Multi-Level Research on Institutions
University of Lausanne
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
University of Bremen
Forthcoming in Research in the Sociology of Organizations,
Volume 65A: Microfoundations of Institutions
This double volume presents the state of the art in research on the microfoundations of institutions.
In this introductory chapter, we develop an overview of where the emerging microfoundational
agenda in institutional theory stands and in which direction it is moving. We discuss the questions
of what microfoundations of institutions are, what the “micro” in microfoundations represents, why
we use the plural form (microfoundations vs. microfoundation), why microfoundations of institu-
tions are needed, and how microfoundations can be studied. Specifically, we highlight that there
are several traditions of microfoundational research, and we outline a cognitive, a communicative
and a behavioral perspective. In addition, we explain that scholars tend to think of microfounda-
tions in terms of either an agency, levels, or mechanisms argument. We delineate key challenges
and opportunities for future research and explain why we believe that the debate on microfounda-
tions will become a defining element in the further development of institutional theory.
We thank Vern Glaser, Derek Harmon, and Oliver Schilke for their comments on an earlier draft
of this introduction. We also thank the German Research Foundation (DFG) for funding the scien-
tific research network “Microfoundations of Institutions.”
The last decade has seen growing interest in the topic of “microfoundations of institutions”
(Powell & Rerup, 2017), with the term “microfoundations” appearing in several important journal
publications (e.g., Cardinale, 2018; Chandler & Hwang, 2015; Harmon, 2018; Schilke, 2018;
Tracey, 2016). These developments in institutional theory1 are taking place alongside a more gen-
eral “microfoundations movement” in strategy and organization theory (Felin, Foss, & Ployhart,
2015). The growing popularity of microfoundations can be seen in Figure 1, which is based on a
Web of Science search and plots articles published in journals in the disciplines of business and
management, economics, political science and sociology that refer to (“Microfoundation*” OR
“Micro-foundation*”) AND “Institution*” in their title, keywords, or abstract. While the total num-
ber of articles is still fairly manageable, the number of references has significantly increased over
time across disciplines.
[Insert Figure 1 about here]
The growing interest in the microfoundations of institutions is also reflected in the overall
interest in the present double volume of Research in the Sociology of Organizations. We contacted
scholars working (or interested in working) in the space of microfoundations and invited them to
submit proposals on the topic of microfoundations of institutions. While corresponding with these
scholars, we also shared an extended abstract in which we classified the extant literature into three
microfoundations perspectives. We hoped for significant interest in the topic of microfoundations,
but even we as editors were surprised by the resonance, enthusiasm, and curiosity our call for
chapters elicited. Overall, this double volume assembles a collection of 37 chapters, including
1 This introductory chapter focuses on neo-institutionalism in organizational theory (also referred to as organizational
institutionalism), but we drop the prefix “neo” to make the chapter more readable.
conceptual, empirical, and methodological contributions to the emerging microfoundations agenda
in institutional theory, as well as shorter “reflection” chapters that discuss past and current trends
in microfoundational research. The double volume ends with epilogues by John Meyer and Woody
Powell, two of the “founding fathers” of institutional theory, as well as an epilogue coauthored by
Teppo Fe lin and Nicolai Foss , two of the ma in advo cates o f the broader microfoundational research
agenda in strategy and organization theory.
Across these contributions, the double volume reflects the state-of-the-art research on the
microfoundations of institutions and, by pushing the research frontier, has the potential to give an
important impetus to this exciting line of research. Research on microfoundations is certainly not
new, as it is deeply rooted in the foundations of institutional theory, such as ethnomethodology
(Zucker & Schilke, this volume, chapter 19B), symbolic interactionism (Furnari, this volume,
chapter 10B), and Bourdieu’s practice theory (Anesa, Chalkias, Jarzabkowski, & Spee, this
volume, chapter 7B; Goldenstein & Walgenbach, this volume, chapter 8A). At the same time, how-
ever, there is ample opportunity to take advantage of some newer microfoundational lenses, such
as inhabited institutionalism (Hallett & Hawbaker, this volume, chapter 16B) and Scandinavian
institutionalism (Surachaikulwattana & Phillips, this volume, chapter 14B). The chapters in this
double volume connect to and expand the theoretical roots while also further developing nascent
research streams. Without doubt, these are exciting times for research on microfoundations of in-
stitutions, and the collective effort we see in these chapters may help to “rejuvenate” institutional
theory after its supposed “mid-life crisis” (Alvesson & Spicer, 2019).
