suchman, 1995, p. 575) and to receive more support and
resources from external stakeholders (Ashforth and Gibbs, 1990). To sustain legitimacy,
organizations may rely on different broad modalities of justification, or institutional logics
that can dictate various goals and subsequent practices of legitimation.
Thus far, while studies have explored how institutional logics are invoked in symbolic
management practices when firms compete for resources (Jones, Livne-Tarandach, and
Balachnadra, 2010), very few have studied how institutional logics are instantiated in the
material context of organizations (Jones, Boxenbaum, and Anthony, 2013). In order to start
addressing this gap in the literature, here we argue that campus tours constitute a particular,
walking-based, practice that is simultaneously discursive, material, visual and embodied (de
Certeau, 1980, Schatzki, 2001, Rose and Tolia Kelly, 2012; de Vaujany and Vaast, 2016), and
that aims at establishing legitimacy by invoking the material context of the university in its
legitimacy claims. Through the lens of de Certeau (1980) and his attention to walking as a
particular practice that ‘makes space talk’, we address how materiality, through the practice of
walking, is involved in symbolic management that aims at promoting an adherence to diverse,
conflicting institutional logics. Specifically, our research question reads: How do the walking
practices of campus tours invoke materiality to make legitimacy claims?
The organization of the paper is as follows. We first introduce key issues related to
organizational legitimation, followed by an introduction of our lens of walking as a practice in
which space is made alive and invoked in legitimacy claims. We then outline the method we
employed before presenting our findings and resulting propositions related to how
institutional logics are enacted in legitimation practices and the role of materiality therein. We
conclude with a summary of this work’s contributions, limitations, and promising future
How organizations acquire and maintain their legitimacy in complex and changing
institutional contexts has been a significant topic in institutional theory (e.g. Meyer and
Rowan 1977; DiMaggio and Powell 1983; Elsbach 1994; Scott 1995; Lounsbury and Glynn
2001; Suddaby and Greenwood 2005). Organizational legitimacy corresponds to “a
generalized perception or assumption that the actions of an entity are desirable, proper, or
appropriate within some socially constructed system of norms, values, beliefs, and
definitions” (Suchman, 1995, p. 574). The process of legitimation is essential for
organizations to gain support and resources from multiple stakeholders (Ashforth and Gibbs,
Organizations can pursue legitimacy in various ways (Ashford and Gibbs, 1990; Oliver, 1991;
Suchman, 1995). Ashforth and Gibbs (1990) consider that organizations may resort to
substantive or symbolic management in their legitimation efforts. In this paper, the focus lies
on symbolic management that implies that an organization may change the ways in which it
portrays itself to appear more consistent with stakeholders’ expectations. As the number of
organizational relationships tend to grow and organizational fields become more complex
(Kraatz and Block, 2008), it becomes impossible for each and every stakeholder to have deep
substantial knowledge about an organization, which explains why symbolic management has
become increasingly strategic to organizations. Also, managers may resort to symbolic
management since it does not require any substantial changes of the underlying processes and
infrastructure of the organization, but rather involves control over, and creativity with, the
resources at hand. Thus, in contrast to substantive management, which implies that
organizations try to create real, material change in their goals, structures and processes, or in
alterations of socially institutionalized practices (such as role performance and coercive
isomorphism), symbolic management does not involve specific material changes in the ways
organizations operate. However, materiality (in particular that of communication practices
themselves) still remains important in symbolic management, which we argue can be tightly
and powerfully connected to - and amplified by - the material context of the organization. The
materiality of an organization (e.g. buildings, statues, technologies, facilities, pieces of art,
morphology of the area, etc.) is thus selected, visualized or incorporated into organizational
narratives by means of specific communication practices, where the walked campus tours are
Organizations engage in symbolic management when they try to espouse socially acceptable
goals, while actually pursuing less acceptable ones. One example would be organizations that
espouse ethics policies without actually implementing processes for monitoring compliance
with those policies. Organizations deploy various symbolic management strategies. For
instance, through denial and concealment, some organizations may attempt to hide
information about their activities or outcomes that would risk undermining their legitimacy.
Organizations may also attempt to redefine their means and ends. Since legitimation is mainly
a retrospective process, an organization has the freedom to interpret and account for how its
past is aligned with current social values (Maclean, Harvey, and Chia, 2012). Closely related
to this are the implications that removing the organization from a situation may negatively
impact its image or claim to legitimacy. Finally, ceremonial conformity implies that an
organization may claim legitimacy by adopting certain highly visible and salient practices
aligned with social expectations, while not changing the underlying infrastructure of the
organization. These practices are adopted solely for their symbolic value.
Organizations engage in symbolic legitimation efforts depending on whether the organization
faces a need to extend, maintain or defend its legitimacy (Ashforth and Gibbs, 1990). Our
research focuses on legitimation claims aiming at maintaining legitimacy, which is the case
when organizations have “attained a threshold of endorsement sufficient for ongoing activity”
(Ashforth and Gibbs, 1990, p. 183). To maintain their legitimacy, legitimation efforts
especially entail symbolic management-related activities.
The literature on organizational impressions and symbolic management (see, e.g., Elsbach
1994) considers that organizational members, and specifically managers, are instrumental in
their communications as they signal the appropriateness and effectiveness of organizational
activities to internal and external stakeholders (Golant and Sillince, 2007). In this paper, we
follow this tenet and adopt a practice lens that highlights, in a fine-grained way, how walked
campus tours are instrumental for universities to make legitimacy claims and how tours
constitute a clear illustration that shed light on the intertwining of the institutional and
material dimensions involved in legitimation. More specifically, drawing on de Certeau
(1980; 1984) we delve into the practice of walking and movement to understand this
A practice-based, mobile view of legitimation process
In this paper we view legitimation and campus tours as a ‘practice’, which implies that we are
interested in “the fine details of how people use the resources available to them to accomplish
intelligent actions, and how they give those actions sense and meaning” (Gherardi, 2012, p.2).
