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Institutional Work: Taking Stock and Making It Matter



In this chapter, we have two aims: to review the first decade of research on institutional work, and to explore how the institutional work perspective can have a greater impact on institutions "that matter". We structure our review around the "what", "who" and "how" of institutional work to highlight key developments and identify problematic gaps. We find that scholarship in this tradition has focused primarily on middle-range institutions with limited scope, relatively homogenous actor networks, and the use of symbolic work. This has come at the expense of research on large-scale institutions with cross-field impacts, heterogeneous actor networks, and the use of material as well relational work. We argue it will be crucial to address these shortcomings if we are to enable the institutional work perspective to become a practical and impactful tool for addressing major social problems. This chapter encourages scholars to develop research on institutional work to tackle the challenges surrounding the institutions that matter.
Institutional Work: Taking Stock and Making It Matter
Christian E. Hampel*
University of Oxford
Thomas B. Lawrence*
University of Oxford
Paul Tracey*
University of Cambridge
Citation: Hampel, C.E., Lawrence, T.B., and Tracey P, 2017. Institutional Work: Taking Stock
and Making it Matter. Forthcoming in The SAGE Handbook of Organizational Institutionalism
(2nd Edition). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
*This was a fully collaborative effort. All three authors contributed equally.
Institutional Work: Taking Stock and Making It Matter
In this chapter, we have two aims: to review the first decade of research on institutional work,
and to explore how the institutional work perspective can have a greater impact on institutions
“that matter”. We structure our review around the “what”, “who” and “how” of institutional
work to highlight key developments and identify problematic gaps. We find that scholarship in
this tradition has focused primarily on middle-range institutions with limited scope, relatively
homogenous actor networks, and the use of symbolic work. This has come at the expense of
research on large-scale institutions with cross-field impacts, heterogeneous actor networks, and
the use of material as well relational work. We argue it will be crucial to address these
shortcomings if we are to enable the institutional work perspective to become a practical and
impactful tool for addressing major social problems. This chapter encourages scholars to develop
research on institutional work to tackle the challenges surrounding the institutions that matter.
Institutional work” has evolved from a concept introduced to capture a set of actions
described in institutional research, to a perspective on the relationship between institutions and
actors associated with a distinctive set of questions, assumptions, findings, and theoretical
claims. The questions at the heart of the institutional work perspective focus on understanding
how, why, and when actors work to shape sets of institutions, the factors that affect their ability
to do so, and the experience of these efforts for those involved. Built into these questions are a
set of assumptions: that social reality is socially constructed, mutable, and dependent on as well
as embedded in the behavior, thoughts and feelings of people and collective actors. There is also
a key assumption that people and collective actors have the potential to act in ways that involve
an awareness of their relationship to institutions. Rather than accepting institutions as innately
enduring and their effects as immutable, research on institutional work explores the practices and
processes associated with actors’ endeavors to build up, tear down, elaborate, and contain
institutions, as well as amplify or suppress their effects. Pursuing research on institutional work
has led to important findings that have identified a wide range of forms of institutional work,
documented the complex interplay of different forms of institutional work (Creed, Dejordy, &
Lok, 2010; Granqvist & Gustafsson, In press; Leung, Zietsma, & Peredo, 2014), demonstrated
the important work of actors to maintain institutions (Currie, Lockett, Finn, Martin, & Waring,
2012; Micelotta & Washington, 2013; Trank & Washington, 2009), and shown the potentially
powerful intended and unintended consequences of institutional work (Singh & Jayanti, 2013;
Zietsma & Lawrence, 2010). Scholars have explored how actors employ institutional work
across different levels, including individual (Tracey, In press), organizational (Gawer & Phillips,
2013; Tracey, Phillips, & Jarvis, 2010), community (Lawrence & Dover, 2015; Mair, Marti, &
Ventresca, 2012), field (Suddaby & Viale, 2011; Trank & Washington, 2009) and national levels
of analysis (Hirsch & Bermiss, 2009). An important set of findings describes how the interplay
of institutional work by groups of actors can lead to institutional change that combines
conflicting and competing interests in newly negotiated institutional orders (Helfen & Sydow,
2013; Helms, Oliver, & Webb, 2012; Maguire & Hardy, 2009; Smets, Morris, & Greenwood,
2012; Zietsma & Lawrence, 2010).
The institutional work perspective has, we argue, shifted the conversation around
institutions and organizations, both within the confines of the institutional work literature and
more broadly across organizational institutionalism: it has been a significant catalyst for the
integration of a practice perspective on institutions (see chapter by Smets, Aristidou, and
Whittington in this handbook), greater attention to “micro” institutional concerns (though we
will argue that this may be at the cost of understanding the institutional work to influence large
institutions; see chapter by Powell and Rerup), a renewed concern for politics and contestation in
institutional change (see chapter by Lawrence and Buchanan), and especially a deeper, more
nuanced investigation of the relationship between agency and institutions. As research on
institutional work has progressed, the perspective has also acted as a gateway to introduce or
extend new concerns for institutional scholars, including the relationship between emotions and
institutions (Creed, Hudson, Okhuysen, & Smith-Crowe, 2014; Voronov & Vince, 2012; see also
the chapter by Lok, Creed, DeJordy and Voronov in this handbook), the lived experienced of
institutional life (Creed et al., 2010; Tracey et al., 2010), the interplay of institutions and
materiality (Jones & Massa, 2013; Lawrence & Dover, 2015; Raviola & Norbäck, 2013; see also
the chapter by Jones, Meyer, Jancsary and Höllerer in this handbook), the oppressive potential of
institutions (Creed et al., 2010; Martí & Fernández, 2013), and the connection between changes
in fine-grained practices and larger institutions (Jarzabkowski, Matthiesen, & Van de Ven, 2009;
Smets & Jarzabkowski, 2013).
Theoretical Foundations of Institutional Work
Originally defined as the purposive action of individuals and organizations aimed at
creating, maintaining and disrupting institutions(Lawrence & Suddaby, 2006: 215),
institutional work contrasts with most other institutional approaches by placing the spotlight on
the role of actors and their efforts to interact with and influence institutions. The study of
institutional work is founded on two primary theoretical ideas. The first is embedded agency
(Battilana & D’Aunno, 2009), which from an institutional work perspective is less a paradox
than simply a description of how people confront institutions on a day-to-day basis (Creed et al.,
2010; Leung et al., 2014). From an institutional work perspective, institutions shape every facet
of human existence, providing meaning and motivation to our actions, and holding together the
material and symbolic structures that trigger and shape those actions; at the same time, however,
institutions are ongoing human accomplishments, constructed and maintained by people’s
behavior, thoughts and feelings, often in ways that are unreflexive and unintended, but just as
often in ways that reflect people’s institutional awareness, their desires to affect institutional
arrangements, and the skills and resources they marshal to achieve those desires. The idea of
embedded agency has become a part of nearly all research on institutions and organizations, but
it is at the heart of the institutional work perspective. The location of embedded agency in the
institutional work perspective builds directly on the foundational writing of DiMaggio (1988)
and Oliver (1991, 1992) that clarified the need to integrate a sophisticated and heterogeneous
understanding of agency when considering the relationship between institutions and
organizations. An important move in the institutional work literature beyond these foundations
has been to explore the whole gamut of outcomes of actors’ work, including achieving one’s
objectives, failing at them, and triggering unintended consequences.
A second key concept for the institutional work perspective is the idea of practice. The
study of institutional work draws significantly on the sociology of practice that has been an
important part of the broader practice turn in the social sciences (De Certeau, 1984; Giddens,
1984; Schatzki, Knorr-Cetina, & Von Savigny, 2001; Whittington, 2006). In this tradition,
practices represent “embodied, materially mediated arrays of human activity centrally organized
around shared practical understanding” (Schatzki et al., 2001:2). Practice-theoretic approaches to
social life bring with them a specific ontology within which phenomena of various complexities
are not made of transcendental elements such as forces, logics or mental models. When it comes
to the social world, it is practicing all the way down(Nicolini & Monteiro, In press). Although
this may seem like an extreme position, it brings with it the potential for fantastic theoretical
clarity. The institutional work perspective relies heavily on the concept of practice as a bridge
between people’s reflexive, purposive efforts and the institutions at which those efforts are
aimed: concrete instances of institutional work are simultaneously practices embodied,
materially mediated arrays of human activity that are organized around institutions and
people’s intentions to shape those institutions. Thus, the institutional work perspective builds on
the sociology of practice by focusing on particular sets of practices aimed at affecting the
institutional arrangements within which they are situated. In so doing, institutional work
encourages a shift in attention from field-level patterns, to the specific practices that underpin
them, and at the same time offers a path along which institutional and practice scholars might
enjoy a shared journey and benefit from the strengths of each other’s approaches.
Our aims in this chapter
Three main aims motivate this chapter. First, we aim to take stock of the institutional
work perspective as it has developed since 2006. We limit our review to research that has
explicitly adopted the “institutional work” label, rather than including all research concerned
with the relationship between agency and institutions more broadly. So, for instance, although
research on social movements, hybrid organizations, and paradox examines forms of social
action that could be understood from an institutional work perspective, we leave a discussion of
those literatures to others (including other chapters in this Handbook see Schneiberg and
Lounsbury, and Battilana, Besharov, Mitzinneck). We also realize that our review overlaps with
Hardy and Maguire’s review of institutional entrepreneurship in this volume, and so we leave a
detailed exploration of the concept to their chapter. Our first aim of taking stock is represented
by the chapter’s first main section, which investigates the institutional work literature in terms of
“what” (the institutions highlighted in research on institutional work), “who” (the actors on
which institutional work research has focused), and “how” (the strategies through which actors
influence institutions).
Our second aim is to highlight what we see as important gaps in the development of the
institutional work perspective, focusing in particular on the “what”, “who” and “how” of
institutional work. With respect to “what”, we found an important gap in our understanding of
institutional work aimed at large-scale institutions. A consistent focus in institutional work
research has been on how actors influence what might be described as “middle-range
institutions institutionalized beliefs, rules and values that exert a significant influence within an
organization, community or field. This is despite dramatic shifts in large-scale institutions over
the past few decades, much of which has been the result of intentional, effortful work by a wide
range of individuals, groups, organizations and networks. The second gap we address concerns
“who” – the range of actors that research on institutional work has included. Largely missing in
research to date has been the collaborative work of heterogeneous networks of actors, which may
be especially important in institutional work that is concerned with shaping large-scale
institutions. The third gap we examine concerns “how” institutional work is done. Despite a
range of studies that have explored a wide variety of strategies for institutional work, there has
remained a focus on symbolic forms of institutional work, at the expense of understanding the
role of relational and material forms. For each of these gaps, we explore an allied literature that
we believe could provide theoretical and methodological insights that would provide insight and
energy if integrated into the institutional work perspective.
Our third aim in this chapter is to use the study of institutional work to move
organizational institutionalism toward a more practical, impactful connection with audiences
outside of the academy. Thus, in the paper’s final main section, we explore the possibility of an
applied program of institutional work research. We approach this challenge first by examining
the potential for institutional work research to shift towards a focus on institutions “that matter”
institutions tied to major social challenges. We then explore two ways in which an applied
program of institutional work research might be constructed: as a policy science; and as a form
of participatory action research. We argue that an applied program of institutional work would
provide an important practical, prescriptive addition to the current focus on theoretical novelty
and empirical precision. It would, however, necessitate broad changes to the way we conduct
research projects, interact with policy-makers, and conceptualize our relationships with those we
study. We encourage scholars to use and develop institutional work to tackle the challenges
surrounding the institutions that matter.