Taken as a whole, the chapters of the double volume reflect the scholarly excitement and
fascination with a microfoundational research agenda. However, at the same time, they also reveal
some skepticism, unease, and concern and an impression that the value a microfoundational re-
search agenda can bring to our understanding of institutional processes and outcomes requires
further clarification. Extending previous critiques of a microfoundational research program in in-
stitutional theory (Jepperson & Meyer, 2011), skeptics point to the potential pitfalls of reductionism
(John W. Meyer, this volume, chapter 21B) and warn against the analytical primacy of the micro
level at the expense of the development of a holistic multi-level perspective (Hwang & Colyvas,
this volume, chapter 17B; Powell, this volume, chapter 22B; Steele, Toubiana, & Greenwood, this
volume, chapter 18B). At the same time, contributors to the double volume point out that a dedi-
cated analysis of micro-level dynamics is lacking and suspect that the promise of a microfounda-
tional research agenda has not yet been entirely fulfilled (Felin & Foss, this volume, chapter 20B).
These divergent positions reflect the breadth of the spectrum on which institutional researchers
stand in regards to how fully they have embraced micro-level analysis.
Importantly, what emerges from the chapters is that there is a lack of consensus in the use
of the term microfoundations. Scholars seem to hold different understandings of what microfoun-
dations of institutions are and also disagree about why and how we should study them. Our intro-
ductory chapter seeks to address these issues. We attempt to develop an overview of where the
emerging microfoundational agenda stands and in which direction it is moving. Building upon the
prologue by Tolbert and Zucker (this volume, chapter 1A) and other volume contributions, we
discuss the question of what microfoundations of institutions are, what the “micro” in microfoun-
dations represents, why we use the plural form (microfoundations vs. microfoundation), why mi-
crofoundations of institutions are needed, and how microfoundations can be studied. Specifically,
we highlight that there are several traditions of microfoundational research and outline a cognitive,
communicative and behavioral perspective; we also explain that in each of these perspectives
scholars tend to think of microfoundations in terms of either an agency, levels, or mechanisms
argument. The chapters of this double volume thus reflect a pluralist conception of microfounda-
tions. Embracing such a pluralist conception and viewing microfoundations not as a fully-fledged
theory but rather as an auxiliary framework in the explanation of institutional processes acknowl-
edges that the concept of “institution” itself has been informed by a diverse set of traditions and
ontological-epistemological assumptions (Scott, 2008).
While embracing a pluralist conception, we also believe that a common meaning of micro-
foundations is possible and important. This introductory chapter therefore advocates a minimal
view of microfoundations and suggests that microfoundations of institutions develop an explana-
tory account of institutional phenomena which typically (but not exclusively) involve micro-level
processes. In addition, we delineate methodological implications and discuss important challenges
(and thus opportunities) for future research. We explain why we believe that the debate on micro-
foundations will become a defining element in the further development of institutional theory, and
we posit that microfoundational research will be empowered (rather than constrained) by the ex-
change with its supposed antithesis—that is, the “macrofoundations” of institutions. As we shall
elaborate below, a constructive microfoundational research agenda in institutional theory is neces-
sarily not in opposition to, but inclusive of, the analysis of “macrofoundations.” While the meta-
phor of “foundations” implies the primacy or at least the relevance of the micro level, advocates
of microfoundations must not ignore the macro level and its interrelationship with more micro
What are Microfoundations of Institutions?
Microfoundations come in many forms, but scholarly understandings of microfoundations
are often left implicit. As a result, there is a lack of consensus regarding what the microfoundations
of institutions are (Hwang & Colyvas, this volume, chapter 17B). What do researchers study when
they study the microfoundations of institutions, and what are the different research traditions that
inform microfoundational research? In response to these questions, we identified three different
perspectives on microfoundational research in institutional theory, which we also used to structure
the double volume into different sections. The perspectives reflect the different research traditions
that have informed research on different types of microfoundations. All three perspectives are em-
bedded within an “ideational” paradigm (Suddaby, 2010a) and focus on the convergence over
meanings by means of shared cognitions, utterances, or activities of social actors (individuals,
groups, organizations, etc.). Specifically, scholars have emphasized a cognitive perspective explor-
ing how institutional change and maintenance are shaped by thought structures and emotions; a
communicative perspective highlighting the role of various communicative means in developing
an understanding of appropriate behavior; and a behavioral perspective exploring how daily activ-
ities and routines structure and restructure institutional contexts. These perspectives are not incom-
patible, and many chapters incorporate elements from two or even three perspectives. Nonetheless,
most chapters prioritize one over the other. In addition to the three perspectives, the chapters of
this double volume also advance three conceptions of microfoundations of institutions, which
partly overlap but are analytically distinct from the three perspectives. Conceptions reflect the com-
mon yet often implicit understandings that scholars hold about the microfoundations of institutions.