There are several important differences between practice theories and other theories of a
social nature. One key difference is that what is thought of as the creation of shared meanings
is argued to be created not in the human mind, as mentalists would argue (e.g. classical
structuralism and interpretivism); nor is it located in symbolic interactions (e.g. theory of
communicative action, symbolic interactionism); or as post-modernists would claim, in ‘texts’
(e.g. post-structuralism and various forms of post-modernism). Instead, practice theory argues
that meaning is created in ‘practices’, which implies that the loci in focus include the body,
cognition, things, knowledge, language/discourse, structure/process and human agency and
their embeddedness in practice (Bourdieu, 1972; de Certeau, 1980; Giddens, 1984; Sandberg
and Dall’Alba, 2009).
Put simply, “practices are loci – spatial and temporal – in which working, organizing,
innovating or reproducing occurs” (Gherardi, 2012, p.2) and are “embodied, materially
mediated arrays of human activity centrally organized around shared practical understanding”
(Schatzki, 2001: 2). Hence, activity is the central element of practice; and it is the set of
activities that form a pattern that makes a practice (Gherardi, 2012). The activities are
composed of humans and non-humans, sayings and doings, and there is not a privileged place
for any of these elements, but rather, they are seen as intertwined. Thus, practice theorists aim
to go beyond problematic dualisms (de Certeau, 1980; Reckwitz, 2002), for example, between
mind and body or human and material (Gherardi, 2012). Recent work in a post-humanist vein
has been strongly influencing practice theory (Schatzki, 2001); and science and technology
scholars such as Latour (1987, 2005), Callon (1986), Knorr-Cetina (1997), Pickering and
King (1995), Pinch (2008) and Suchman (2007) have articulated, albeit in different ways, the
role of non-humans, such as technology, buildings and artifacts, in the production and
reproduction of social life (Feldman and Orlikowski, 2011).
Thus, this implies that practice theorists attribute an important role not only to humans, but
also to non-humans such as artifacts, technology and space. In this paper, we take this lens to
practices as we are particularly interested in understanding practices as extending beyond
humans and including the contexts, spaces and places in which humans act and interact. De
Certeau (1984), a major source of practice-based studies, has acknowledged space as central
to practice through his example of walking in the space of a city, where he shows how the
practice of walking creates the link between the morphology of space and practice. On the one
hand, he argues that when walking in a space, there are the expected behaviors that a space
will dictate (e.g. crossing a street at the crosswalk, walking on the pavement and not the street
itself, sitting on a bench in a park). On the other hand, there is the instantiation of the space
through ‘speech acts’, where space is incorporated into a narrative, particular artifacts are
pointed out and commented on, etc. This later process can be creative in the sense that people
can circumvent expected behaviors and produce new or unexpected relationships with the
space. For de Certeau, it is through the practice of walking that the city ‘expresses itself’ as a
space and its meaning is created. There is not one particular meaning of a space, but rather it
is through walking that various meanings are created that can circumvent, reduce, extend or
divert ‘the grammar’ of space. Thus, through the practice of walking, space can take on a
variety of different meanings. The walking practice of a campus tour hence becomes one of
many possible ways of experiencing a campus and of making legitimacy claims.
Building upon Augoyard (1979), de Certeau (1980) argues that the practice of walking in
space combines two stylistic figures: the synecdoche and the asyndeton. In a synecdoche, a
word is employed “in a sense which is part of another meaning of the same word.” In short,
“it names a part instead of the whole which includes it” (de Certeau, 1984, p. 101). Thus, a
synecdoche “expands a spatial element in order to make it play the role of ‘more’” (Ibid, p.
101). For example, a bicycle or a piece of furniture in a shop window stands for the whole
street or neighborhood. It “replaces totalities by fragments”, “amplifies the detail and
miniaturizes the whole” (p. 101). The asyndeton accomplishes the reverse. Instead of
amplifying details and making broad claims based on fragments, an asyndeton skips, omits
and neglects spaces traversed. It is a strategy of ‘cutting out’ and it undoes continuity by
creating “less” and “open gaps in the spatial continuum” (p. 101). In short, through these
stylistic figures, some parts of space disappear while others are exaggerated, distorting and
fragmenting the space and making it something that invokes different logics. Through the lens
of these pedestrian figures, in the empirical context of universities, the walked campus tour
makes legitimacy claims that are creatively crafted (invoking different logics) that make sense
through walking and that are linked to the spatial context of the organization. Thus, as we
build upon de Certeau’s lens of walking, we also adhere to Jarzabkowski et al.’s (2007, p. 6)
mandate that “micro-phenomena (…) be understood in their wider social context” and claim
that “actors are not acting in isolation but are drawing upon the regular, socially defined
modes of acting that arise from the plural social institutions to which they belong.”
In this paper, we argue that a practice lens inspired by de Certeau and his focus on movement
will extend this initial understanding of the role of materiality in institutional theory. A focus
on practices, and movement in space in particular, will yield an understanding not only of the
rhetoric dictated by logics, but also how material artifacts are invoked in legitimacy claims to
subscribe to or take distance from particular logics.
Our empirical inquiry focuses on a context where the relationships between practices,
materiality and legitimacy are most vividly at stake: university campus tours.
The notion of campuses has a long history and originates from the US (Turner, 1984; Scotto,
2014). Basically, “the word campus, more than any other term, sums up the unique physical
character of the American college and university […] But beyond these purely physical
meanings, the word has taken on other connotations, suggesting the pervasive spirit of a
school, or its genius loci, as embodied in its architecture and grounds” (Turner, 1984, p. 4).
The ‘language’ of campuses has varied from one century to another and one place to another.