Section 1 Review of Institutional Work Research
In the decade that the institutional work perspective has been an active ingredient in
organizational institutionalism, it has been incorporated in a wide variety of empirical and
conceptual articles. At the time of this writing, Google Scholar lists more than 1,500 works citing
either Lawrence and Suddaby (2006) or Lawrence, Suddaby and Leca (2009). The concept of
institutional work has been connected closely to a number of the topics and issues that motivate
chapters of this volume, including legitimacy (Dansou & Langley, 2012; Trank & Washington,
2009), (Hardy & Maguire, 2010; Suddaby & Viale, 2011), emotions (Creed, Hudson, Okhuysen,
& Smith-Crowe, 2014; Moisander, Hirsto, & Fahy, In press; Voronov & Vince, 2012), identity
(Creed, Dejordy, & Lok, 2010; Leung, Zietsma, & Peredo, 2014), discourse (Maguire & Hardy,
2009a; Zilber, 2007a), community (Lawrence & Dover, 2015), inhabited institutions (refs),
power (Currie, Lockett, Finn, Martin, & Waring, 2012; Rojas, 2010a) and institutional logics
(Gawer & Phillips, 2013). Along with organization studies research, the concept has gained
traction in related fields, including the study of strategic management (Durand, 2012; Paroutis &
Heracleous, 2013), business ethics (J. Gond & Boxenbaum, 2013; Vadera & Aguilera, 2015),
public administration (Cloutier, Denis, Langley, & Lamothe, 2016; Coule & Patmore, 2013),
accounting (Arroyo, 2012; Modell, 2015), business history (Smothers, Murphy, Novicevic, &
Humphreys, 2014), and communication (Bartlett, Tywoniak, & Hatcher, 2007; Pallas &
Fredriksson, 2011).
Our aim in this section is not to provide a comprehensive summary of the literature or an
examination of the broader relationship between agency and institutions. Rather, we seek to
provide a snapshot of research on institutional work. To do so, our review draws primarily from
a set of 53 empirical studies that were explicitly framed in terms of institutional work and
published in major organization studies journals. In reviewing these articles, we pose three
questions. First, we ask what institutions actors try to influence through work. In brief, we find
that research on institutional work has tended to focus on “middle-range” institutions those
specific to particular fields, such as discourses in the Israeli high-tech field (Zilber, 2007b) and
the platform logic within the semiconductor field (Gawer & Phillips, 2013). Second, we ask who
engages in institutional work. Our review suggests that institutional work research has focused
primarily on actors who either work alone or cooperate with relatively similar partners, as in the
case of a Nordic university creating a new blueprint for higher education institutions (Granqvist
& Gustafsson, In press) and Italian journalists integrating the offline and online content of their
newspaper (Raviola & Norbäck, 2013). Finally, we ask how actors do institutional work.
Mirroring institutional theory more broadly, we find that most research on institutional work
highlights symbolic and discursive strategies, such as the use of narratives (Zilber, 2009) and
discourse (Maguire & Hardy, 2009b).
The institutions in “institutional work”
The question of what kinds of institutions are examined in research on institutional work
is a complex one. A common way to differentiate institutions in organizational research is in
terms of the particular form they take such as practices (Hiatt, Sine, & Tolbert, 2009; Lok & de
Rond, 2013), boundaries (Åkerström, 2002; Zietsma & Lawrence, 2010), values (Gehman,
Trevino, & Garud, 2013; Wright, Zammuto, & Liesch, 2015), rules (Heaphy, 2013), or standards
(Slager, Gond, & Moon, 2012). In strategy and international business, a more common
categorization focuses on formal versus informal institutions (Peng, Wang, & Jiang, 2008;
Stiglitz, 1999). In looking across the research on institutional work, we found studies that
incorporated all of these different kinds of institutions.
An important, but under-examined, basis for differentiating studies of institutional work
is the “level” of the institution that is the target of institutional work. The issue of levels is a surly
one in organizational institutionalism. Some scholars posit a distinctly institutional level, often
focusing on the rules, practices and beliefs institutionalized across societies or fields. By
contrast, others suggest that institutions can exist at any level of analysis, including the
organization, group and individual levels. In reviewing the literature on institutional work, it is
apparent that there has been a clear tendency to focus on the field- and organization levels.
Indeed, 46 out of the 55 studies in our review fall into this category.
Field-level Institutions
Following DiMaggio and Powell’s (1983) lead and mirroring institutional theory more
broadly, research on institutional work has often focused on characteristics of fields as the main
target for institutional work. The concept of a field is, of course, a contested one (see Hoffman
and Wooten, this volume). Broadly defined as “a community of organizations that partakes of a
common meaning system and whose participants interact more frequently and fatefully with one
another than with actors outside the field” (Scott, 1995:56), fields have been the focus of a
vibrant stream of research that examined the institutional work associated with efforts to create,
maintain and transform them. Studies have shown the challenges that field actors face in finding
agreement for the internal arrangements of the field: they need to decide which roles to allow,
which practices to adopt, and which logics to follow (e.g., Jones & Massa, 2013; Wright &
Zammuto, 2013a; Zietsma & McKnight, 2009a). In terms of external work, studies have shown
that actors need to build or maintain the field’s legitimacy, its boundaries, and its relations to
other fields (Boxenbaum & Strandgaard Pedersen, 2009; Riaz, Buchanan, & Bapuji, 2011).
These actions are vital to secure the continued support from key resource providers, such as
regulators, the media, or investors, many of which are usually external to the field.
By far the most commonly examined object of institutional work has been field-level
practices 36 of the 55 studies that we review here fall into this category. Indeed, investigations
of how actors affect the status of field-level practices have been a consistent focus for
institutional work research throughout the past decade. In looking across these studies, it is
interesting to observe that researchers have continued to dedicate more attention to the creation
and maintenance of practices, rather than to their disruption (some notable exceptions, such as,
Maguire & Hardy, 2009, notwithstanding). Early examples include Perkmann and Spicer’s
(2008) analysis of the institutionalization of management fashions, in which the authors
identified three forms of institutional work political work, technical work and cultural work
and showed that the advocates of such fashions are more likely to be successful in
institutionalizing them when they increase the types of institutional work that they deploy and
when the skill sets of the actors involved are heterogeneous. Another early study of institutional
work aimed at field-level practices was Zietsma and McKnight’s (2009b) analysis of the efforts
of actors in the BC coastal forestry industry to promote competing proto-institutions in the face
of contestation. They find that actors in contested fields often need to collaborate with the
proponents of opposing ideas to jointly co-create novel solutions that can protect them against
external attacks. More recently, institutional work research has examined field-level practices in
a range of contexts including financial services regulation (Riaz et al., 2011), micro-finance
(Dorado, 2013), architecture (Jones & Massa, 2013), capital markets (Clark & Newell, 2013),
and housing (Lawrence & Dover, 2015).
Roles constituted the second most commonly studied field-level object of institutional
work. The study of roles as objects of institutional work emerged later than the study of practices
and has focused primarily on professional roles, including changes in the role identities of nurses
from 1955 to 1992 (Goodrick & Reay, 2010), efforts to maintain power by elites in response to
the emergence of new roles in the UK healthcare system (Currie et al., 2012), the institutional
work of pharmaceutical companies to control internal professional staff (Singh & Jayanti, 2013),
the strategies of Italian professionals to maintain the power and privileges associated with their
roles (Micelotta & Washington, 2013), and the institutional experimentation inside accounting
firms struggling to define the role of auditors in the wake of financial and professional crises
(Malsch & Gendron, 2013). The interest in professional roles as objects of institutional work
follows a long tradition of examining professions as arenas of institutional change (Greenwood,
Suddaby, & Hinings, 2002; Kitchener & Mertz, 2012; Scott, Ruef, Caronna, & Mendel, 2000).
Research that has focused specifically on professional roles has added important nuance to our
understanding of institutional work dynamics in these domains by explaining how and why
professionals work to effect or resist change. For example, in Ramirez’s (2013) study of the
British audit profession, the trigger for institutional work was a perceived injustice stemming
from institutional change that threatened the sense of “equity in a community of peers”: in an
effort to increase accountability in the audit profession, the professional body introduced a
monitoring scheme that created an “uproar” among the smaller firms.
A third field-level institution examined in institutional work research is the organizational
form archetypal configuration of structures and practices given coherence by underlying
values regarded as appropriate within an institutional context” (Greenwood & Suddaby,
2006a:30). Despite organizational forms being a long-standing concern in institutional theory
and organizational research more broadly (Child & McGrath, 2001; Davis, Diekmann, &
Tinsley, 1994; DiMaggio, 1991), there have been relatively few studies of the institutional work
associated with their creation, hardly any related to maintenance (see Luyckx & Janssens, In
press, for an important exception), and none of their disruption. The small number of
institutional work studies that has focused on organizational forms have shown that they require
specific types of work to become legitimate, with co-operation between like-minded
organizations especially important (e.g., Empson, Cleaver, & Allen, 2013; Perkmann & Spicer,
2007; Tracey, Phillips, & Jarvis, 2011). For example, David, Sine and Haveman (2013) showed
that collective action amongst related firms and relationships with high profile actors such as
prestigious universities, played a key role in the emergence of management consulting as a new
organizational form.
A small set of institutional work studies have examined the efforts of actors to affect
standards and standard-setting processes. Standards represent mechanisms of control that
facilitate coordination by defining the appropriate attributes of the standardized subject,
rendering these aspects visible to external inspection and opening up the possibility of
sanctioning non-compliance(Slager et al., 2012: 765). Despite much public and scholarly
discussion of the increasing roles that standards play in contemporary society, the institutional
work that goes into their formation has been relatively neglected. The research of Slager, Gond
and Moon (2012) on the creation of the FTSE4Good index, which “emerged as a standard for
socially responsible corporate behaviour”, and of Helfen and Sydow (2013) on global labour
standards shows that the institutional work underpinning such standards involves a combination
of forms undertaken in complex, collaborative and competing relationships. Standards provide a
particularly useful context for studying institutional work because of the public and often heated
contests and debates that occur around them, which expose the varied institutional strategies used
by interested actors.
Although a range of other field-level institutions exist, the bulk of institutional work
research has focused on the practices, roles, organizational forms and standards described above.
A minority of studies, however, have examined the institutional work associated with more
varied institutions, including social boundaries (Zietsma & Lawrence, 2010), values (Wright et
al., 2015), discourses (Zilber, 2007), network configurations (Bertels, Hoffman, & DeJordy,
2014), and field-level logics (Gawer & Phillips, 2013). The paucity of research on these objects
of institutional work is unfortunate because they all represent key facets of organizational fields.
One of the most notable and perhaps disappointing outcomes of our review is the lack
of attention to field-level logics as potential targets of institutional work. This is especially
surprising given the significant interest that institutional scholars have paid to logics more
broadly (see Ocasio, Thornton and Lounsbury in this volume). Institutional logics are frames of
reference through which actors make sense of the world, construct their identities, and interact
with the world around them (Thornton, 2002; Thornton, Ocasio, & Lounsbury, 2012). Thus it is
clearly very important to explore how logics can be shaped by institutional work. Gawer and
Phillips (2013) is a rare example of a study that considers how actors affect field-level logics.
These authors documented the strategies through which Intel introduced the platform logic into
the semiconductor field to replace the traditional supply chain logic. Importantly, they show that
change in field-level logics may require simultaneous internal work at the organizational level to
change local identities and practices, and external work at the field level to change field-wide
practices and build legitimacy (see also Tracey, Phillips and Jarvis, 2011). We return to this issue
in the next major section when we discuss gaps in our understanding of institutional work.
Organization-level institutions
Although not as abundant as research on institutional work that targets field-level
institutions, there has also been a significant number of investigations of institutional work
focused on organization-level institutions, including organizational practices, logics, values, and
rules (Daudigeos, 2013; Rojas, 2010a; Van Wijk, Stam, Elfring, Zietsma, & Den Hond, 2013;
Zilber, 2009). The practical and political effects of organization-level institutions often lead to
ongoing negotiations which result in oscillations between peaceful co-existence and conflict-
ridden clashes. Consequently, some organization-level institutions are associated with frequent
breakdowns and breaches, and thus work to repair and restore their status and legitimacy
(Bjerregaard & Jonasson, 2014; Heaphy, 2013; Lok & de Rond, 2013). Two kinds of institutions
have been particularly prominent in institutional work research: rules and logics.