Specifically, in the context of the structure-agency debate, researchers often think of microfounda-
tions in terms of agency, whereas the microfoundations as levels argument reflects a focus on var-
iations in the abstraction or the spatial size of social action. In turn, the conception of microfoun-
dations as mechanisms emphasizes theoretical explanations of the antecedents and effects of social
action. Mechanism-based conceptions often comprise arguments of agency and levels, but levels
and agency conceptions sometimes lack an elaboration of mechanisms; thus, despite some overlap,
a tripartite classification seems useful. Indeed, although perspectives and conceptions intersect,
pulling them analytically apart helps bring clarity to the complex and often confusing landscape of
microfoundational research in institutional theory.
Perspectives on Microfoundations
The cognitive perspective on microfoundations of institutions is reflected by the seminal
works of Berger and Luckmann (1967) and Zucker (1977), as well as more recent contributions by
scholars such as Thornton, Ocasio and Lounsbury (2012). These works have characterized institu-
tions as “cognitive structures” (Phillips & Malhotra, 2008, p. 702) or “taken-for-granted facts”
(Barley & Tolbert, 1997, p. 94) The term “cognition” in this perspective refers to individual and
collective thought structures and mental representations, such as frames, categories, schemas, and
scripts, that prescribe legitimate ways of acting (Cornelissen, Durand, Fiss, Lammers, & Vaara,
2015; Sieweke, 2014; Thornton et al., 2012). Proponents of the cognitive perspective insist that
cognition is a defining concept in institutional theory (DiMaggio, 1997; DiMaggio & Powell, 1991;
Thornton et al., 2012) and go as far as to argue that “it is this cognitive focus that provides the
distinctiveness of institutional theory” (Phillips & Malhotra, 2008, p. 702). While the specific ap-
proaches, concepts, and phenomena mobilized and studied under the cognitive perspective are di-
verse, contributors to this perspective share the view that “the psychology of mental structures
provides a microfoundation to the sociology of institutions” (DiMaggio, 1997, p. 271). The cogni-
tive perspective applies a broad understanding of cognition that also comprises values and the emo-
tional underpinnings of institutions (Voronov, 2014; Voronov & Vince, 2012).
The majority of chapters of this double volume can be classified under the heading of the
cognitive perspective, and some important themes emerge from the joint body of these works. The
“foundational” character of cognition is perhaps most clearly epitomized by the construct of iden-
tity, which has long been central to the cognitive perspective and which constitutes a defining
theme in several chapters. Roberts (this volume, chapter 13A) maps the trajectory of research on
identity within the microfoundations literature in institutional theory; she identifies a significant
shift from top-down, psychology-based approaches to more social constructionist and pluralist con-
ceptions, with the latter viewing identity both as an antecedent to and outcome of institutions.
Glynn and Innis (this volume, chapter 7A) elucidate the bottom-up and transformational role of
collective identity in the creation of institutions, while Hazan and Zilber (this volume, chapter 9A)
focus on the top-down influence of institutions on identity formation and the role of identity work
in the gradual internalization of institutionalized beliefs and worldviews. Boulongne, Cudennec,
and Durand (this volume, chapter 4A) theorize that identity maintenance, understood as the need
to preserve a clear identity, attenuates market experts’ favorable evaluations of categorical devi-
ance. Cholakova and Ravasi (this volume, chapter 6A) draw on the concept of role identity to
predict variation in individuals’ responses to institutional complexity.
Sensemaking stands out as another important topic in the cognitive perspective. Drawing
on the context of animal rights, Hu and Rerup (this volume, chapter 10A) examine how sensegiving
through YouTube videos can stimulate sensemaking and positive engagement of audiences. The
authors find that sensegiving accounts only stimulate positive engaged sensemaking when these
accounts resonate with the audience’s existing values and sentiments. Their work identifies the
micro-level dynamics that may help social activists to transform a taken-for-granted yet deeply
flawed institutional order. Drawing on the phenomenological concept of the life world (Schutz &
Luckmann, 1973), Brandl, Dreher, and Schneider (this volume, chapter 5A) elucidate how decou-
pling prompts a sensemaking process about the tension between an individual’s principles and the
priorities of organizational decision makers. Their study complements previous research which has
shown that organizational members are motivated to resolve tensions and actively work against
decoupling (Hallett, 2010; Tolbert & Zucker, 1996).
Focusing on the topic of practice variation, Tolbert and Darabi (this volume, chapter 15A)
suggest that different types of institutional pressure (normative vs. informational) explain
heterogeneity in adoption motivation, which in turn explains post-adoption outcomes. Conceptu-
alizing institutions as heterogeneously distributed forms of knowledge that are consensually agreed
upon within interconnected yet varying micro contexts, Keller (this volume, chapter 11A) exam-
ines the critical role of individuals’ perceived congruence with the consensus of sub-cultures to
explain heterogeneity in the institutionalization of corporate ethics practices.