Initially, the American higher educational system was influenced by the British ideal where
students and teachers lived and studied together. In turn, this layout of universities was
modeled on monasteries where all main functionalities were present and formed ‘the campus’
(Scotto, 2014). Since the 1980s, these campuses have also been increasingly shown and
performed in the practice of ‘campus tours’ for key external stakeholders, in particular,
prospective students and their parents, sponsors, and tourists (Magolda, 2000). The
importance of tours of physical spaces to ‘impress’ visitors has long been established (Kuh,
1990; Braxton and Clendon, 2001; Atkinson and Hammersley, 1994). For centuries, showing
a place, emphasizing its history, its beauty, its technical or aesthetic performance, has been a
way to legitimate an organization and its leaders. Historical examples abound. In particular, in
the 17th century, the French King Louis the XIV wrote a text entitled “How to show gardens
of Versailles, by Louis the XIV” (“La manière de montrer les jardins de Versailles par Louis
XIV”). It has, however, taken on a special urgency and criticality for many organizations,
given the multiplicity of stakeholders they face and the diversity of institutional logics that
may govern them.
University campuses and campus tours thus provide a suitable case for studying the
intersection between materiality, legitimation practices and institutional logics. First, they
constitute events that are highly ritualized and done by many universities worldwide. This
implies that it is an established practice and creates a potential for comparison and contrast.
Furthermore, campus tours are occasions in which organizations encounter potential
stakeholders, and the management of legitimacy is at stake. Their situated nature in a material
context was also a determining factor for choosing campus tours as a vehicle to study
legitimation efforts through communication practices. Lastly, for the last 30 years or so,
higher education, particularly in the US, has been characterized by a transformation where
market mechanisms and industry standards have seeped into the field and challenged the
legitimating ideas of universities as social institutions. Gumport (2000), followed by other
scholars (Carnoy and Rhoten, 2002; Kondakci and Van den Broeck, 2009), made the case that
higher education in the US has become shaped by two competing logics - the industry (or
market) logic and the social logic. (Table 1 describes the key values, root metaphors, key
stakeholders and key criteria for legitimacy as prescribed by the different logics). These logics
are field-level logics and may in turn be expressed and enacted in multiple ways ‘on the
ground’ (McPherson and Sauder, 2013). The legitimation practices of campus tours become
one way (among others) in which organizational members seek to manifest, negotiate, and
reject adherence to the logics of the field. A campus tour can assert the openness of a
university and its social orientation (which involves a sense of non-profitability and a general
access to knowledge), but also emphasize the innovative, business orientation (which draws
on the market logic with an ambition for excellence, selection and knowledge for the elite of
society). Narratives can be used to emphasize, for example, success stories of alumni who are
now economic leaders, involvement of students in charities, etc.; these narratives would
invoke very different artifacts (e.g. big lecture hall, small class rooms, luxurious entry hall,
comfortable rooms, dormitories, etc.).
INDUSTRY OR MARKET
Key stakeholders involved in
Key criteria for legitimacy
Efficiency, tangibility, value,
Table 1. Key characteristics of the two logics in higher education (adapted from Gumport,
The social logic implies that knowledge is viewed as something that all citizens have the right
to and it emphasizes the free or affordable access to universities as well as inclusivity and
diversity. It emphasizes how universities interact and contribute to the broader social
environment and its culture, norms, history, and techniques as well as socially-pressing issues
such as equality and ethics. The social logic also views universities as historical institutions,
where certain myths and traditions are seen as important.
The market or industry logic sees universities more from a business-like perspective. When
the market logic is enacted, individuals pay attention to the functional characteristics of the
university and its practical, immediate values (e.g. buildings, classrooms, ITs, sports
stadiums, and amphitheaters) as well as their sophistication, exhaustiveness, or modernity.
Individuals also put forward the qualities of the campus, its education and competitive
advantage, drawing differentiation on an economic and/or strategic rhetoric, and how they
sustain the value customers will be willing to pay for.
Data collection methods
Our data collection was based on participant observations of real life campus tours in order to
collect rich and contextual data. Our sample was based on multiple observations at nine
different universities in the US and Europe performed between April 2013 and July 2014. The
campus tours lasted for approximately 60-180 minutes. Notes were taken during and right
after the tours, which were extended to include details we did not have time to elaborate on
during the actual tour. Our observations followed an observation guideline (see appendix 1).
The guideline was elaborated after a first exploratory tour at McGill University in April 2013.
The dimensions it includes derived from cross-discussions among co-authors. We identified
dimensions likely to describe the modalities, context, focus, objectives and process of the
Each tour generated between 5-10 pages of typed notes and in total, we gathered more than 60
pages of notes. We followed a disciplined approach to our field-note taking and always
expanded and finalized the notes within the same day of the tour. This was to ensure that the
notes would include a maximum of detail and be as accurate as possible. Numerous photos
were also taken at each site in order to remember details of the context, such as certain
artifacts or the arrangement of spaces.
In addition to observational data we also collected archival data, such as campus maps,
articles, books, and information about the history of the campuses and the universities. This
information (detailed in Table 2 below) enabled us to understand more about the background
and to place the narrative told during the tour in a broader context. The maps were also used
to get a clear understanding for the sites of each campus that the tours presented, as well as
To systematize our data collection, we applied an observation guide (see appendix 1), which
aligned with our interests in capturing the legitimation processes and how these were framed
in a narrative anchored in space and materiality. Our real life experience of campus tours
confirmed that multiple logics were at play in this setting, and that university members
invoked the material context of the organization to promote and/or reconcile the logics on
which the organization drew.
involved in the
Participant observation of two campus tours
(around 1h each)
Pictures (12), maps, leaflets, screen
printings of the website
Articles and books about the history of
One campus (of
(Two per day)
Participant observation of two campus tours
Maps, leaflets, screen-printings of the
Articles and books about the history of La
Sorbonne and the Université de Paris
from Monday to
Friday and on
Participant observation of one campus tour
Pictures (24), maps, leaflets, books and
articles about the history of Stanford
The oldest parts
big lecture halls,
after famous people
or where famous
worked or are
1 ½ hour (twice
a day, year
round, open to
Participant observation of one campus tour
Maps, leaflets, screen-printings of the
Articles about the history of UC Berkeley
The oldest parts
1 ½ hour (on
Participant observation of one campus tour
Maps, leaflets, screen printings of the
Pictures (12) and videos (3)
Participant observation of one campus tour
Maps, leaflets (e.g. ‘LSE explorer’), screen
printings of the website
Old building, the
inn fields, new
Saw Swee Hock
Peacock theater, the
house, LSE Garrick
tours (with big
to do the tour
offered at the
Duration: 1 ½
hour on average
to cover the 12
Participant observation of one campus tour.