Rules both formal and informal matter in organizations. They motivate, facilitate and
constrain behavior, and they help shape the construction of organizational history and culture
(March & Olsen, 1976; Zhou, 1993). Rules also distribute resources and provide or limit
opportunities for organizational members, and thus act as both the incentive and means for
institutional work aimed at their maintenance or transformation (Heaphy, 2013; Raviola &
Norbäck, 2013). The institutional work of members to influence organizational rules includes a
wide array of possibilities. One particularly radical form of institutional work in this regard
involves acquiring sufficient power to change the rules. This kind of work is at the center of
Rojas’ (2010a) study of how the president of San Francisco State College responded to the 1968
Third World Strike, namely by using the dramatic situation to gain more powers and create
draconian new rules as well as stricter punishments. A small number of studies has also looked at
the maintenance, rather than the transformation, of organizational rules. Most notably, Heaphy
(2013) explored how staff at US teaching and veteran hospitals struggled to treat patients in the
face of physical threats that seemed to nullify formal rules. This study focused on the important
role of patient advocates, who helped hospital staff by providing them with strategies so that they
could protect themselves in such situations.
Finally, a third form of institutional work in relation to organizational rules involves
amending particular rules while maintaining the spirit underlying them. Such an approach might
prove especially appropriate in cases where rules represent sources of conflict or disagreement.
Lok and de Rond (2013), for example, describe such a situation in their study of the Cambridge
University Boat Club. An informal but important Club rule declared that members were to
devote all their efforts to the shared goal of beating Oxford University in the annual rowing
competition. But, in 2007, the crew’s most experienced coxswain made the controversial and
unexpected decision to train for the varsity boxing team at the same time as training with the
rowing team. Lok and de Rond (2013: 198) describe how the situation triggered “negotiation
work between Russ and the squad to come to an acceptable working agreement that fell outside
of the scope of the normal selection script”. This negotiation work served to contain the breach
and thus preserve the sanctity of the informal commitment rule.
Very different institutional work is needed in novel situations, in which actors are
confronted with new activities. While conflict about existing rules has been the subject of some
scholarly attention, we know very little about the work involved in deciding how new domains
should be governed, the processes underpinning the creation of these rules, and how new rules
interact with prevailing ones. Raviola and Norbäck (2013) suggest that in such situations actors
can try to identify existing rules in analogous domains of activity and transfer them to new
situations. For example, when negotiating the new domain of online newsmaking, Italian
journalists were able to draw on the rules supporting the print edition of their newspaper as a
‘law book’ to guide the behavior of organizational members and help them adjust. This study
also highlights that the cautious adaptation and selective application of existing rules provides
actors with a non-confrontational approach through which they can navigate institutional
challenges and employ rules to their own advantage (see also Seo & Creed, 2002).
Although institutional logics are more typically thought of as field-level or societal
phenomena, a small number of studies have shown that logics can represent the targets of
organization-level institutional work. These studies take the perspective that institutional logics
are “constructed rather than given” (Smets & Jarzabkowski, 2013: 1279) inside organizations.
Logics may be grounded in extra-organizational structures and cultures, but to be meaningful and
impactful in organizations they need to be made local rendered interpretable and actionable in
the face of organizational routines, structures, values, beliefs and relationships. This dynamic is
especially visible in the context of institutional complexity, where organizational members
struggle with the concurrent impact of multiple competing logics, such as the market logic and
the family logic, in the same organization (Greenwood, Raynard, Kodeih, Micelotta, &
Lounsbury, 2011; Kraatz & Block, 2008). Although organizational responses to institutional
control has emerged as a vibrant research domain, relatively few studies (e.g., Smets,
Jarzabkowski, Burke, & Spee, 2015; Toubiana & Zietsma, forthcoming) have drawn on the
concept of institutional work to tackle this thorny challenge. One such exception is
Jarzabkowski, Matthiesen, and Van de Ven’s (2009) study of institutional complexity in a utility
firm whose members sought to reconcile opposing market and regulatory logics through a wide
array of institutional work. Interestingly, this study showed that organizational members can
engage in different types of seemingly conflicting institutional work simultaneously creation
work was used to augment certain aspects of the logics inside the firm, while disruption work
was used to contest other aspects. More broadly, research on institutional work directed at
shaping logics inside organizations has illustrated various approaches to tackling this issue,
including slowly integrating emerging logics into an established logic, combining multiple
logics, and continuously recalibrating the relationship between existing logics (Bjerregaard &
Jonasson, 2014; Empson et al., 2013; Smets & Jarzabkowski, 2013; Tracey et al., 2010)
These studies highlight two important, broader phenomena within institutional work
research at the organization-level: first, scholars make increasingly explicit and prominent use of
practice-theory for explaining institutional work, and second, scholars increasingly suggest that
the process and outcomes of institutional work may differ. Thus, while actors are usually
concerned with only one institutional outcome (creation, maintenance or disruption), they often
need to draw on all three institutional work processes (creation, maintenance, and disruption) to
achieve that outcome as Jarzabkowski, Matthiesen, and Van de Ven (2009), among others,
have shown.
Individuals and Institutions
The relationship between individuals and institutions could be central to the study of
institutional work if one follows Giddens (1984) and Bourdieu (1998) who locate social structure
in the memory traces of individuals. This perspective suggests that actors can engage in a
critically important form of institutional work by shaping the memories (and identities and
emotions) of individuals, including their own. Despite the tremendous potential, and the repeated
calls for scholars to investigate the micro-foundations the coalface of institutions, relatively
little research on this kind of institutional work has been undertaken. An exception is Tracey’s
(In press) study of the Alpha course, “an evangelizing movement designed to convert agnostics
to a particular and contested interpretation of Christianity”. This study asks how
organizations persuade individuals to internalize a new logic, and documents four key kinds of
“micro-institutional work” (framing work, identity work, affective work, and performative
work). A key finding of this study is the precariousness of such institutional work: Tracey argues
that effectively enacting “these forms of work is challenging and requires high levels of skill”,
and that even then, “the outcomes of the persuasive process uncertain conversion is by no
means guaranteed”.
The institutional work connecting individuals and institutions has also been explored as a
“bottom up” phenomenon, in which people experience their identities as in conflict with or
constrained by broader institutions, and consequently engage in institutional work to reclaim,
redefine or justify their identities (Creed et al., 2010; Leung et al., 2014). Creed, DeJordy and
Lok (2010), for example, found in their study of GLBT ministers that individuals can use
embodied identity work to reconcile clashes between their identity and dominant institutions.
The GLBT ministers in this study used self-narratives based on salient experiences to justify
their institutional role and challenge their marginalization. Although these studies have begun to
show how actors can work to accommodate their own identities in different institutional settings,
the forms of work needed to resist or shed identities that result from institutional pressures have
not yet been subject to systematic analysis.
More broadly, the first steps towards individual-level studies highlight various intriguing
possibilities for moving institutional work research forward. First of all, they are starting to
explore the important and mostly overlooked role that emotions play when actors interact
with institutions. Second, they also alert us to the vastly different forms of commitment that
individuals have to institutions from ardent support to lukewarm compliance and suggest
scope for interesting research into why individuals increase or decrease their commitment to
Societal Institutions
We have discussed how research on institutional work has made significant advances in
understanding efforts to shape field- and organization-level institutions, and some progress on
understanding institutional work that targets individuals. Institutional work designed to shape
societal institutions, however, has been a distinct blind spot. Only six of the 55 papers in this
review focus on institutions that can reasonably be described as being anchored at the societal
level. What these papers bring to the conversation around institutional work is a consideration of
institutions that are often more complex and distal than the simpler, more proximal institutions
located in fields and organizations.
Hirsch and Bermiss (2009), for example, explore how actors in the Czech Republic used
preservation work to maintain the old societal rules, while transitioning into the emerging post-
Communist economic system. During this period, the Czech Republic privatized the majority of
state-owned enterprises and appeared to move to an economy of market-driven enterprises with
dispersed ownership. In practice, however, many of the enterprises were controlled by
Investment Privatization Funds, which in turn were under the influence of state-owned banks.
Thus, the old rules of state-planned enterprise remained in force, despite a seemingly smooth
transition to a market economy. This study highlights the complexity faced by actors when
seeking to influence societal institutions, and suggests that institutional workers operating in this
context need to be particularly skilled at negotiating countervailing forces. In a study focused on
a very different set of dynamics, Dacin, Munir and Tracey (2010) examine a long-standing
societal institution in British society the class system. These authors show how formal dining
rituals in Cambridge colleges contribute to the maintenance of social class structures in Britain.
Specifically, the repeated performance of these rituals legitimates for participants the concept of
social stratification, transform (or in some cases reinforce) the self-perception of Cambridge
students, and elevate their social position by providing access to (and a sense of identification
with) an elite professional-managerial class. A third example of institutional work aimed at
societal institutions is Wijen and Ansari’s (2007) research on the creation of the Kyoto Protocol.
This study suggests a key challenge facing actors seeking to influence societal institutions
involves uniting large numbers of diverse actors, which requires distinctive types of institutional
work, such as the construction of “enrolling bandwagons” in order to rapidly recruit a critical
mass of supporters.
Taken together, these studies offer only preliminary insights into the distinctive dynamics
of institutional work at the societal level. But they also reveal the gaps in our knowledge and
highlight the importance of, and potential for, additional research in this area societal-level
institutions arguably exert greater influence on social behavior compared to institutions at the
meso- and micro- levels. Intriguingly, existing studies suggest that actors may be able to use
forms of institutional work that have been shown to be effective at other levels of analysis for the
maintenance of societal institutions (e.g., Dacin et al., 2010) but that they may need to deploy
distinct types of work to create or disrupt them (e.g., Mair & Marti, 2009; Wijen & Ansari,
2007). This insight offers an interesting initial direction for future institutional work research at
the societal level.
In sum, this section has shown that our understanding of institutional work directed at
institutions operating at different levels of analysis is uneven. The societal-level arguably offers
most promise for future research given the limited attention it has received to date and the sheer
scale of the influence on social behavior exerted by institutions at this level. Clearly, however,
there are many important issues that would benefit from sustained research attention across the
levels that we have considered.
The actors: Who engages in institutional work?
The second question we use to structure our review of the institutional work literature
focuses on the actors the people, organizations and networks that engage in institutional work.
This question is an important one because different constellations of actors have been shown to
face different challenges and opportunities, experience different emotions and conflicts, and are
able to achieve different institutional outcomes. The early institutional studies that underpinned
the development of institutional work as a concept focused primarily on individual people and
organizations, and especially those conceived of as institutional entrepreneurs who marshal
resources to shape institutions in a way that furthers their interests (Battilana, Leca, &
Boxenbaum, 2009; Garud, Jain, & Kumaraswamy, 2002; Greenwood & Suddaby, 2006b;
Maguire, Hardy, & Lawrence, 2004a), a tendency which shaped much of the work since 2008 as
well. Institutional work scholars have often explored how individual actors influence the
institutions under whose influence they find themselves a phenomenon known as “the paradox
of embedded agency” (Seo & Creed, 2002). This stream of research describes individual actors
engaging in progressive bottom-up change, building subject positions, and drawing on broader
societal elements in order to achieve their goals (Maguire, Hardy, & Lawrence, 2004b; Rojas,
2010a; Tracey et al., 2011). For example, in their study of the creation of a new hybrid
organizational form that bridged for-profit retailing and non-profit charity, Tracey, Phillips and
Jarvis (2010) show how institutional entrepreneurs can leverage emerging macro-cultural
discourses. In their case, the two proponents drew on increased public acceptance for social
enterprises and for responsible business to establish their type of organization. Much of the
research about institutional entrepreneurs has (at least implicitly) adopted a strong form of
Swidler’s (1986) “culture-as-a-toolkit” perspective that treats cultural elements as resources to be
used for change, while downplaying the concomitant constraints that impede agency.