Finally, several chapters study institutional change and institutionalization. Lizardo (this
volume, chapter 12A) specifies the set of “objects” that get institutionalized and thus sheds light
on the “building blocks” of institutions. He argues that the most fundamental object that gets insti-
tutionalized is culture, which exists both in people (through internalization and learning) and in the
world (through individuals’ meaning-construction and objectification processes). In both cases,
people are necessary to “keep institutions going” (Lizardo, this volume, chapter 12A, p. XXX),
which is why it is crucial for institutional theorists to develop microfoundations of institutions.
Goldenstein and Walgenbach (this volume, chapter 8A) argue that discursive and practical con-
sciousness constitute two different kinds of taken-for-grantedness. Map p ing the two k inds of take n -
for-grantedness onto two kinds of institutional infrastructure (low vs. high) yields four types of
institutional change. Goldenstein and Walgenbach point out that two of the four types (i.e., the
types associated with practical consciousness) have remained largely unexplored and require in-
creased attention. Roulet, Paollela, Gabbioneta, and Muzio (this volume, chapter 14A) show how
the aggregated characteristics of organizational members explain why organizations deviate from
institutionalized practices. Bitektine and Nason (this volume, chapter 3A) advance the idea that
public, administrative, and legal domains of institutional action constitute a critical meso-level of
analysis, which mediates the influence of the micro on the macro level of legitimacy, a point that
resonates with the work of Hallett and Hawbaker (this volume, chapter 16B), who advocate social
interaction as a meso-level of analysis.
In sum, while cognitive approaches to microfoundations have been criticized for being too
atomistic and to reduce “social reality to individual and collective cognitive categories”
(Cornelissen et al., 2015, p. 11), the chapters of the present double volume demonstrate that cog-
nition can serve as a critical window into the recursive relationships between the macro and micro
levels of institutions.
Several institutional scholars have highlighted the significance of communication for cre-
ating, shaping, and disrupting institutions, emphasizing that at “its core, institutional theory is a
theory of communication” (Suddaby, 2011, p. 188). By “communication,” this perspective refers
to social interaction that draws on discourse (Phillips, Lawrence, & Hardy, 2004; Vaara & Monin,
2010), framing (Lefsrud & Meyer, 2012; R. E. Meyer & Höllerer, 2010), rhetoric (Green, 2004;
Suddaby & Greenwood, 2005), narratives (Haack, Schoeneborn, & Wickert, 2012; Hardy &
Maguire, 2010), tropes (Sillince & Barker, 2012), and other communicative means. The commu-
nicative perspective is influenced by social constructionism, ethnomethodology, and structuration
theory, as well as linguistic philosophy, ranging from Wittgenstein’s (1953) “language games” to
Searle’s (1969) “speech acts.” Ontologically, communication is said to amount to a relational con-
struct, which is defined as “a process of interaction within which actors exchange views and build
up mutual understanding” (Cornelissen et al., 2015, p. 16). A central insight of the communicative
perspective is that communication constitutes institutions, rather than simply transmitting them in
the sense of sending and receiving messages as conceptualized in the “conduit metaphor” (Reddy,
1979). At the same time, the communicative perspective acknowledges that institutions that emerge
from communication are unlikely to fully resemble the intentions of involved actors, given the non-
linear and contingent properties of language use (Suddaby, 2011).
An important theme that emerges from the double volume is that communication offers a
means to analyze and make visible the taken-for-grantedness of institutions. For instance, Lok,
Creed and DeJordy (this volume, chapter 4B) advance the point that the capacity for agency is not
fully autonomous from the institutions towards which it is directed but rather emerges endoge-
nously through a process of self-identity construction that responds to specific conventions of nar-
rative necessity. Their research thus highlights that agency can be considered to constitute a so-
cially constructed outcome of the narrative enactment of institutional constraints. In a similar vein,
Harmon (this volume, chapter 1B) elaborates that argument structure reflects the latent and taken-
for-granted structure of institutions. Analyzing argument structure thus allows for mapping pro-
cesses of institutionalization, and Harmon derives important methodological implications from this
insight. Tchalian (this volume, chapter 6B) draws on newly developed computational methods to
develop a mixed-methods framework for discourse analysis, which allows him to align small-scale
and large-scale textual analysis to detect theoretically relevant (but often latent) associations.
Tchalian proposes that these associations demarcate the boundary between micro and macro levels
and thus help researchers identify the mechanisms linking levels. Islam, Rüling and Schüßler (this
volume, chapter 2B) show that critique made by various actors at climate change conferences is
embedded in rituals of legitimate communication, constraining critics’ influence on global govern-
ance and public policy. Both Harmon (this volume, chapter 1B) and Islam and colleagues (this
volume, chapter 2B) allude to the role of taken-for-grantedness for maintaining the status quo and
existing power relationships, reminding us that research on the microfoundations of institutions
may have important normative implications (e.g., Amis, Munir, & Mair, 2017). Soppe and Pershina
(this volume, chapter 5B) elucidate how organizational storytelling allows actors to mitigate the
tensions between conflicting institutional demands in the context of wildlife documentaries. The
authors identify specific narrative strategies and also highlight the crucial role of emotion in
balancing institutional demands. Lefsrud and Vaara (this volume, chapter 3B) explore the for-
mation of moral legitimacy over time by examining the change in prevalent frames that regulatory
actors and the media use to construct fairness. Their chapter exemplifies not only the fact that
legitimacy judgments are subject to contestation and social construction but also the individual and
collective criteria that actors use to make such judgments.