Maps, leaflets provided at check in.
Malcolm X plaza,
Tommy Smith and
John Carlos statues,
facilities and dorms
Close to daily
Participant observation of one campus tour.
Maps, leaflets provided at check in.
Close to daily
Table 2. Overview of data collection. Analysis
Our analysis of the qualitative data started with an open coding of the data set, in particular
our field notes (Charmaz, 2006). We coded our data in a grounded way (Corbin and Strauss,
1990) by completing open and axial coding of our memos (see appendix 2), which was
followed by a discussion and comparison of the emerging codes. At this stage, what emerged
as particularly salient was the various ways in which the buildings, spaces, and artifacts of the
universities were invoked during the tour in ways that clearly suggested an adherence or
rejection of particular institutional logics.
In a second round, after iterating with the literature and de Certeau (1984) in particular, we
coded the data again with the ambition to understand more clearly the various forms of
practices that organizational members undertook to create links between materiality and
logics during the tours. This led to a more fine-grained categorization of various forms of de
Certeau’s (1984) ‘synecdoches’ and ‘asyndetons. (See Table 3 below for an overview of our
First order codes
pointed out as
descriptive of the
Berkeley: Presentation of a dinosaur
skeleton intertwined with a story of
how students and professors
cooperated in crafting the dinosaur,
which was delivered in thousands of
Social logic –
and the role of
the university in
performed in the
campus tours, can
parts of a campus
to legitimize the
members to make
invoke space to
members to make
pointed out as
descriptive of the
Stanford University: The guide
points to the Bill Gates building and
says that this is where Google started
and that Google’s server was located
in a Lego box in that building, hence
the colors of the Google logo, he
says. He then points to the Hewlett
and the Packard buildings, two
buildings that are built in a much
more modern style. He says that both
Hewlett and Packard went to
Stanford and that they got together in
the so-called HP garage and started
Market logic –
emphasis on the
out and used as an
entryway to an
description of the
Stanford University: The tour arrives
to the area in front of the main quad,
the oval, which is where the Palm
drive leads up to the university. It is a
big open space and the Palm Drive, a
street with palm trees planted on each
side, can be seen the whole way
down to Palo Alto. It is a stretch of
approximately 1 km. The guide talks
a bit about the education at Stanford.
He says that as a prospective student,
you apply to Stanford and not to
specific courses, and once you are
accepted you choose from 3 different
undergraduate schools. He says he
now wants to talk about
transportation and mentions that
there are more bikes than people on
campus, but that he prefers to walk
everywhere. He says that some
people use skateboards.
Social logic –
emphasis on the
McGill University: We move on to a
corridor linking two buildings and
enter into the anthropology
department, which is avoided (we do
not go straight and avoid a liminal
corridor) and is not commented by
our guide. This is another period of
do not fit into
the narrative and
Proposition 4 :
members to make
San Jose State University: On the
way from the office of student
affairs, where the tour started, we
pass several anonymous grey cement
buildings. The guide does not
comment on these and instead
engages in a narrative that explains
the various forms of support
available to students of the
they do not fit
into the narrative
and the desired
pointed out as
descriptive of the
LSE: The guide emphasizes that the
access to the New Academic
Building is restricted to LSE staff
and students, creating a sense of
prestige and exclusivity.
Market logic –
the school is
only for a
members to make
San Jose State University: The tour
walks inside one of the buildings
through a long hallway. It seems to
be a way to show one of the oldest
and most historical buildings and it is
a pretty nice building with an old feel
to it. It signals ‘old and traditional
university’ which most other
buildings definitely do not. The
guide does not make any comments
Social logic –
The history and
in a long history
Table 3. Overview of coding scheme.
Creating links between legitimacy claims and space through the walked campus tour
In this section, we build and justify four propositions related to the relationship between
legitimizing practices (in particular, those focused on asyndetons and synecdoches),
materiality and institutional logics emerging from our data.
Proposition 1 - Practices, performed in the material context of walking campus tours, can
rely upon “legitimizing synecdoches” that highlight certain parts of a campus expected to
legitimize the entire organization.
In a context of institutional complexity with multiple logics (Friedland and Alford, 1991;
Kraatz & Block, 2008), which impose conflicting demands and pressures on organizations
and their members (Jarzabkowski et al. 2013; Greenwood et al. 2010), walking was a way for
organizational members to invoke artifacts and narratives to mobilize and emphasize the
adherence to particular logics. Particularly, it was a way to create “legitimizing synecdoches”.
We define legitimizing synecdoches as the walked practice of invoking particular places and
artifacts in legitimacy claims.