Despite its roots in the study of institutional entrepreneurship, one of the key elements of
the institutional work agenda has been to move away from the somewhat heroic notions of
institutional entrepreneurship, to a more social image of actors and agency one that was
variously more fragmented, distributed, partial, and collective. This move was a reaction to the
image of “hypermuscular institutional entrepreneurs” (Lawrence, Suddaby, & Leca, 2009:1) who
were singularly able to transform what seemed for others to be intractable institutional structures
(Battilana et al., 2009). Thus, a second set of institutional work studies has explored the efforts of
relatively similar groups of actors, who were usually drawn from the same field of activity and
shared similar interests. Indeed, 40 of the 55 studies in our review fall into this category. This
research shows that relatively homogeneous groups can influence institutions by engaging in
collective action, adopting favorable social positions, and enacting desired practices in the face
of resistance (Clark & Newell, 2013; Currie et al., 2012; Dorado, 2013). The relatively
homogeneous actor groups in institutional work research primarily fall into two categories.
One set of studies explores groups of homogeneous actors who engage in institutional
work within a specific organization. In contrast to field-level groups, coalitions of organizational
actors tend to focus inwards by negotiating intra-organizational practices and aligning their own
identities with their roles. In so doing they often affect how the organization relates to its broader
institutional environment (e.g., Daudigeos, 2013; Jarzabkowski et al., 2009; Leung et al., 2014).
Lok and de Rond’s (2013) study of the Cambridge University Boat Club is a case in point. The
homogeneity of the actor group helped to ameliorate conflict relating to the Club’s goal of
defeating Oxford University. Nonetheless, conflict still ensued as actors disagreed about the best
approach and level of commitment for achieving this goal a common phenomenon among
homogenous actor groups (e.g., Jarzabkowski et al., 2009; Zilber, 2009).
Another set of studies about homogenous actors explores highly organized groups within
a specific field; this set is dominated by professionals, such as nurses and lawyers (e.g., Empson
et al., 2013; Micelotta & Washington, 2013; Rainelli Weiss & Huault, In press). These groups of
actors are often concerned with protecting jurisdictional claims, fending off challenges to their
field, and adapting their roles to new situations (e.g., Currie et al., 2012; Trank & Washington,
2009). For example, Currie, Lockett, Finn, Martin and Waring (2012) study how specialist
doctors in the English NHS were able to neutralize the status threat that resulted from the
introduction of a new role. These elite actors used their command of resources and control over
service delivery to shape the new role to their benefit and to co-opt actors from other
professional groups to support them. This study highlights a key theme among studies of
homogeneous actor groups: these usually professional actors can employ their privileged
positions, power and status to maintain and extend their interests. This parallels the ‘Matthew
effect’ – the idea that the ‘rich get richer’ and ‘the poor get poorer’ as the advantages of a
favorable starting position compound evermore (Merton, 1968). However, institutional work
research has yet to systematically explore the circumstances under which homogeneous groups
(of professionals) can see their sphere of influence curtailed, their practices removed, and their
status demoted. Thus many interesting research opportunities exist for exploring the limits of
professional power.
The third main set of actors upon which institutional work scholars have focused are
heterogeneous actor groups, usually from different fields of activity characterized by different
and often divergent objectives. A notable feature of these studies is that the actors on which
they focus are nearly always engaged in significant, and sometimes dramatic, conflicts with one
another (e.g., Zietsma & Lawrence, 2010). Maguire and Hardy (2009), for instance, explore how
scientists and activists went on the offensive to successfully de-legitimate the use of DDT in the
face of widespread industry opposition. This study highlights that conflicts between
heterogeneous actors are often decided by actors’ ability to overcome power imbalances and
challenge widely accepted institutional norms.
Interestingly, studies that concern heterogeneous actor groups who are in conflict tend to
focus mainly on one side of the conflict usually the ‘winning’ side. While this may be an
inevitable consequence of data access constraints, the result is that these studies often emphasize
one perspective of a struggle to the detriment of others, which clearly limits the insights that can
be generated and conclusions that can be drawn. A notable exception is Zietsma and Lawrence’s
(2010) study of the British Columbia forestry field. By collecting extensive data across the field
from forestry companies, environmentalists, and government officials these authors are able
to paint a more evenhanded picture of each stage of the field’s transformation. In particular, their
multi-vocal data allow them to show how initial confrontation gave way to small-scale
collaborations between the conflicted parties. Future institutional work research would benefit
from more balanced accounts such as this one that take into consideration the perspectives of all
the groups involved in conflict situations. This would allow researchers to provide more nuanced
accounts of the dynamics of conflict as they unfold, and the of role institutional work in
resolving them.
Types of institutional work: How do actors influence institutions?
The foundational book chapter by Lawrence and Suddaby (2006) divided institutional
work according to its intended outcomes, i.e., into the work of creating, maintaining and
disrupting institutions. In this chapter, we provide an alternative perspective by classifying
institutional work based on the means that are used to achieve particular institutional objectives.
This leads us to distinguish between three types of institutional work: first, symbolic work that
uses symbols, including signs, identities and language, to influence institutions; second, material
work that draws on the physical elements of the institutional environment, such as objects or
places, to influence institutions; and third, relational work that is concerned with building
interactions to advance institutional ends.
Symbols dominate institutional work. The popularity of symbolic work can be explained
by institutional theory’s strong roots in symbolic interactionism, particularly the influential work
of Berger and Luckmann (1966). This long tradition has inspired many studies that show how
actors can strategically interact with symbols to achieve their institutional objectives. Indeed,
nearly all of the studies in our review discussed symbolic work to some extent, with 48 out of 55
placing particular emphasis on it. In these papers it is apparent that scholars have drawn on a
wide range of symbols, including categories, identities, narratives, rhetoric, discourse, rules and
scripts, among others (e.g., Kim, Croidieu, & Lippmann, In press; Leung et al., 2014; Singh &
Jayanti, 2013). While actors have a huge array of symbols available to them, deploying these
symbols so that they resonate with key actors is far from straightforward connecting to existing
institutional arrangements, adapting broader themes, and neutralizing oppositional symbols have
been identified as important skills in this regard (e.g., Riaz et al., 2011; Ruebottom, 2013; Trank
& Washington, 2009).
The role of narratives and identities feature especially strongly in the literature on
symbolic forms of institutional work. Actors construct narratives through the “selection,
combination, editing, and molding of events into a story form” (Zilber, 2009:208). These
narratives can become powerful symbols that actors can use to explicate situations, justify actors,
and defend different courses of actions. Closely related is the concept of rhetoric, which involves
the use of “persuasive language” (Ruebottom, 2013:100). Studies have shown that actors employ
narratives (and rhetoric) in different ways to pursue institutional work (e.g., Riaz et al., 2011;
Zilber, 2007). One approach is for actors to draw on meta-narratives that exist across multiple
fields and thus resonate with many salient audiences. For example, Zilber (2009) found in her
study of a rape crisis center that actors translated and re-interpreted societal meta-narratives to
justify feminist and therapeutic practices. This included using them to socialize new members
by, for instance, embedding narratives into routines. As a result, the center was able to justify its
activities with stories that resonated widely across society. A second approach involves the
creation of new stories that invoke widely accepted tropes, vocabularies or rhetorical devices
rather than specific societal meta-narratives. For example, Ruebottom (2013) shows that social
entrepreneurs in Bangladesh were able to build legitimacy for their ventures by constructing
narratives that depict themselves in the role of heroic protagonists standing up to the villainous
Identity a self-referential statement of “who we are” or “who I am (Albert & Whetten,
1985) is the second main type of symbolic institutional work that researchers have focused on.
Specifically, scholars have explored how actors construct and reconstruct identities at different
levels both individual and organizational to influence institutions. This research suggests that
identities and institutions are in a constant interplay. As a result, actors can sometimes use their
identities to influence broader institutions and, in turn, sometimes adapt their identities to fit
these institutions (e.g., Creed et al., 2010; Goodrick & Reay, 2010). The former case is
highlighted by Jones and Massa’s (2013) study of Frank Lloyd’s Wright Unity Temple church
building which moved from “entrepreneurial anomaly” to “consecrated exemplar”. They show
how actors had to publicly express and defend their novel architectural identity to attain
legitimacy for their work. The latter case is highlighted by Gawer and Phillips’ (2013)
observation that Intel had to adapt its identity to introduce the platform logic across its industry.
Specifically, it had to make new identity claims, and resolve tensions between its established
identity and new platform practices. These studies highlight that institutional workers are often
required to renegotiate their identities as they seek to shape the institutional landscape.
Despite a rich vein of existing research, symbolic work continues to offer much promise
for students of institutional work. For example, Granqvist and Gustafsson (In press) extended
institutional work to account for the temporal realm. Through a study of the creation of a new
university blueprint in Finland, they find that the strategic manipulation of notions of time for
instance by creating urgency or enacting momentum can have a powerful bearing on the
outcomes of institutional projects. Two underexplored types of symbols that offer much promise
are the visual and the sonic. Despite the old adage that a picture says more than a thousand
words, it is unclear how institutional workers can effectively employ image-based symbols (see
Meyer, Höllerer, Jancsary, & Van Leeuwen, 2013, for an overview). Similarly, despite being
constantly surrounded by them, scholars have been largely silent about the role of sounds in
institutional dynamics (see Schwarz, 2015, for an exception). For example, chants are often
instrumental for mobilization during political revolutions or anti-corporate protests. Research
that explores the potency of the sonic realm for institutional action has the potential to make an
important contribution.
The exploration of the tangible side of institutional life has also proven a less well
trodden path. In particular, we know little about material work, which involves the manipulation
of physical aspects of the institutional environment, and more specifically about the role of
materiality in shaping institutional work. Indeed, only five studies in our review explored the
material dimension in any detail. This, admittedly small, body of work has suggested three roles
for the material realm. First, actors can draw on material objects to interpret situations that they
face. In this instance, objects contain institutional information that can guide decision-making.
For example, in their study of technological change in an Italian newspaper business, Raviola
and Norbäck (2013) showed that actors can use the material functions of technology in which
institutions are inscribed to navigate new situations. In their case, journalists used their
experiences of working with paper-based version of newspapers to make sense of proposals for a
digital version. Second, actors can use material objects to extend their agency by using them to
perform institutional work. For example, in their study of the introduction of new prizes into the
Italian public sector, Monteiro and Nicolini (2015) show that actors can use material objects for
many types of institutional work, such as educating others, theorizing institutions, or
reconfiguring normative networks. Third, material objects can complicate institutional work. For
example, in their study of the role of place in Vancouver support programs for the hard-to-house,
Lawrence and Dover (2015) show that the unique materiality of a daycare facility led to
significant shifts in how actors approached their institutional work.
As these studies show, material work offers much promise for the study of institutional
work. One possible route forward would be to engage with theoretical ideas and perspectives
from elsewhere in the social sciences that place greater emphasis on the role of the material. For
example, institutional work researchers might consider drawing on actor-network theory or
theories of socio-materiality to help extend and refine their thinking (Latour, 2005; Orlikowski &
Scott, 2008).
Relational work is another important type of symbolic institutional work. The study of
relational work explores how actors can influence institutions through their interactions with
others. To date this has been studied in two different ways. In a first stream of research, scholars
have explored how actors can gain followers for their cause. Studies have suggested that to this
end actors can build networks, amplify each other’s initiatives through indirect work, and
suppress alternatives (Bertels et al., 2014; Boxenbaum & Strandgaard Pedersen, 2009; Rojas,
2010b). For example, in a study of Bolivian microfinance, Dorado (2013) finds that actors can
use group dynamics to recruit supporters: the presence of a group helps to motivate others to join
it, inspires members to identify opportunities, and facilitates access to yet more potential
members. Other studies have shown that actors may engage in relational institutional work in a
variety of ways in order to entangle others in their institution ranging from the subtle use of
rituals to aggression and other forms of coercive behavior (Dacin et al., 2010; Martí &
Fernández, 2013).
In a second stream of research, scholars have explored how actors can engage in
collaborations with others in their field. This work has focused in particular on role of factors
such as status, social position, goal alignment, and role clarity in collaboration success (Bertels et
al., 2014; Empson et al., 2013; Wright & Zammuto, 2013; Singh & Jayanti, 2013; Sminia, 2011).
It has also considered the challenges of co-ordination and control (Clark & Newell, 2013;
Zietsma & McKnight, 2009a). For example, Dorado (2005) suggested that large groups of
loosely connected actors can influence institutions when these actors are “convened” to act in
concert a process by which big collectives work in a seemingly independent manner towards a
common goal with minimal formal coordination.