Taken as the whole, the “communicative” chapters of this double volume shed light on the
links between communication and the cognitive aspects of institutions, reminding us that cognition,
communication, and institutions are inherently intertwined (Cornelissen et al., 2015). The chapters
also raise important questions regarding the constraining influence of institutions and the level of
agency actors command once these institutions give rise to the formation of legitimate genres of
The behavioral perspective focuses on how practices, understood as clusters of recurrent
human activity informed by shared institutional meanings (Schatzki, 1996), shape and are shaped
by institutions (Barley & Tolbert, 1997). Hence, this perspective highlights that institutions “are
not fixed in some structural order but are continuously and flexibly instantiated in the momentary
processes by which individuals adjust to any given situation” (Smets, Jarzabkowski, Burke, &
Spee, 2015, p. 937). The behavioral perspective has its roots in social constructionism (Berger &
Luckmann, 1967), symbolic interactionism (Goffman, 1959), evolutionary economics (Nelson &
Winter, 1982), and practice theories (Giddens, 1984). It draws on a process ontology whereby
practices, while being institutionally embedded, also have the potential to (de-)stabilize institutions
(Barley & Tolbert, 1997; Lawrence & Suddaby, 2006). Hence, this perspective takes a moderating
stance between voluntarism and determinism by emphasizing how competent actors continuously
(re)produce the institutions in which they are embedded (Smets et al., 2015; Zilber, 2002). Similar
to the communicative perspective, the focal unit of analysis of the behavioral perspective is not the
individual but rather the actions of and between individuals. The idea that individuals matter for
institutions seems to be uncontroversial and to constitute an ontological truism (Jepperson &
Meyer, 2011). However, it is through the day-to-day practices and interactions of individuals (and
collectives of individual actors, such as groups and organizations) that institutions exert their in-
fluence. For example, the studies by Smets and colleagues (Smets & Jarzabkowski, 2013; Smets,
Morris, & Greenwood, 2012) underscore the criticality of studying interactions in order to advance
The contributions to this double volume draw on and extend the behavioral perspective in
several ways. On the one hand, several chapters can be seen as consistent with “practice-driven
institutionalism,” whose agenda is to strengthen the ties between practice studies and institutional
theory (Smets, Aristidou, & Whittington, 2017). Anesa, Chalkias, Jarzabkowski and Spee (this
volume, chapter 7B) draw on Bourdieu’s theory of practice to explore how action can be oriented
towards contradictory practices that are enacted simultaneously by the same actor across fields,
and Eliasoph, Lo and Glaser (this volume, chapter 8B) explore how interaction orders come into
being in settings of institutional complexity. These works offer important intellectual stimuli in
that they explore links between practices, fields, logics, and institutions in ways that emphasize the
importance of social interactions. Similarly, Furnari (this volume, chapter 10B) attends to the im-
portance of social situations and their potential for bolstering the transformational potential of so-
cial interactions. According to Furnari, institutional logics pattern “situational frames” that help
individuals to comprehend specific situations and the institutionalized expectations that come with
them. However, whether what he calls “situated actions” correspond with these frames is not fully
predetermined by logics. Instead, interactions “on the ground” can lead to novel and unanticipated
events and outcomes (see also Powell, this volume, chapter 22B). Jones, Lee and Lee (this volume,
chapter 11B) focus on material practices but, unlike most institutional theorizing in organization
and management, take the “material” seriously. Their work discusses institutional theorizing in
relationship to social studies of technology and investigates how meaning, location, and material
interact in the institutionalization and deinstitutionalization of place.