This was visible in all of the campus tours that we observed. In some cases, a campus tour
seemed to draw on mainly one particular logic in its legitimizing synechdoches. In other
cases, multiple logics were blended with equal emphasis. In yet other cases there was a
dominant logic with additional elements from other logics. Independent of one of the several
logics being promoted, it was clear that universities engaged in a practice of carefully
choosing only a selected few out of many possible spaces and artifacts to promote during the
campus tour. For example, at San Jose State University (SJSU), which adhered mostly to the
social logic, the starting point of the tour took place at the Student services center, which was
largely emphasized. The center was invoked to tell a narrative of all the various types of
services that students could receive for free, such as counseling, course advice and pre-
admission services, the guide acknowledging that everyone can have a hard time at some
point during their studies. The fact that the tour started at the Student services center gave the
audience a sense of accessibility to these services, as well as established credibility to these
claims. Throughout the tour, the social logic of a university that is accessible and open to
everyone continued to be emphasized by pointing out particular spaces that were carefully
selected. For example, when arriving at the building in which the bookstore was located, the
guide, pointing at the bookstore, emphasized that books can be purchased on credit allowing
for more payment flexibility for students with financial difficulties. Another example is how
two statues of Afro-American men located at the ‘Malcolm X plaza’ – ‘Tommie Smith and
John Carlos’, former students known for their historic demonstration as medalists in the 1968
Olympic games, are invoked in a narrative about the university’s focus on diversity. The
guide vividly describes the statues in detail and how Smith’s raised right black-gloved fist
represents black power. The scarf around the neck represents pride and the box he is carrying
with an olive sapling represents peace. The other statue is of Carlos, with his raised left black-
gloved fist representing unity in America, and the beads around his neck signifying the
lynching suffered by Black people, the guide explains. She further emphasizes that students
successfully fought for the statue to be placed at the center of campus instead of being located
at the sport’s center, which was the original idea. Diversity is important to the campus, the
Latin tour guide says with emphasis.
A contrasting example of a university that drew largely on the market logic, putting forward
the competitive and functional elements of the campus, was Stanford. For example, when the
tour arrived in front of the main quad, the guide, who was also a student of the university,
engaged in a narrative that emphasized the vastness of the campus, stating that it is the second
largest in the world after University of Moscow. The large auditoriums were also pointed out
as places that had hosted numerous famous speakers such as Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, and the
Dalai Lama. Thus, these particular places came to be invoked in the campus tour as
something larger, illustrative of a broad claim of superiority and elitism along the lines of the
market logic. Another example of amplification is when the tour passed the computer science
buildings named after Bill Gates, and the Hewlett and Packard buildings, where the guide
points out that the original server of Google is still in the basement of one of the buildings on
campus; and that the founders - Sergey Brin and Larry Page - had studied at Stanford. These
particular buildings were invoked to make legitimacy claims that again drew on the market
logic, stating the innovativeness and the many companies that had spurred from the
As yet another illustration of how walking was a way for organizational members to invoke
artifacts and narratives to mobilize and emphasize the adherence to particular logics, the
University of Sorbonne drew largely on historical artifacts and spaces to craft legitimacy
claims drawing on the social logic. Historical artifacts have a very strong symbolic power
through their longevity and can be invoked and put forward when more market-oriented,
competitive and functional resources are lacking. In the case of Sorbonne University, the
working spaces of former Professors Pierre and Marie Curie (who attended the university in
the beginning of the 1900s) were pointed out. Also, the grandiose scene of the amphitheater
was pointed out and interwoven with a narrative revolving around Marie Curie and her
historical keynote speech which was held there, which was an event often categorized as the
turning point in the history of the role of women in French academia. Thus, these examples
show how historical artifacts are invoked in the practice of campus tours as a resource to
bring up equality and diversity, connoting the social logic. It could also be argued that this
emphasis on historical spaces and artifacts was a way to compensate for a lack of
infrastructure, or a ‘real’ campus to show (as Sorbonne is spread out in several different
buildings throughout Paris and does not have a campus in the American sense).
The examples above illustrate a practice that, on one hand, was about selectivity of a few
among many possible spaces and artifacts that could have been shown during the campus
tour, and on the other, an emphasis and amplification of these particular spaces and artifacts.
This resonates with de Certeau’s (1984) notion of synecdoche and we therefore refer to this as
‘legitimizing synecdoches’ due to the connection that we establish with legitimacy. For
synecdoches to work, walking is clearly imperative. During a guided tour, the selectivity and
exaggeration done through the invocation of synecdoches become less problematic than in
other forms of communication. This is because, even if not emphasized, many of the spaces
and artifacts are oftentimes still visible. Thus, the problem of making ‘false’ claims is less
present in this form compared to other forms of communication where distortion,
exaggeration and selectivity, the making of ‘more’ (de Certeau, 1984) would be seen as false
advertising and potentially threaten legitimacy. When organizations of today make legitimacy
claims drawing on the social logic to claim sustainability, for example, it is often received
with suspicion and skepticism among stakeholders (Gond, 2010; Butler, 2011). However, by
pointing out material manifestations of the logic by employing legitimizing synecdoches,
legitimacy claims may become more credible. The walked format, in particular, allows the
audience to gain a lived experience of a large part of a campus, yet only a few spaces and
artifacts are chosen to become interwoven into the narrative of legitimacy claims.
Proposition 2 - The material practice of walking allows organizational members to make
legitimacy claims by drawing on ‘reconciling synecdoches’ that invoke space to mediate
potential conflict between logics.
Synecdoches are not only useful as a way to make legitimacy claims drawing on one
particular logic. “Reconciling synechdoches” refer to how spaces were invoked to alleviate
potential conflict between logics, as a form of strategy to make legitimacy claims compatible
despite invoking competing logics simultaneously. This definition extends Swan et al’s.
(2010, p. 1334) view of individuals crafting compatibility out of seemingly incompatible
logics. They stated that “despite creating a patchwork of seemingly contradictory modes of
working”, individuals can blend logics “artfully and selectively […] to lend legitimacy to
their practices”. It also alludes to Pache and Santos (2013) argument that individuals can
respond to competing logics by attempting to integrate them. We show that materiality has an
important role in this practice.