It is notable, however, that existing research on relational institutional work has focused
primarily on the work involved in influencing like-minded actors from the same field. We know
much less about the work needed to marshal support from actors in different fields, who may
have vastly different goals and occupy very different roles. In a notable exception, Wijen and
Ansari (2007) draw on regime theory to explain how collective inaction was overcome to realize
the Kyoto Protocol to limit emissions. They identify several drivers that enabled heterogeneous
actors to reach a productive agreement. Another blindspot in current research is the work
involved in negotiating formal institutional standards. One interesting exception is Helfen and
Sydow’s (2013) study of the negotiation of new labor framework agreements between global
trade unions and multinational corporations. These authors show that relational work can yield
vastly different outcomes and illustrate both the potential and pitfalls of “negotiation work” for
institutional change.
Taken together, the research on institutional work has in its maiden decade played an
important moving forward our understanding of the relationship between agency and institutions.
In particular, it has provided a new vocabulary and way of thinking about a range of institutional
dynamics, and the purposive action required to influence them. But… there is still much to be
done to fulfill the potential of this perspective. In the rest of this chapter, we address two sets of
issues: the theoretical holes in the fabric of institutional work research that have been left by
selective attention to some sets of dynamics while ignoring others; and the even larger gap
between the theoretical contributions of the institutional work perspective and its impact outside
the academy.
Section 2 Missing in Action: Logics, Networks and Objects
In reviewing the existing literature on institutional work, we found it prioritized field- and
organization-specific institutions rather than institutions that cut across fields. It also focused on
actors who either act on their own or collaborate in relatively homogenous alliances but said
much less about collaborations between diverse groups of actors. Moreover, symbolic forms of
institutional work were dominant, with institutional work related to the material aspects of
institutional life seldom considered. Next we explore the potential for research on institutional
work to move beyond each of these tendencies.
Institutional Work, Institutional Logics and “Big” Institutions
The study of institutional work has primarily focused on the work of actors to affect
field- or organization-specific institutions, but this tendency, we argue, is neither inevitable nor
helpful. In this section, we consider how the institutional work perspective might be broadened
to incorporate a concern with more expansive institutional configurations. We begin by
exploring the existing and potential connection between the study of institutional work and the
study of institutional logics. We then discuss some of the “big” institutions not addressed within
an institutional logics perspective and how these might be brought into the study of institutional
There has emerged a curious, and we suggest artificial, schism over the past decade
between the two most dynamic and vital areas of institutional research and writing: institutional
work and institutional logics. Each of these concepts has generated a plethora of theory and
empirical research, exploring the core of the ideas and elaborating their dynamics in a range of
contexts, but there has been relatively little systematic effort to examine the relationship between
the two. In an essay exploring this divide, Zilber argues that these two streams of work “each
developed within a distinct tradition and with its own trajectory” but share an impetus to “bridge
the tension between structure and agency that undergirds the development of neo-institutional
theory for decades now” (Zilber, 2013: 89). She goes on to argue that the “tension” between
these two streams represents “the most recent incarnation of a long series of theoretical
conundrums within neo-institutionalism, each igniting deep and ongoing discussions that pushed
the theory forward”, including diffusion vs. translation, stability vs. change, structure vs. agency,
and the heroic institutional entrepreneur vs. the cultural dope. Zilber suggests that this tension is
a healthy one such that institutional research and writing might best be served by keeping the
streams separate, appreciating what they each bring to our understanding of organizations and
institutions, and recognizing their limitations.
Although we appreciate Zilber’s arguments, we believe there may be significant insight
gained by integrating the concept of institutional logics more deeply into the study of
institutional work. More specifically, we argue that the concept of logics could provide a way
into understanding how actors work to shape large-scale, cross-field institutions. In their pivotal
essay, Friedland and Alford (1991) argued that in contemporary Western societies there exist
five major institutions each with an associated institutional order, which Thornton et al. (2012)
built on to articulate a set of seven institutional orders: family, community, religion, state,
market, profession, corporation. Shaping the meaning of these major institutions represents a
form of institutional work largely unexamined in the literature on institutional work, and the
literature focused on institutional logics reveals the same gap both literatures tend to ignore
how actors purposefully and skillfully affect the meaning and status of major institutions.
Instead, the study of institutional logics has focused primarily on the movement of these logics
into new domains (Reay & Hinings, 2009; Thornton, 2002), and the ways in which competition
among logics plays out in fields (Lounsbury, 2007) and organizations (McPherson & Sauder,
2013; Pache & Santos, 2013). Even in their exhaustive articulation of an institutional logics
perspective, Thornton et al. (2012) pay little attention to the potential for actors to engage in
work aimed at shaping major societal institutions.
This gap is unnecessary and unhelpful. Examining how actors work to shape the meaning
and status of institutional orders could provide the basis for a productive and interesting, though
challenging, extended research program. Important to such an investigation would be shifts in
the kinds of actors on which we usually focus in institutional work research, and the kinds of
strategies and tools in play. If we take, for instance, the institutional order of the corporation, we
might look historically or recently at the efforts of actors to shape the meaning and status of this
institutional order, rather than any particular instantiation of it. We might also look at how the
corporation takes markedly varied forms around the world and the institutional work that has
helped to sustain such divergence. These differences become apparent not only by comparing the
corporate form in the West with its counterparts in emerging economic giants like China and
India, but by considering the stark disparities between corporations within the West itself (see
Dore, 2000). The concept of a corporation, its meaning and its role in society have been the
objects of sustained institutional work in the West since at least the 18th century, when they
began to be constructed as private economic entities, rather than state-chartered entities. Over the
20th and 21st centuries, the definition of a corporation and its relationship to the societies in
which it operates have continued to be objects of institutional work, focusing on a range of
dimensions including criminal culpability, civil liability and social responsibility. Despite the
enactment of a broad range of institutional work that has shaped the corporation as a
fundamental institutional pillar of societies globally, relatively little institutional research has
examined this work.
As a second example, take the family. This institutional order has been a battleground for
complex, conflictual institutional work for centuries. Even looking back at only the last few
decades, we see institutional work by individuals, organizations, networks, states and branches of
government all attempting to shape societal definitions of what constitutes a family, its sources
of authority and legitimacy, mechanisms of control, and its relationship to the economy. In the
US, recent institutional work has resulted in highly pitched political and cultural contests referred
to as the “family wars” (Stacey, 1993: 545). At the heart of these “wars” is the argument that
The family, far more than government or schools, is the institution we draw the most meaning
from. From the day we are born, it gives us our identity, our language and our expectations about
how the world should work(Goldberg, 2015). What “the family” is, though, and how it relates
to other institutional orders in society, are significantly contested, with contestants including
politicians, policy makers, religious leaders, media figures and social scientists. Looking just at
the institutional work of social scientists in this war, we see at least two distinct roles. One
traditional role of social scientists in the debates over what constitutes a proper and effective
family has been to contribute and interpret scientific “facts” – the results of empirical studies that
tend to focus on the relationship between family structure and a particular outcome, such as the
educational achievement of children, or the economic success of family members (Biblarz &
Gottainer, 2000; Biblarz & Raftery, 1999). A second role has been to focus on the concept of
“family” itself, as illustrated by Judith Stacy (1993:545), a University of California sociologist,
who argues that: “no positivist definition of the family, however revisionist, is viable”, because it
is “an ideological, symbolic construct that has a history and a politics”. The work of academics
to define the concept of a family is important for our discussion because it so clearly illustrates
the potential for even individual actors to shape the nature of institutional logics.
Although we have drawn on the concept of institutional logics as a response to the lack of
attention in the study of institutional work to “big” institutions – institutionalized practices,
beliefs and norms that cut across fields and seem to endure over long periods of time this
perspective draws our attention to only a particular set of institutions. This appears to ignore
other major institutions, some of which seem even more basic and enduring than the logics
articulated in the various formulations. The institutions of race and gender, for instance, are
undeniably central to people’s lives, communities, cultures and political economies, but
somehow sit outside of the institutional logics identified by Friedland and Alford (1991) or
Thornton, Lounsbury and Ocasio (2012). For the study of institutional work, understanding how
actors work to shape definitions of race and gender, their place in societies, and their relationship
to organizational life represents a profoundly important direction for future research. Though not
explicitly focused on institutional work, the chapters in this volume by Rojas and by Dobbin and
Kalev provide important contributions, helping us move in this direction. These institutions
matter in their own right not least because they are fundamental to understanding processes of
marginalization and discrimination why some groups are excluded from opportunities while
others have privileged access to them. More fundamentally, all institutions are both gendered and
racialized (Hawkesworth, 2003). This includes the ‘big’ logics discussed above (for example, it
is surely impossible to study the institutional dynamics of the family without considering gender
roles, and mixed race marriage remains taboo in many parts of the world), but also meso-level
institutions such as development, social enterprise, and the professions.
Institutional Work by Networks of Heterogeneous Actors
A second significant gap in the study of institutional work concerns the actors that have
been studied our review shows a tendency to focus either on individual actors or on relatively
similar sets actors working together. Indeed, it is striking that institutional work has very little to
say about collaborations between heterogeneous actors who hail from different fields or who
hold radically different world-views; only a handful of studies in our review explored such
situations. Where heterogeneous actors are considered, it tends to be in the context of conflict
and division with the relevant actors competing over the institutionalization of rules, norms,
practices and boundaries. Although these situations are certainly common, they ignore the
important possibility of cooperation among diverse sets of actors.
Two institutional work studies covered in our review do offer significant insights into
heterogeneous collaboration and are worth highlighting. First, Wijen and Ansari (2007) draw on
regime theory in their analysis of the emergence of the Kyoto Protocol to suggest that the
creation of common ground is imperative for disparate actors to join forces. While common
ground is usually not a major concern among homogeneous actors who share fields, worldviews
and objectives, the lack of common ground can be a major impediment to heterogeneous
collaborations that cut across fields. Second, Zietsma and Lawrence (2010) suggest an alternative
approach for building collaboration between heterogeneous actors: the creation of safe spaces for
small-scale experimentation, in which seemingly oppositional actors can cautiously learn to
collaborate. These studies notwithstanding, the lack of attention to collaborations between
heterogeneous actors leaves many important questions unexplored. Much research remains to be
done to explain how such difficult, yet important, collaborations can influence institutions. For
example, we lack answers to very practical questions that institutional work research could
inform, such as: how can NGOs partner with governments to improve global health? And how
can charities collaborate with multinationals to change long-held notions of gender? To tackle
this shortcoming, institutional work scholars can learn much from other domains that have
explored how heterogeneous actors can work together.
Research on cross-sector partnerships provides a useful starting point, given its focus on
explaining alliances between heterogeneous actors that tackle complex social issues (Selsky &
Parker, 2005). This work has shown that goal conflict is perhaps the core tension that lies at the
heart of most cross-sector partnerships: the involved actors likely have vastly different
objectives, as well as time horizons, resources and capabilities (Huxham & Vangen, 1996). For
example, while government actors may be concerned with improving the efficiency of the
provision of public services, non-profit organizations may be focused on achieving social and
environmental goals, and at the core of corporate forms is, ultimately, a concern with how
partnerships feed into overarching commercial objectives such as profits and market share
(Seitanidi, Koufopoulos, & Palmer, 2010; Selsky & Parker, 2005). The precise nature of these
tensions are likely to differ depending on the type of partnership in question public-private,
public-nonprofit, private-non-profit, or trisector (Selsky & Parker, 2005).
Regardless of the type of partnership, scholars have suggested a number of practices that
can support effective collaboration across sectors and which may be of particular interest to
institutional work scholars. Perhaps the most important practice or type of institutional work
is the creation of “meta-goals” that apply to the entire partnership and are designed to override,
or at least place in perspective, the goals of the individual partners (Huxham & Vangen, 1996).