In addition to studies that advance linkages between practices and institutions, several chap-
ters mobilize the concept of power to better understand how and under what circumstances prac-
tices can be carried out. Studying hybrid professional organizations, Malhotra and Reay (this
volume, chapter 12B) bring to the fore the idea that the practice-institution nexus should be studied
with an eye towards the role of different forms of power in managing tensions among competing
logics in everyday work practices. Power is also central to Ruotsalainen (this volume, chapter 13B)
who advances our understanding of how actors with limited power can drive change and acquire
the capacity to take institutional actions. In returning to some of the fundamental questions that
matter for the behavioral perspective, Surachaikulwattana and Phillips (this volume, chapter 14B)
and Fohim (this volume, chapter 9B) conceptualize micro-macro links in relation to practices and
actions. Surachaikulwattana and Phillips leverage the “garbage can” model to explain the transla-
tion of an organizational form into a novel institutional context. Fohim contributes to the “institu-
tional entrepreneurship” concept by identifying relevant skills of entrepreneurs. He stresses that
skills do not merely reflect psychological traits but are the outcome of higher- and lower-level
Cumulatively, the “behavioral” chapters in this double volume offer fruitful ways to ad-
vance microfoundational theorizing with a focus on actions and interactions. On the one hand,
topics such as situations and materiality directly correspond with the research agenda that practice-
driven institutionalism has initiated. On the other hand, there are important new ideas to be added
to work that is focused on exploring the link between actions and institutions, including, but not
limited to, power, translation, and skills.
Conceptions of Microfoundations
In addition to the aforementioned three perspectives, the chapters of this double volume
also advance three common understandings, or conceptions, of the microfoundations of institu-
tions. These conceptions form the background in scholars’ theorizing but are rarely made explicit.
Although the three conceptions overlap, they are analytically distinct and thus should be discussed
Microfoundations as agency
A first prominent conception of microfoundations of institutions is reflected in the “micro-
foundations as agency” argument. Proponents of this understanding see the microfoundations of
institutions as tightly linked to agency and the capacity for purposeful action. As different forms
of agency are reflected in the influential concepts of “institutional work” (Lawrence & Suddaby,
2006), “institutional entrepreneurship” (Battilana, Leca, & Boxenbaum, 2009), and, more recently,
“institutional logics” (Smets et al., 2015), there has been almost a natural tendency in institutional
theory to explain stability and change at aggregate levels through actors’ agency. Considering that
actors are said to be “embedded” within institutions, to be “constrained” or “empowered” by insti-
tutions, or otherwise to “inhabit” institutions (Hallett & Hawbaker, this volume, chapter 16B),
scholars have sought to understand how the tension between agency and structure can conceptually
and practically be solved. Indeed, microfoundations not only are equated with agency but also are
often construed as a conceptual means to solve the tensions between agency and structure and to
tackle the “paradox of embedded agency” (Battilana et al., 2009). For instance, by suggesting that
structure “orients” action toward certain possibilities and that agency is not only strategic but also
pre-reflective in nature, Cardinale (Cardinale, 2018, p. 148) suggests that he has developed “new
microfoundations of institutions” that help “reconcile insights that have long been seen as conflict-
ing in institutional theory.”
An understanding of microfoundations as agency serves as the background for many of the
chapters of this double volume yet is often left implicit. Not surprisingly, microfoundations as
agency constitutes the dominant understanding in the behavioral perspective; however, we also see
this understanding reflected in the cognitive perspective (Goldenstein & Walgenbach, this volume,
chapter 8A) and the communicative perspective (Lok et al., this volume, chapter 4B).
Microfoundations as levels
Harmon, Haack, and Roulet (2019) highlight that “agency” and “structure” do not map
consistently onto “micro” and “macro” respectively; rather, there are macro-instances of agency
(e.g., social movements and collective action) as well as micro-instances of structure (e.g., habitus
and routines). It follows that levels can be said to be analytically orthogonal to the agency-structure
dichotomy. The “microfoundations as levels” argument thus constitutes a second prominent under-
standing of the microfoundations of institutions. It is informed by a “layered” ontology which con-
ceives of institutions as nested systems that are hierarchically structured along different levels of
analysis (Holm, 1995). “Levels of analysis” are often understood in spatial terms, in the sense that
lower, “micro” levels comprise entities of smaller spatial size (e.g., an organization), whereas
higher, “macro” levels represent a larger scale or “collection” of lower-level entities (e.g., an insti-
tutional field in which the organization is nested). Levels of analysis may also refer to degrees of
causal complexity or abstraction, a question that is distinct from the question of scale (Jepperson
& Meyer, 2011). While individuals play a contested role in the intellectual history of institutional
theory (Boxenbaum, this volume, chapter 15B), they represent a special case of the microfounda-
tions as levels argument (Felin et al., 2015). Indeed, “micro” and “macro” are relative terms (i.e.,
given that any actor or entity is “micro” in relation to something and “macro” in relation to
something else). Thus, it is important to make explicit one’s understanding of “micro” and “macro”
and to explain why a given level should (or should not) be granted analytical primacy (Harmon et
al., 2019). Finally, levels tend to be associated with certain disciplines, such as psychology and
sociology. In these contexts, the microfoundations as levels argument is applied rather loosely to
emphasize the merit of an interdisciplinary approach (e.g., when integrating psychological research
into institutional theory, see Lefsrud & Vaara, this volume, chapter 3B).