A first illustrative example of how the campus tour managed to alleviate a conflict between
logics was when the tour guide on the Stanford campus tour invoked the church to show the
university’s adherence to ethics (connoting the social logic) rather than being a religious
institution (hence avoiding connoting a religious logic, which does not characterize today’s
higher education, but was largely present and guided the activities of universities a century or
so ago). This maneuver was done by spending a relatively long period of time of the tour in
the church, where participants were instructed to tour it in silence, particularly focusing on the
inscribed messages on its walls. A text about the church states that these inscriptions were
selected by Mrs. Stanford and represented her religious faith. However, before entering the
church, the tour guide framed them as being ethical guidelines to students rather than
religious ones. At the same time, the fact that the tour did indeed spend a considerable amount
of time in the church, providing the opportunity for the audience to live the space and project
their own interpretations of it, signaled an importance attributed to religious institutions, and
hence dissolved a possible tension between the two logics. In this example, the church was
invoked in the pedestrian figure of a synecdoche to signify a ‘more’ that expanded beyond the
most obvious connotation of a religious logic. Yet again, this example shows how
synecdoches are employed to exaggerate and emphasize the adherence to particular logics. In
addition, it also demonstrates that through possibilities that are offered by walking in a space,
by experiencing it, synecdoches invite multiple interpretations of a space that allow for
mediation of conflicts between logics. Through the walked campus tour, which is
simultaneously a narration and a movement in space, multiple interpretations and experiences
are invited that would be much harder to navigate in other forms of communication.
A second example from the campus tours at Stanford was the attempt to balance the market
logic that they drew largely upon (as described under proposition 1), with elements of the
social logic. For example, the campus tour guide at Stanford repeatedly pointed out recycling
bins, construction sites (framed as building more environmentally-friendly buildings), electric
bus shuttles, the large number of bikes on campus, and the nearby train station (alluding to the
accessibility to campus via train to all). In this way, seemingly mundane artifacts and spaces
were invoked as synecdoches, i.e. manifestations and materializations of the social logic.
Another example is drawn from the campus tour of VU Vienna. This campus is very recent,
and was designed by numerous famous architects and ended up being highly expensive (≈500
million Euros). During the tour, the great architecture was continuously emphasized by
pointing out the various buildings, explaining the thoughts behind each of them and the
respective architects. Thus, each building came to represent a logic of the market, where
universities compete for their students not only based on the degrees and knowledge they
provide, but also on their aesthetics and functional and infrastructural aspects of the campus.
Simultaneously, the tour guide used synecdoches to make ‘more’ out of the natural materials
chosen in the new buildings, the natural light and the so called ‘lakes’ on campus, as well as
the closeness to a vast natural park, which altogether aimed at connoting a social logic where
nature and environmental values are more salient. Thus, this practice apparently reconciled
incompatible logics by invoking various material aspects of the campus.
The London School of Economics tour also illustrates this point, creating both an adherence
to the social and market logics. Starting the tour with the Old building gave a sense of
longevity and social importance to a relatively young institution (compared to Oxford or
Cambridge universities). Moving then to recent, modern and grandiose places of the campus
(Student service center, Lincoln’s Inn fields acquired in 2013 and the New academic building)
in contrast gave a sense of the global competitiveness, expansion and growth of LSE,
adhering to a market-logic of business-like growth.
An final example of this practice of making the incompatible compatible is the campus tour at
McGill, which aimed to reconcile the competing social and market logics by prioritizing its
immersion and interaction with its local context of Montreal and the Quebec area (social
logic), while simultaneously emphasizing that it is a university that competes on the global
arena for the most talented students (market logic). This is a longstanding challenge for
McGill as it at times sees protesters at its doorsteps who bemoan that its courses are offered in
English. As a way to resolve this conflict, the tour guide invoked several synecdoches to
make ‘more’ out of artifacts in the storytelling during the campus tour. First, a long period of
time was spent in front of the tomb of the founder McGill, referring to his English origins,
making the tomb a manifestation of the European impregnation of the university, hence
exaggerating the presence of the tomb to become a symbol for something larger – the
adherence to a market logic that acknowledges internationalization and globalization, while
also acknowledging its history and longevity and thus drawing on the social logic.
Thus, synecdoches allow for multiple interpretations and reconciliation of logics since they
can be framed as multifaceted. To reconcile multiple logics in practices of legitimation is a
complex exercise. The examples above show how the very flexibility of space itself (de
Vaujany and Vaast, 2014) and how it is simultaneously walked and narrated, can be helpful in
the management of tensions. Thus, this practice was possible due to the interpretive flexibility
of materiality, which implies that they can be invoked to put forward various logics, i.e. an
artifact does not signify a logic in itself, but it is the context in which it is invoked and the
narrative surrounding it that creates its meaning in relation to institutional logics. This
flexibility creates possibilities for actors to ‘play’ with artifacts and craft legitimation
practices that are coherent, but may simultaneously put forward multiple and competing
logics. This practice resonates with previous studies that have found that organizational
members can employ ‘interpretive flexibility’ and ‘strategic ambiguity’ to frame artifacts in
various ways in order to cater to the needs and agendas of various stakeholders (Orlikowski,
1992; Barley et al. 2012).
Proposition 3 - The material practice of walking allows organizational members to make
legitimacy claims by invoking ‘concealing asyndetons’ in order to make legitimacy claims.
Our empirical data also showed that a common practice during campus tours was to hide or
avoid (deliberately) particular spaces and artifacts. “Conceiling asyndetons” implies that the
walked practice allows for an avoidance of undesirable spaces and artifacts that do not fit the
desired legitimacy claims. The tour at Sorbonne university is one example where this strategy
was implemented to make legitimacy claims. During the campus tour, there was much
emphasis placed on how the space relates to the republic (laic) governance system of the state,
emphasizing that the university is a social institution and part of the broader society. Several
artifacts were used as synecdoches of this governance system, such as the statue of the
Marianne, which is a symbol of the French republic. However, in order to craft this adherence
to the social logic, the campus tour was also forced to invoke a strategy of asyndetons – of
avoidance of certain artifacts, such as the Fleur de Lys, that were symbolic of the historical
monarchic governance system.