The construction of shared goals can be painful for the parties involved, and include “recurring
episodes of problematic negotiation activity” (Ackermann, Franco, Gallupe, & Parent,
2005:312). Eden and Huxham (2001) describe in detail the social processes underpinning “the
negotiation of purpose” in the context of different partnership dynamics and the trauma that can
be experienced when these negotiations do not follow a smooth path. Soundararajan and
Brammer (2015) begin to reveal some of these dynamics from an institutional work perspective.
Their analysis of global production networks in garment manufacturing reveal how suppliers
must negotiate a complex web of relationships with governmental organizations, non-
governmental organizations, and other companies in the supply chain as part of efforts to ensure
ethical labour practices. The authors further reveal a distinct set of strategies that suppliers
engage in to manage the complexities of these relationships, ranging from “intentional
deception” to “consensual cooperation”.
A second key practice, or type of institutional work, that has been identified in the cross-
sector partnership literature as underpinning effective collaboration is the construction of a
coherent partnership identity (Hardy, Lawrence, & Grant, 2005). Koschmann, Kuh and Pfarrer
(2012) argue that cross-sector partnerships “must continually manage individual and collective
interests alongside efforts to create novel solutions to complex social issues” (p. 340-341). They
further suggest that “It is the managing – not resolving of these tensions that increases the
value potential” of such partnerships (p. 341). This requires partners to engage in complex
identity work while a coherent partnership identity can increase meaningful participation with
stakeholders and help manage tensions, such an identity also needs to be flexible. The reason is
that partnership effectiveness “hinges on members’ capacity to avoid inserting their own
assumptions regarding others, asserting their sectional interests, and believing that their
backgrounds provide special insight into the ‘correct’ answers to partnerships’ objectives” (p.
341). Given the increasing importance of identity work as a type of institutional work (Creed et
al., 2010) these dynamics are potentially of much interest to institutional theorists.
Interestingly, and more broadly, an important outcome of cross-sector partnerships is not
only their “direct impact” – the immediate, practical outcomes of the partnership but also their
“indirect impact” their influence on the values, beliefs and practices within a given problem
domain (Selsky & Parker, 2005). This emerging focus on “indirect impact” resonates with the
ambition that we have set out for institutional work scholars to explore how actors can influence
the truly “big” institutions. More broadly, cross-fertilization between scholars of institutional
work and cross-sector partnerships would be fruitful, given the complementary expertise of the
two fields. From the point of view of our arguments in this chapter, research on cross-sector
partnerships offer institutional work scholars a detailed understanding of how heterogeneous
alliances can emerge and the nature of the unique challenges between different types of
partnerships two essential areas about which institutional work has been notably silent
(Koschmann et al., 2012; Selsky & Parker, 2005).
Institutional Work Involving Material Objects
The last major gap we identify in the literature on institutional work is the role of material
objects in motivating and shaping institutional work. The significance of this gap has been made
clear in recent years by the burgeoning literature on materiality in organization studies and
sociology. Despite this growth in interest, research connecting material objects and institutional
work is still relatively scarce, reflecting a more general problem in organizational
institutionalism (see Chapter by Jones, Meyer, Jancsary & Höllerer in this volume).
One of the first detailed discussions of the relationship between materiality and
institutions was Pinch’s (2008) essay rooted in the social studies of science and social
construction of technology literatures. Pinch (2008: 461) argues that the “traditional sociological
approach carves up the world” into separate social and material domains, with sociologists
dealing only with social things, leaving the “world of objects, machines, and materials … left
unanalyzed or considered the territory of others”. Central to Pinch’s argument is the mutual
constitution of the material and the social, which he suggests is nodded to in sociological
reasoning but not taken seriously or examined in detail with respect to how such mutual
constitution might occur or with what consequences.
A basis for integrating materiality into institutional analysis might be the sociology of
technology that emerged in the 1980s (Bijker, Hughes, & Pinch, 2012; Latour, 1987; Latour &
Woolgar, 1986). From this perspective, unpacking the mutual constitution of the social and
material involves research that can “uncover and analyze the choices embedded within
technologies and technological regimes and show how these choices are tied to wider societal
concerns” (Pinch, 2008: 469). A key strategy in this tradition is to focus on specific technologies,
examining their histories and particularly the interplay of the engineering practices and decisions
involved in their creation and the societal interests that were embedded in those practices and
decisions. From the institutional literature, a fascinating example is Munir and Phillips (2005)
study of the “birth of the ‘Kodak Moment”, that involved the introduction of the roll-film camera
and the transformation of photography from a specialist practice into an everyday activity. Munir
and Phillips argue that Kodak acted both as a technological innovator and an institutional
entrepreneur and that these roles were tied tightly to each other. In 1882, Kodak introduced the
roll-film camera, which made photography much more convenient, but came with a significant
loss of image quality unacceptable to the professional photographers. Kodak’s eventual success
with this design depended on four discursive strategies through which they re-shaped the
institution of photography, including tying photography to the institutionalized notion of a
holiday, and creating new roles, such as “the Kodak girl” who carried a camera in her handbag.
Munir and Phillips (2005) analysis of these changes in photography powerfully illustrates the
ways in which materiality, meaning and society are interpenetrated, and importantly for our
discussion how that nexus is the object of significant work on the part of interested actors.
In the institutional work literature, the role of the material has only begun to be examined in a
systematic manner. Raviola and Norbäck’s (2013) study of an Italian business newspaper that
integrated its online and offline news offerings represents an important step in this direction.
Raviola and Norbäck focus on the agencement (Callon, 2008) arrangements of humans and
non-humans, which have the capacity to act that operate in the news room, which in this case
is constituted by the journalists, the website and the newspaper. In exploring the role of these
socio-technical arrangements in institutional work, they argue that, “The new technology
(website) offers possibilities for action indeed proposes action to the journalists that differ
from the action the print proposes and the journalists engage in on the newspaper” (Raviola &
Norbäck, 2013: 11781179). This idea of the website proposing possible actions is core to their
analysis of how material objects become included in the institutional work of human actors.
They show through three different episodes how the website proposes action that then requires
deliberation and institutional work on the part of the journalists, and how the old technology (the
newspaper) inserts itself into the process as a resource for that institutional work. Raviola and
Norbäck (2013) thus present an image of materiality in institutional work in which technology
plays an active part triggering institutional work by proposing actions that cause dilemmas,
constructing how these dilemmas are interpreted by framing understandings of the present and
the past, and shaping action to resolve such dilemmas. We have highlighted in this section that
scholarship would benefit from a detailed investigation into the work involved in changing big
institutions, collaborating with networks of heterogeneous actors, and employing objects. While
institutional work research has somewhat neglected these important topics, cross-fertilization
with other fields has much to offer. We suggest that institutional work scholars can particularly
connect to research on institutional logics, cross-sector partnerships and materiality in order to
illuminate these relative blind spots.
Section 3 Making Research on Institutional Work Matter
One of the most common complaints among institutional scholars is the lack of impact
their research has on the world outside of universities. Management practice and government
policy are heavily influenced by academic research, but this research is typically rooted in
disciplines directly connected to the issue at hand, such as epidemiology in healthcare (e.g.,
Upshur, VanDenKerkhof, & Goel, 2001), criminology in law enforcement and corrections (e.g.,
Mastrofski & Parks, 1990), and education research in schooling (e.g., Lee & Barro, 2001). And
then there is the trans-disciplinary influence of economics; more than any other discipline,
research on economics has infiltrated and profoundly influenced nearly every facet of
management practice and government policy (Franklin, 2016).
The debate about organization theory’s (lack of) relevance to the issues and challenges
facing managers, policy makers, and society more broadly, has ebbed and flowed for many
years. Hinings and Greenwood (2002), for instance, note that organization theory has the
potential to offer distinctive insights about contemporary society, the nature of the problems it
faces, and the varied effects of organizational action on these problems. But they conclude that
organizational research has consistently failed to address such “grand themes” or to take
seriously its role as a “policy science” (Hinings & Greenwood, 2002: 419420). Unfortunately,
this critique applies to institutional theory at least as much as to other areas of organizational
research. This is disappointing because institutional theory comprises, in our view, a
sophisticated set of theoretical tools and an associated vocabulary that endows it with significant
potential to contribute to our understanding of the grand themes and challenges to which Hinings
and Greenwood refer. This point is reinforced by Munir (2011: 115) who argues that although
the 2008 financial crisis represents a “treasure chest” for institutional theorists, offering the
chance to engage with one of the most significant global events in recent decades, we have
shown relatively little interest in studying this tumultuous period and learning from it.
Within the domain of organizational institutionalism, the study of institutional work is
particularly well placed to tackle pressing real-world challenges. By exploring the highly
practical question of how actors can shape institutions it is uniquely positioned to not only
provide academic answers for the ivory towers but to create tangible change in practice. At the
same time, and as implied by our discussion in the previous section, the questions that
institutional work scholars typically address, how the analysis of institutional work is connected
to empirical worlds, and the conclusions that institutional work research typically provides
would all need to shift significantly in order for institutional work research to realize its practical
Where to start: Institutions that matter
To create a body of institutional work research with greater social impact, one way
forward is to begin to address institutions and institutional work of greater consequence those
that have the most profound effects related to global social challenges. According to the United
Nations, the international community must grapple with no fewer than 30 fundamental global
issues, including global health, gender inequality, the continent of Africa, access to potable
water, peace and security, and refugees and migration.
For the sake of illustration, we consider
one issue that has been a key concern of the United Nations: slum dwelling in the global south.
More than one billion people live in slums, around 14 per cent of the world’s population. More
than 100,000 people move from rural areas to urban slums every day. The high cost of medicines
in the global south, acute shortages of potable water, and poor nutrition mean non-communicable
diseases that are mostly treatable and/or preventable kill millions of slum dwellers every year.
From our perspective, these slums and their consequences represent not only a global challenge,
but a nexus of institutionalized practices, beliefs, values and assumptions tied to complex
combinations of institutional work, as are the potential remedies for the harms they currently
effect. These dynamics offer opportunities to build novel theoretical insights and, perhaps more
importantly, to shed light on deep-rooted, intractable global problems that shape the lives of
many millions of people. Such a focus would begin to render obsolete any questions about
institutional theory’s relevance to “real world issues and problems (Nicolai & Seidl, 2010).
Following the pattern set in the earlier sections of this chapter, we turn from “what” to
“who”. Investigating the institutional work connected to slums in the global south would, we
suspect, involve two complex sets of actors. The first set of actors concerns those whose
institutional work maintains the institutions that underpin slums. This is, of course, a potentially
challenging group to study. It is unlikely that anyone is going to readily admit to engaging in
institutional work that maintains the wide array of harms inflicted on people due to living in
slums. At the same time, this is a critically important set of actors to identify; one of the most
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important insights that has emerged from the study of institutional work over the past decade is
that complex institutions do not simply endure, but require significant maintenance efforts in the
face of potential disruption and entropy. The second set of actors concerns those engaged in
efforts to disrupt the institutions associated with slums, and create new institutions that might
provide people living in slums with better access to key resources, routes out of slum living, and
perhaps alternative forms of community that could replace slums. Identifying and investigating
the institutional work of this second set of actors would be associated with its own challenges, as
it is likely to involve diverse, complex networks of actors spanning sectors and countries, and
include kinds of actors, such as governments, less familiar to many institutional work scholars.
Finally, we ask whether studying institutions that matter might lead us to consider
differently the question of “how” institutional work is accomplished in these contexts. Clearly,
the study of institutional work will lead to continued identification of distinct forms of work as it
explores new empirical contexts, regardless of whether those contexts feature ‘big’ or ‘small’
institutions. We believe, though, that while much current research focuses on symbolic or
relational or material work, research on major social issues is likely involve complex
combinations of all three. Consider again our slum dwelling example. One of the key problems
that blights the lives of slum dwellers is open defecation. In response, NGOs have invested
billions of dollars in the construction of toilets (material work), a complex task given that many
slums are built illegally on land not owned by the residents. Yet even where they have been built,
toilets often remain largely unused. This is partly because using a toilet is an institutionalized
practice that is learned through socialization into culturally specific meaning systems that
construct a relationship between sanitation and wellbeing. In many cases, NGOs have responded
to this problem by engaging community workers to deploy narratives that make the link between
sanitation and personal and community health (symbolic work). Moreover, as noted above,
addressing the problem of sanitation in isolation will have a relatively marginal impact on the
lives of slum dwellers. Thus, organizations dealing with this problem need to ally with other
actors working on, for example, nutrition, potable water, and healthcare (relational work). Each
issue poses formidable challenges in its own right but is also intimately connected and
interwoven with other, broader issues. This renders the task of studying and changing the
institutions that matter particularly difficult and very important.