Several chapters of this double volume draw on the microfoundations as levels argument
in developing their contributions. While some authors make their understanding of institutions as
layered and nested systems explicit, such as by conceptually distinguishing levels and modeling
them as such (Keller, this volume, chapter 11A; Roulet et al., this volume, chapter 14A), in other
contributions the reference to levels is less explicit but nevertheless forms the background of the
researchers’ theorizing (Harmon, this volume, chapter 1B; Lefsrud & Vaara, this volume, chapter
3B). In addition, the levels argument is not equally popular across the three microfoundations per-
spectives. For instance, while the “behavioral” chapter of Surachaikulwattana and Phillips (this
volume, chapter 14B) develop a levels argument to explain the translation of an organizational
form, most contributors to the behavioral perspective abstain from level-based theorizing. This is
perhaps not surprising, given that practice scholars have advocated a flat ontology, suggesting that
the notion of levels is analytically at odds with an understanding of social action as inherently
relational and reciprocal (Seidl & Whittington, 2014). In some chapters, we also noticed a concern
with the term “microfoundations” as such, on the grounds that the notion of “foundations” implies
a layered ontology, while the “micro” in microfoundations signals the primacy of lower levels of
analysis, which some may consider to be inconsistent with what they perceive to be the onto-epis-
temological assumptions in institutional theory (Boxenbaum, this volume, chapter 15B; Hwang &
Colyvas, this volume, chapter 17B).
Microfoundations as mechanisms
Microfoundations are sometimes treated as quasi-synonymous with causal mechanisms.
“Mechanisms” can be defined as “theoretical explanations of why focal phenomena or effects oc-
cur” (Davis & Marquis, 2005, p. 336). Mechanisms offer analytical tools above pure description
and below universal law that contribute to make a theory “more supple, more accurate, or more
general” (Stinchcombe, 1991, p. 367). While there are mechanisms that do not operate across dif-
ferent levels (e.g., action formation mechanisms; see below), the understanding of microfounda-
tions as mechanisms is often combined with a levels argument. The reverse does not necessarily
apply, as works drawing on the microfoundations as levels argument often fail to unambiguously
identify relevant mechanisms.
When discussing cross- and within-level mechanisms, institutional theorists follow the
broader microfoundations literature in strategy (Felin et al., 2015) and sociology (Hedström &
Swedberg, 1998) and draw on the Coleman (“bathtub”) model as depicted in Figure 2.
[Insert Figure 2 about here]
Research has typically focused on three types of mechanisms (Hwang & Colyvas, this
volume, chapter 17B; Weber & Glynn, 2006): a situational mechanism; through which the macro-
level institutional context feeds into, triggers, or modifies the cognitions, judgments, and interpre-
tations of actors at the micro level (macro-micro or “top-down” transition); an action formation
mechanism, which explains how the aforementioned cognitions, judgments, and interpretations
generate action at the micro level (micro-micro transition); and a transformational mechanism,
through which actions and interactions “scale-up” and coalesce into shifts in the taken-for-granted
beliefs and expectations at the macro level (micro-macro, or “bottom-up,” transition). In this mech-
anism-based view of microfoundations, institutional change is the outcome of a reciprocal and bi-
directional relationship between inter-subjective processes among individual or collective actors
and the extra-subjective realm of the institutional context (Bitektine & Haack, 2015; Gray, Purdy,
& Ansari, 2015; Weber & Glynn, 2006). Figure 2 also recognizes that microfoundations, if under-
stood as mechanisms, imply a temporal dimension in which a macro-level explanans causes a
macro-level explanandum over time, through micro-level mechanisms. Importantly, the explanan-
dum of a first bathtub may constitute the explanans of a second bathtub, which through situational,
action-formation, and transformational mechanisms generates the explanandum of the second bath-
tub, which in turn constitutes the explanans of a third bathtub, and so forth. Note that conceiving
of social action as a dynamic chain of bathtub models approximates the model of structuration and
the “flow metaphor” that is characteristic of the work of Barley and Tolbert (1997) and Phillips,
Lawrence, and Hardy (2004).
Figure 2 reflects a parsimonious model of mechanism-based theorizing. One could easily
develop a more complex and possibly more accurate model which acknowledges that institutions
are nested systems that comprise more than two levels of analysis (Jepperson & Meyer, 2011). In
this nested view, a specific level can be “macro” for one entity but “micro” for another, constituting
a critical “meso” level of analysis. The number of these intermediate meso levels can be fairly
large. Each level (or layer) in such a model can be assumed to be connected through situational,
action-formation, or transformational mechanisms. The mechanisms can be assumed to affect the
micro level (the “bottom” of the bathtub) either indirectly through the facilitation of intermediate
levels or directly without the facilitation of intermediate levels.