In the case of San Jose State University, we also found the use of the legitimizing strategy of
asyndetons. For example, the tour guide points out the business school building, which is a
pretty tall and fairly new building. The surrounding concrete buildings from the 60s or so are
not mentioned and instead the audience’s attention is directed to another modern building that
has just been constructed. This is clearly a strategy of concealing and downplaying in order to
make legitimacy claims.
In summary, the guided walk of campus tours allows for a subtle way for organizations to
select and disregard particular places and artifacts that they consider undesirable and that
would risk undermining legitimacy. While the audience has the experience of a transparency
of the campus that is laid out for them, the asyndetons are invoked to hide or downplay
particular spaces or artifacts.
Proposition 4 - The material practice of walking allows organizational members to make
legitimacy claims by invoking ‘evoking asyndetons’ in order to make legitimacy claims
Finally, our findings also showed that organizational members at times employed a strategy to
make legitimacy claims that involved the creation of imagery or particular atmospheres
during the walked practice. We define this as “evoking asyndetons”. Here, the campus tour
guide could describe, vividly, a space or artifact that would be out of sight to the audience, yet
making legitimacy claims based on this invisible materiality. This involved a great deal of
storytelling as well as the audience’s own imagination. It also required more trust compared
to the pointing out of artifacts and spaces that were before the eyes of the beholders. One
example of this was during the campus tour at Berkeley, where the tour guide pointed to a
building hidden behind a grove and explained that it hosts the College of national resources,
which does research on environmental sciences, nutrition and political management. This
building, the guide emphasized, also hosts the first undergraduate library in the US. This was
clearly a legitimacy claim that drew on the social logic. However, the materiality that was
invoked to support this claim remained invisible, yet had an important role. Another example
is drawn from the tour at San Jose State University, where the tour guide brought the audience
through a long and beautiful hallway that was atypical of the architecture of the rest of the
buildings on campus and which was located in an older building. The guide did not talk much
during the passing in the hallway, yet this passage seemed to feature an important symbolism,
namely that the university has a long history and traditions worthy of an old institution. Here,
the storytelling was left to the audience’s imagination and by instantiating an atmosphere that
was historical, it could be expected that the audience would equal their experience with that of
touring an older, more ancient institution. Thus, the particular atmosphere that the hallway
provided was a way to connote the social logic by emphasizing, through an atmosphere
created by movement in a particular space, the (not quite so) long history of the university and
Our propositions shed light on how campus tours provide embodied experiences of the
intangible activities of universities. They constitute opportunities for stakeholders to get to
know an organization through sensory experiences such as seeing, touching, smelling. Since
many contemporary service-oriented organizations, such as universities, engage in complex,
abstract and immaterial activities, such embodied experiences of the organization’s
physicality and performing activities take on a heightened importance (de Vaujany and Vaast,
2014, 2014). Gieryn (2002, p. 40) argued that materiality, such as buildings, provides an
"institutional reality to the intangible such as academic disciplines or specialties” and they
help “convert the abstraction of [academic] discipline into something more palpable, stable,
and enduring”. That legitimation practices and logics are linked is well known. However,
what institutional scholars have not yet greatly examined is the way in which artifacts are
used to show adherence to particular logics and how these can be mobilized in legitimation
practices in ways aimed at promoting legitimacy. Research on legitimation has so far
remained at a symbolic and discursive level and artifacts have mostly been absent. This paper
attempts to address this gap in the literature. Our propositions outline the different roles that
artifacts and spaces take on as they are invoked in legitimacy claims in the walked campus
First, legitimation practices based on walking can reflexively select and combine different
institutional logics. Through the invocation of artifacts into narratives, an organization
chooses to put forward certain claims while concealing others. Spaces and artifacts provide a
material reality to the desired logics and claims and are thus powerful, concrete tools in
legitimation practices. Thus, we allude to how material practices direct attention and inform
meaning-making among stakeholders. This is an important distinction from the more common
preoccupation regarding how values shape practices.
Second, materiality can also be used to resolve conflict and altering meanings due to the
interpretive flexibility of materiality, and the playfulness or artfulness of organizational
members (Swan et al, 2010).
Third, for the same reason of interpretive flexibility, invoking materiality allows
organizational members to downplay institutional logics and create alternative, credible
legitimation practices. If universities lack resources or infrastructures to make market-related
claims for functionality, for instance, campus tours may highlight, instead, the historical
features of buildings and present narratives that emphasize other sources of meaning and
legitimation. Thus, the walked practice allows not only for putting forward, but also
concealing and hiding undesirable materialities that may risk undermining the desired
legitimacy claims. This practice of ‘concealing’ is important and has thus far been largely
ignored in studies on the how individuals enact logics on the ground. Even in institutional
studies that promote the visual, there has been a neglect of that which is not seen (Meyer et al,
Fourth, materiality and particular spaces and sites allows for the creation of experiences that
foster the imagination among stakeholders to, for example, historical or prospective times. It
is more about an aesthetic springboard for invoking logics, rather than a cognitive one, and it
cannot easily be translated into language (Langer, 1957). Aesthetics are often referred to as
the ‘non-rational of organizational life’ (Warren, 2008). The aesthetic experience is triggered
by material things and it is also a highly embodied, sensory mode of being in the world
(Warren, 2008). While aesthetics has been largely ignored in institutional theory, our findings
open up a new line of inquiry that promotes a need for a deeper understanding how aesthetics
are linked to institutional logics as well as how this ‘non-rational’ medium can be used to
make legitimacy claims.