What it might look like: Applied institutional work as a policy science
Focusing on institutions and institutional work of global significance only begins to
answer how we might make institutional work research matter; still in question is what our own
research activity would look like, and how we would convert our interest and attention into
impact. Earlier, we lamented the limited engagement by institutional researchers in large-scale
social problems and issues. Interestingly, there have emerged conversations among
organizational scholars that point to the potential for such engagement in domains as diverse as
democracy (Barley, 1990; Zald & Lounsbury, 2010), financial crises (Lounsbury & Hirsch,
2010; Munir, 2011), and climate change (Hoffman & Jennings, 2015; Knox-Hayes & Levy,
2011). What these authors suggest, however, is an analytical engagement a role for institutional
scholars in explaining these grand institutional challenges rather than an activist engagement.
With a few exceptions (Davis, 2015; Zuckerman, 2010), even when institutional scholars have
engaged with grand institutional challenges, we have tended to remain at our desks, not leaving
our offices to apply our tools and insights to change the world.
We propose an alternative: an active, engaged, political program of applied institutional
work research, the aim of which is not only to understand grand social challenges but to affect
them and in so doing change the world. In particular, we suggest that sets of institutional scholars
establish organized mechanisms through which they can intentionally and programmatically
work on affecting the world’s grand challenges. We noted Hinings and Greenwood’s (2002: 420)
argument that organizational research has failed as a “policy science”. It is this exact failure that
could provide the space and motivation for scholars to develop applied institutional work
research as a policy-focused arena of discourse and action.
What we are not suggesting is that applied institutional work emulate the dominant
applied social science economics in its research methods, political methods or epistemology.
It has been suggested that the certainty with which economics research articulates its findings
and prescriptions is key to its attractiveness in policy circles easy to follow, clear, and simple
prescriptions when compared with the often “self-indulgent” and jargon laden findings
associated with institutional research, and organizational research more broadly (Starbuck, 2003;
Walsh, Meyer, & Schoonhoven, 2006). Similarly, economic theory, and especially the neo-
liberal variants that have dominated transnational policy organizations, is appealing to political
and corporate elites in the most affluent countries because it reinforces the wisdom of the
markets that are currently rewarding and maintaining those same elites. Where neo-liberal
economic policy has failed, however and those spaces are vast and growing there exists
fertile ground for an alternative policy science and an alternative scientific politics. A program of
policy-focused applied institutional work research could bring to those spaces a powerful and
energizing approach to the integration of research and public policy. Rather than simple
prescriptions that are decontextualized and ahistorical, applied institutional work research could
provide culturally, socially and historically situated policy prescriptions. And rather than echoing
the assumptions and anxieties of elites, applied institutional work could provide a medium for a
complex chorus of voices that would cut across social, demographic and economic divides.
Another Possibility: Institutional Work as Participatory Action Research
Although imagining institutional work research as a policy science creates exciting
possibilities, another, more hand-on approach is suggested by Dover and Lawrence (2010) in
their essay on applied institutional work as a foundation for participatory action research. This
form of action research revolves around the co-construction of practical knowledge by
researchers and community members together in cycles of research, action and reflection
(Greenwood, Whyte, & Harkavy, 1993; Kemmis & McTaggart, 2005). Although, there has been
almost no conversation connecting institutional work and participatory action research, important
points of potential connection exist. First, both emphasize the role of agency in understanding the
dynamics of social systems, especially how, when and why significant social change occurs.
Both approaches adopt a view of actors as “intelligent, creative, and purposive” (Dover &
Lawrence, 2010: 308). Participatory action research, however, suggests a significant shift in the
epistemology of action, replacing a view of actors and action as objects of research, to one in
which the relationship between researcher and researched is a subject-subject relationship (Fals-
Borda, 1991). Participants in this form of research are engaged with as competent and capable
partners who participate in exploring their social worlds and realizing change (McIntyre, 2008).
Participatory action research suggests a more intimate and equal relationship than is usually
adopted in institutional research, with participants involved in every step of the process
identifying the research question, collecting and making sense of data, developing interventions
or responses to the findings, and coming back to the theory that guided the research in order to
reflect on what the findings might suggest for those ideas.
In practical terms, institutional scholars could either draw on participatory action research
as a method or as an orienting perspective that forms part of their broader research philosophy.
To draw on participatory action research as a method would involve using its many creative
modes of engagement such as storytelling, photography, poetry, drawing, sculpture, drama and
popular theatre (e.g., Ospina, Dodge, Foldy, & Hofmann-Pinilla, 2008). Such approaches might
provide a powerful basis for applied institutional work research: they could facilitate engaging
with the embeddedness of individuals and groups in their institutional context, facilitating their
awareness of institutions as well as a belief in their ability to affect those institutions. This first
approach would thus likely open up much deeper and more varied insights into the institutions
inhabited by the people we study. The second approach of engaging with the philosophy of
participatory action research might provide an even more powerful foundation for applied
institutional work, allowing us to bring our theoretical tools and empirical wisdom with us into
the field, but then work in collaboration with members to identify our research questions,
establish our goals in terms of impact and knowledge generation, and develop ways of knowing
that ensure the validity of our findings is consistent with the working epistemologies of
researchers and members.
Tackling Grand Challenges: A New Type of Scholarship?
In sum, thinking about grand challenges such as slum dwelling in the global south
from an institutional work perspective is both fascinating and intimidating. The complexity of
the issues involved poses profound challenges with respect to research design, data collection
and analysis, skills and networks needed, and links to academic careers. Moreover, there will be
important limits to what can be uncovered in individual studies, and so institutional work
scholars may need to think differently about how research is funded and organized. The study of
grand social challenges from multiple perspectives may also require large teams of researchers
working as part of an overarching initiative rather than small groups working independently.
The Past, Present and Future of Institutional Work Research
The first decade of institutional work research has been an exciting journey. Our image of
institutions has shifted, with an increasing recognition that although institutions are powerful
forces in society, they are also subject to the agency of individuals and collective actors who
create, shape and disrupt them. Our conceptions of institutional agency have broadened
considerably, with research documenting the complex range of long-term and day-to-day
strategies through which actors craft and cope with institutional arrangements. As much as
institutional work research has progressed, however, important blind spots remain. We now
know a great deal about how actors shape field- and organization-level institutions, but relatively
little about the institutional work associated with truly “big” institutions that span society and
wield disproportionate influence over us all. We have a growing understanding of the inhabited
worlds of individuals and collective actors that engage in institutional work, but a much less
developed appreciation of when, why and how networks of heterogeneous actors work together
to shape institutions. Our research has described and analyzed symbolic forms of institutional
work in detail, while we still know much less about relational and material work. Taken together,
institutional work research is on its way towards its own adolescence but is experiencing
growing pains as vital parts lag behind.
We have pointed to three sets of ideas with tremendous potential for integration into the
study of institutional work: the institutional logics perspective, research on cross-sector
partnerships, and scholarship on the role of materiality in organization studies and sociology.
More broadly, we have proposed an agenda for institutional work research that expands its aims
to include contributing to efforts to address the world’s grand challenges by shaping policy and
The image we have in mind for applied institutional work research is inspired by the
pioneering careers of Paulo Freire and Myles Horton. Freire was an educator whose ideas were
rooted in his work with Brazil’s “illiterate poor” (Torres, 2014). These early experiences
provided the foundation for his most influential book the Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Freire,
2000) which focused on the relationship between knowledge and social class, and had a
profound influence on the study and practice of teaching throughout the world. Freire advocated
a relationship between learners and educators based on a view of knowledge as mutually co-
created. Similar in many ways, Myles Horton’s ideas were inspired by his involvement in the US
civil rights movement, and led to his co-founding of the Highlander Folk School which was
based on an appreciation of situated knowledge and fought against segregation within the
American schooling system.
While the thinking of Freire and Horton was rooted in practice, their work also addressed
fundamental theoretical issues including whether education can ever be ideologically neutral, the
role of authority in education, the role of charismatic leadership in teaching, and the similarities
and differences between ‘educating’ and ‘organizing’ (Bell, Gaventa, & Peters, 1990). While
Horton and Freire are in one sense ‘extreme’ examples – both were what now would probably be
termed social innovators and both clashed with the authorities (Freire spent time in prison for his
views, Horton was stigmatized as a communist during the McCarthy era and forced to close the
school he co-founded) they capture our imagination and offer a glimpse of what might be
possible as institutional researchers if we first engage with significant institutions and social
issues, and then immerse ourselves in empirical settings that we not only try to study but also
work to change for the better.
Whether the agenda that we advocate can be realized in a business school world that
increasingly embraces narrow metrics based on publication in a small number of elite journals is
not clear. The need for management researchers to “bridge the relevance gap” (Starkey &
Madan, 2001) has been much discussed over several decades, but little progress has been made.
A quick glance at the major management journals reveals only a small subset of papers that
speak to significant organizational and societal issues. The anodyne nature of the so-called rigor
versus relevance debate has hardly helped matters.
Despite these profound and longstanding challenges, there are small signs of hope and
some grounds for optimism. In the UK, ‘impact’ (an admittedly vague concept) is now explicitly
considered when measuring the research performance of university departments, including
business schools. Crucially, here ‘impact’ is not understood by how our research fares in journal
rankings and citation counts within academia, but instead by how our studies create benefits for
the world beyond academia, such as by improving society, the environment, or quality of life.
Similarly, the Academy of Management Journal has actively encouraged the submission of
manuscripts focused on issues and parts of the world that have been almost completely ignored
by mainstream management research, including the “grand challenges” of our time. And for a
new generation of younger scholars there is a growing dissatisfaction with the status quo and a
strong desire to promote a different type of scholarship one that resonates more closely with
the ideas discussed above.
For scholars who share the desire to employ their research to contribute to the world, we
think that the theoretical apparatus provided by the concept of institutional work offers a possible
way forward. The concept is rooted in practice and has a strong focus on purposive action, but at
the same time it is part of an institutional perspective that seeks to understand how systems of
language and meaning perpetuate social structures that work in favor of some groups and against
others. We hope that organizational researchers will build on our ideas to make organizational
research in general, and institutional research in particular, more engaged with issues such as
poverty, inequality and the environment, and less focused on the notion of ‘theoretical
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... Deinstitutionalisation suggests that established routines erode over time because of entropy, inept randomness and deterioration (Oliver 1992). While this original conception diminishes actors' agency for deinstitutionalisation, institutional work foregrounds that actors can indeed disrupt and even deinstitutionalise institutional rules (Hampel et al. 2017;Lawrence and Suddaby 2006). We argue that this suggests, besides the addition logic reflected in existing studies, a subtraction logic to DWT in which organisations deinstitutionalise established workplace routines. ...
... Early institutionalism sought to understand institutional processes to explain how these institutional rules shape organisations (DiMaggio and Powell 1983;Greenwood et al. 2008;Zucker 1977). In the 1990s, institutionalism turned to unpacking these processes by looking at the actions that constituted them (Battilana 2006;Hampel et al. 2017;Lawrence and Suddaby 2006). ...
... Institutional work is 'the purposive action of individuals and organisations aimed at creating, maintaining and disrupting institutions' (Lawrence and Suddaby 2006, p. 212). This work focuses on the norms, assumptions and values that make up institutional rules and the actions that reproduce these rules (Hampel et al. 2017;Lawrence et al. 2011). Bernardi et al. (2019) connected institutional work and workplace technology to deinstitutionalisation when studying a health management IS in Kenya. ...