This research adds to the emerging field of understanding the micro-foundations of
institutional theory, where scholars have started to show an interest for how institutions are
enacted in the everyday practices of individuals (McPherson and Sauder’s, 2013; Smets and
Jarzabkowski, 2013), as well as the role of materiality (Jones et al. 2013) and visuality (Meyer
et al, 2013; Puyou and Quattrone, 2018) in altering, disrupting, or maintaining institutional
logics. Materiality has been conceptualized as an actor in several theoretical fields, in
particular research on organizational space, Science and Technology Studies, Actor Network
theories and some evolutionist views of organizations (Jones et al. 2013; de Vaujany and
Mitev, 2013). Also, in the literature about organizational space and spatial practices, the
spatial and material dimensions of societies and more recently, organizations, have been
largely explored (Gagliardi, 1992; Kornberger and Clegg, 2005; Dale and Burrell, 2008;
Yanow and Marrewjik, 2010). Mainly in continuation of Lefebvre (1991) and the spatio-
material aspects of seminal social studies (e.g. Marx, Engels and Lenin, 1974; Bourdieu,
1972; Giddens, 1984, 1985), but also Merleau-Ponty (1945, 1961) and his view of experience
or American pragmatism, it shows that organizations and organizing processes are
interpenetrated by their spatial, temporal and material environment (Dale, 2005; Pitz et al,
2017; de Vaujany et al, 2018). Finally, it illustrates the ‘materiality turn’ that has grown
increasingly popular in IS and organization studies and posits practices as socio-material, and
materiality as constitutive of everyday life (Barad 2003; Latour 2005; Suchman 2007;
Orlikowski, 2007; Pozzebon et al, 2018)). Materiality, in this view, “is not an incidental or
intermittent aspect of organizational life; it is integral to it” Orlikowski, 2007, p. 1436).
Nonetheless, this stream of literature has rarely investigated the relationship between spatial
practices and legitimacy claims (Wasserman and Freckle, 2011; de Vaujany and Vast, 2014).
Our tentative theory integrates these two streams and suggests the various ways in which
materiality is invoked in legitimacy claims drawing on various institutional logics. Thus,
materiality constitutes an important part of the ‘tool box’ of cultural elements (Swidler, 1986)
that organizational members may invoke to construct legitimacy.
This research also brings attention to mobility, i.e. walking, as a practice worthy of
including in institutional analyses. By drawing on de Certeau’s work, we zoomed in on a
particular aspect of the micro-foundations of institutions that had not yet been examined,
namely the important role of moving in instantiating the materiality of organizations and in
asserting particular legitimacy claims. While practices have started to become an important
focus for institutional theorists, there is still little effort put into theorizing about the
constitution of practices. Practices are oftentimes used as a synonym to micro-level actions,
but the elements of practices remain largely blackboxed. By acknowledging mobility as an
important facet of practices, we start to unpack this concept. We find support for this among
an emerging number of scholars in methodology, who have started to acknowledge the
uniqueness and empirical value of walking practices (Anderson, 2004; Evans and Jones,
2011). However, there is still a dearth of research on the role of embodied mobility in and
between organizations. Our research illustrates how the practice of walking provides visual
experiences as well as embodied and material matter to institutions. Movement may be
experienced merely as a visual flow (e.g. a passenger sitting on a train in motion). Yet,
walking in the streets and spaces of cities, campuses or organizations allows for multi-sensory
stimulation of the surrounding environment (Adams & Guy, 2007), which provides “an
immediacy as well as a kinaesthetic rhythm” (Middleton, 2009 in Evans and Jones, 2011, p.
850) that a focus on the visual alone does not capture. Thus, walking is not only about a
transfer from A to B, but an occasion where the surrounding materiality is instantiated and
brought to life through asyndetons and synechdoches (de Certeau, 1980). Walking practices
relate to, transfer and transform institutional logics, and give life to the material matter of
organizations. While we agree that the recent preoccupation with the role of the visual in
institutional theory is an interesting way to advance the inclusion of materiality (Meyer et al,
2013), our focus on movement underlines its limitations in accounting for the more embodied
experiences that materiality provides when ‘walked and lived’.
This paper has examined how the walking practices of campus tours invoke materiality to
make legitimacy claims and provided five tentative propositions that constitute the stepping-
stone for an emerging theory on the links between materiality and legitimacy. It is a first
attempt to shed light on the importance of incorporating mobility and materiality into any
analysis of legitimation and institutional dynamics. In qualitative research, the challenge of
representativeness is always lingering. In this work, in particular, we had no way of
ascertaining that the tours we followed at particular universities were representative of the
other tours we could have followed over the academic year. Moreover, our study was focused
on a subset of European and North American campuses, which provides a highly westernized
view on the phenomenon.
For future research, there is promise in contrasting campus tours to other tour contexts (e.g.
corporate tours or museum tours) as this may reveal different instantiations of institutional
logics. We also urge scholars to continue to deepen the exploration of how visuality and
materiality participate in micro-institutional dynamics and may embody organizational
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Appendix 1. Observation guideline of campus tours
The guide aimed at capturing the main verbal narrative that was told, as well as how this narrative related to
places and artifacts during the tour.
- D1: How is the tour communicated? Our focus here was the tools, actors, organizational structures, etc.
involved in the practice of legitimation.
- D2: Where is the meeting point?
- D3: Who is guiding the tour? What is the profile of the guide?
- D4: What is the narrative told during the tour? Are there specific aspects that are recurrently
- D5: What is the trajectory of the tour? What were the main sites visited/artifacts shown? What is the
appearance and aesthetics of these spots and artifacts?
- D6: Are there sites of the campus that are excluded from the tour? If so, which parts?
- D7: How are the artifacts and spaces enacted in front of visitors?
Appendix 2. The distribution of institutional codes (market versus social) for each tour