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Digital technology enables the transformation of work and workplaces. Previous digital workplace transformation (DWT) literature has shown how organisations add new digital technologies to create new workplace routines. However, such an emphasis on addition may hinder scholarship from recognising that some established workplace technologies and routines must disappear for new ones to emerge. Adopting the concept of deinstitutionalisation, we examine the rationale for and the process of how an organisation abandoned workplace routines that conflicted with its intended DWT. Referring to this as subtraction logic, we advance two contributions. First, we conceptualise how deinstitutionalisation of established workplace routines and technologies unfolds in DWT by outlining a process model that synthesises addition and subtraction. Second, we highlight the underlying rationales for DWT. With these insights, we shift the gaze from the dominant addition logic, which advocates for appropriating new digital technologies, to the equally important value of subtraction, that is, removing existing workplace technologies (or inscribed institutional rules) to abandon workplace routines that conflict with the intended DWT. Hence, our study highlights the oft-ignored subtraction logic to DWT.
... The institutional work perspective is useful for analyzing actors' role(s) in shaping their institutional contexts (Bhatt et al., 2019;Lawrence et al., 2013;Parthiban et al., 2020). It assumes that institutional maintenance and change require deliberate and persistent efforts from the actors involved (Hampel et al., 2017). The institutional work perspective highlights the individual managerial action geared toward reshaping the institution to bring about institutional change (Bjerregaard and Jonasson, 2014;Lawrence et al., 2013). ...
... The people engaged in these services are stigmatized by moral and social taint (Zhang et al., 2021). Hence, organizations engaging people in stigmatized products and services are likely to face the ethical dilemmas of prioritizing the well-being and livelihood of beneficiaries or preventing potential social stigmatization of beneficiaries from their association with the organization (Gonzalez and Pérez-Floriano, 2015;Hampel et al., 2017). Ceasing operations will only mean that beneficiaries (i.e., employees, clients, and users) will suffer, but choosing to continue might condemn these same groups from the communities in which they live. ...
Social entrepreneurs encounter ethical dilemmas while addressing their social and commercial missions. The literature has implicitly acknowledged the ethical dilemmas social entrepreneurs face; however, the nature and implications of these ethical dilemmas and how social entrepreneurs navigate them are underexplored and undertheorized. We address this by conducting a 36-month field study of a social enterprise operating in a rural resource-constrained environment in India and dealing with a stigmatized product. We found four categories of ethical dilemmas faced by social entrepreneurs: challenges in engaging the community (equality vs. efficiency and fairness vs. care), challenges related to spillover effects (right vs. responsibilities), challenges in balancing diverse stakeholders (emotionally detached vs. emotionally engaged), and challenges related to cross-subsidization efforts (utilitarianism vs. fairness). Further, we identified three types of institutional work social entrepreneurs engage in to address ethical dilemmas: recognition work, responsibilization work, and reflective judgment work. We label these three institutional works as inclusion work - purposive actions of an entity to address ethical dilemmas by implementing its program in a way that supports the most marginalized. Our study makes an important contribution to the literature on ethics in the context of social entrepreneurship by identifying specific ethical dilemmas social entrepreneurs face in managing hybridity (balancing social-commercial objectives) and enhancing social impact (managing social-social objectives). Moreover, through the concept of inclusion work, our research not only integrates insights from ethics and institutional theories but also responds to the recent call to address grand societal challenges through institutional work.
... The concept of organizational body work represents a form of social-symbolic work (Lawrence & Phillips, 2019), parallel to other forms, such as "identity work" (Brown, 2021), "emotion work" (Hochschild, 1979), and "institutional work" (Hampel, Lawrence, & Tracey, 2017). Like other "objects" in organizational life, the human body is a target of purposeful efforts to shape it that are constrained and facilitated by the organizational contexts in which they are embedded (Lawrence & Phillips, 2019). ...
... Previous social science research, primarily from sociology (Gimlin, 2002;Kang, 2003;Wolkowitz, 2002), provided important examples and conceptual discussions of a social conception of the body and body work beyond organizational contexts, which anchored our initial search for descriptions of organizational body work. Writing on other forms of social-symbolic work, including writing on emotion work (Heaphy, 2017;Taylor & Tyler, 2016), identity work (Brown, 2021), and institutional work (Hampel et al., 2017) were instructive with respect to how to identify and describe body work in organizations. ...
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In this article, we review management and organizational research that describes and explains "organizational body work"-purposeful, organizationally embedded efforts to shape human bodies. We conceptualize human bodies in terms of three dimensions-materiality, meaning, and functionality-and argue that organizational body work is constituted by programs of purposeful effort involving activities situated in and shaped by organizational life. Based on a review of 209 articles and books that feature descriptions of organizational body work, we unpack the concept in three main ways. First, we offer an inductively developed process model of organizational body work that comprises five key themes: the triggers, forms, consequences, contexts, and the variations of bodies targeted. Second, a key observation that emerged from our review was that organizational body work is animated by a set of organizational tensions, and so we explore three such tensions situated in the cultural, health, and political dynamics of organizational life. Third, we suggest eight directions for future research intended to illustrate and inspire, rather than set boundaries around the study of organizational body work. * These authors contributed equally to the paper; their names are listed in reverse alphabetical order. Acknowledgments: We would like to thank our editors Carrie Leana and Denise Rousseau for their encouragement, guidance, and wisdom. We would also like to thank Gretta Corporaal, Daphne Demetry, Rachel Doern Natalia Efremova, Sally Maitlis, Chris Moos, Eleanor Murray, Joana Probert, and participants in the EGOS 2020 Colloquium for their constructive comments.
... Organizational studies suggest that complex and wicked problems, such as infrastructural provisioning, involve interlinked complexities, uncertainties, and evaluative criteria that a single actor cannot adequately address (Creed, Gray, Höllerer, Karam, & Reay, 2022;Ferraro, Etzion, & Gehman, 2015;Frey-Heger, Gatweiler, & Hinings, 2022). Rather, multiple actors are likely to collectively engage in purposive action to create, maintain, and disrupt institutions (Hampel, Lawrence, & Tracey, 2017). Such collective processes lead to institutional outcomes such as proto-institutions (Lawrence, Hardy, & Phillips, 2002) or new roles, practices, and boundaries (Zietsma & Lawrence, 2010). ...
This study explores how heterogeneous actors produce solidarities to address institutionalized infrastructural inequalities. We trace fifteen years over which diverse actors constructed community palliative care infrastructure in Kerala, India. We analyze how actors engaged in three solidarity processes – recognizing interdependences, reconfiguring spaces, and re-imagining accountability – to challenge exclusionary institutions and construct inclusive infrastructure at different scales. We foreground solidarity-making as an indispensable yet under-theorized aspect of institutional research on inequalities. We inform solidarity studies by illustrating how solidarity-making, as relationally and spatially constituted, shapes infrastructures. Overall, we advance a generative engagement with heterogeneity in institutional analyses and discuss the implications of solidarity-making to address infrastructural inequalities.
... The institutional work perspective has gained traction over the past two decades. In addition to scholarship that advances the tenets of the perspective (Hampel et al., 2015;Lawrence et al., 2011;Modell, 2020), institutional work has been applied to particular settings. These include: the construction of an entrepreneurial identity (Katila et al., 2019), in industries like the coastal forest industry in British Columbia (Zietsma and Lawrence, 2010), and at corpora-tions (Gawer and Phillips, 2013). ...
... Their thoughtful engagement with the prison setting, Argentine societal fault lines, the prisoners' complex and painful personal histories, and their improbable movement from lives of fear and violence to comradery, trust, vulnerability, remorse, and ultimately redemption and gratitude is not scholarly "business as usual" for organizational researchers. In focusing on organizing for social change in the face of DDD, we join other scholars of institutional change in reinvigorating calls for making research on institutional change matter by focusing on those institutions most implicated in creating or addressing wicked problems and DDD and by integrating participatory action research (Dover & Lawrence, 2010;Hampel, Lawrence, & Tracey, 2017) whenever possible. For example, conditions in refugee camps might be improved were the NGOs operating them to heed the insights Frey-Heger and colleagues' paper (2022) offers about the negative impacts of their own decision cycles on life in the camps. ...
In this editorial for our Special Issue, we focus on ways to better understand the role of organizations, organizing, and the organized during social and institutional change in response to disruption, division, and displacement. The papers in this Special Issue provide important insights into the hardships and heartache arising from social disruption, division, and displacement; in addition, they provide glimpses into potential ways of moving forward. To set the stage, we develop a framework building on extant literature that highlights several analytic approaches to understanding the consequences of eroding, or inadequate, institutions, the challenges of building anew when the status quo is destroyed, and what such novel and complex realities entail for organizational analysis. We offer a temporal view of responses to disruption, division, and displacement that draws on the papers in this Special Issue to identify and explain potential risks and challenges that arise at different points in time. To conclude, we provide a short summary of each paper, and call for a reinvigorated research agenda that goes beyond the excellent work featured here by broadening and deepening our focus on approaches to organizing that expressly address disruption, division, and displacement.
... Als Institutionen werden soziale Regelwerke verstanden, wie beispielsweise Gesetze oder gesellschaftliche Normen. Institutionelle Arbeit fokussiert darauf, wie diese Institutionen verhandelt werden (Suchman 1995) und welche Akteur*innen in diesem Prozess involviert sind (Hampel et al. 2017 (Lawrence und Suddaby 2006). Längere Zeit wurde institutionelle Arbeit nur innerhalb jeweils eines institutionellen Feldes beschrieben (Lawrence et al. 2011). ...
In the context of climate change as a grand challenge, this article offers insights on market shaping from research on industrial networks and institutional work to the market practice perspective. The purpose of the study is to conceptually integrate policy practices and market practices aimed at coping with climate change using public procurement as a case. We draw upon a conceptual model distinguishing three separate market practice categories: market exchange, market representation, and market normalizing. In expanding the model with policy actors deliberate market shaping activities, we locate institutional work as part of the larger set of normalizing practices. Based on the extended model, we find two concepts worthy to be at the core of the analysis: translation within and between market practice categories, and temporality attributes of institutional work and market actor innovations. In an empirical study, reflecting an on-going abductive research process on market shaping, the article scrutinizes how government institutional work in Sweden can make public procurement contribute to innovations related to market practices. Based on a study of government documents, we formulate three propositions, on translation, temporality and market representation. The study suggests that temporality dimensions in institutional work to develop policy innovations and translation of the innovations to exchange practices affect the intended effects on procurement behavior. It also shows that policy innovations performed by institutional work might be in conflict with established norms to which actors might continue to adhere, requiring added translation efforts, and delaying climate mitigating effects. Based on the empirical observations, the article argues that value chains, as a model for market representation, may have the performative power to shape and reshape markets.
This paper studies a failed attempt to introduce new regulation in the aftermath of the financial crisis: the rule-making process of the European Union’s structural banking reform, where it was proposed to restrict the possibility to combine trading and deposit-taking activities for universal banks but where no regulation was finally adopted. Drawing on the theoretical concept of the endogenization of law, which highlights the role of the regulated in shaping the regulators’ views, we study this case of transnational non-regulation. We mobilize institutional maintenance work to identify the strategies used by the regulated and their allies to shed light on the endogenization process. We find that maintenance work in the form of demonizing the reform proposals, mythologizing the accomplishments of the universal banking model and contextualizing in the setting of other regulations prevailed. Endogenization was reflected in the successive alignment of the EU proposals to the status quo and in the policy-makers’ adoption of maintenance strategies earlier voiced by banks during the consultation process. We also show that national regulations implemented in France and Germany to influence the EU reform process – a strategy that we label “bottom-up enabling work” – provided an important reference point in the transnational discourse. Overall, our study provides insights into the interplay of maintenance work and endogenization in transnational regulatory settings.
Corruptive practices refer to the abuse of power for private benefits, and include a wide range of hidden, unethical conduct at both the individual and organisational levels. This study focuses on an institutional mechanism that thwarts corrupt practices and improves corporate governance. We examine how the adoption of an international reporting standard, IFRS, impacts transparency when key players such as multinational corporations (MNCs) and global audit firms (Big 4, Big 5, and Big 6) make the transition to an international digital system of information disclosure. These findings support an emerging body of literature that underlines the relevance of international institutional mechanisms as a pragmatic approach to improving corporate governance designed to protect stakeholder interests.