When advancing the microfoundations as mechanism argument, all three mechanisms fall
under the microfoundations umbrella. Naturally, contributions to this double volume differ in terms
of which of the “edges” of the bathtub they prioritize. Most chapters applying the microfoundations
as mechanism view focus on situational mechanisms (“macrofoundations”). This is perhaps not
surprising given that a huge body of literature has conceived of institutions as a context and
explanans for other phenomena, while focusing less on the process of institutionalization (R. E.
Meyer, Jancsary, Höllerer, & Boxenbaum, 2018; Tolbert & Zucker, 1996). Within the subset of
volume chapters, only a few chapters examine instances of the action-formation mechanism, such
as Hu and Rerup (this volume, chapter 10A), who elaborate on why audience members become
engaged and willing to take action. Moreover, only a few chapters discuss transformational mech-
anisms or hint at the transformational potential of transitions and/or interactions at lower levels
(Bitektine & Nason, this volume, chapter 3A; Glynn & Innis, this volume, chapter 7A; Jones et al.,
this volume, chapter 11B).
Configurations of microfoundational research
Naturally, there is some overlap in our taxonomy of perspectives and conceptions. For ex-
ample, the works under the communicative perspective also invoke cognition (Harmon, this
volume, chapter 1B) and vice versa (Lizardo, this volume, chapter 12A), and works that construe
microfoundations primarily in terms of agency are also concerned with the analysis of multiple
levels (Surachaikulwattana & Phillips, this volume, chapter 14B). When editing the chapters, we
also noticed that certain perspectives tend to be combined with certain conceptions of microfoun-
dations, leading to specific configurations. Mapping perspectives onto conceptions to create a 3x3
matrix and then counting how much research has been conducted in each of the nine cells (or in
clusters comprising more than one cell) would allow researchers to identify common configura-
tions in microfoundational research. Note that the cells of this matrix are not mutually exclusive in
a typological sense but rather represent distinct but overlapping analytical devices. While it is not
our intention to provide conclusive quantitative evidence, the present double volume nevertheless
seems to reflect at least three common configurations: 1) a configuration combining the microfoun-
dations as agency argument with the behavioral perspective, 2) a configuration combining the mi-
crofoundations as agency argument with the communicative perspective, and 3) a configuration
combining the levels and mechanism arguments with the cognitive perspective. It is evident that
significant research opportunities exist in the development of hitherto largely unexplored configu-
rations, such as research combining the cognitive perspective with a conception of microfounda-
tions as agency, as Goldenstein and Walgenbach (this volume, chapter 8A) advocate. Future re-
search may also want to examine whether the assumptions of both the three perspectives and the
three conceptions are proximate enough to justify theoretical integration and form a coherent mi-
crofoundational theory of institutions.
Should We Foreground Levels of Analysis?
An important insight that has emerged from the editorial process is that it is helpful for
scholars to unambiguously reveal and make explicit their understanding(s) of microfoundations
and the perspective(s) from which they address microfoundations. If they do not do so, the mem-
bers of the microfoundations community are at risk of talking past each other, making the accumu-
lation of knowledge difficult and time-consuming (Harmon et al., 2019). While we are excited by
the literature’s depth and diversity, we contend that construct clarity is essential for the accumula-
tion of scientific knowledge, especially for institutional theorists as scholars drawing on a social-
constructionist epistemology (Suddaby, 2010a). Hence, we take up the suggestion of Felin and
Foss (this volume, chapter 20B) and propose a “minimal” view of the microfoundations of institu-
tions to help reach a consensus on the “essence” of this line of inquiry. This minimal view is in-
formed by our contention that microfoundational research in institutional theory can be signifi-
cantly advanced by foregrounding the analysis of levels and mechanisms (Weber, 2006; Weber &
Glynn, 2006). While conceptualizing microfoundations as “level-free” and as grounded in a flat or
relational ontology has gained some currency, some important analytical benefits come with em-
bracing a layered ontology, specifically with respect to the identification of causal mechanisms. A
layered ontology offers an important analytical heuristic to account for how institutional phenom-
ena play out in micro contexts and how these dynamics and interactions coalesce into social struc-
tures at the macro level (Jones et al., this volume, chapter 11B). If we do not take cross-level inter-
actions into account, we will be only looking at micro-level practice with little significance beyond
the immediate context. In addition, theorizing multiple layers makes otherwise complex and ab-
stract macro-level constructs such as institutional logics more tangible and assessable. Hence, fol-
lowing the “bathtub” model (Figure 2), the minimal view of microfoundations of institutions entails
that microfoundations comprise multiple, interconnected levels of analysis. In this view, a “full-
cycle” microfoundational explanation comprises an analysis of multiple levels and of the interac-
tion across these levels.
Importantly, microfoundations, in their minimal view, require an explanatory account of
the interdependence of multiple levels of analysis. Within a microfoundational perspective, this
explanatory account involves typically more micro levels (including the “meso” level, which, rel-
ative to higher levels, is a “micro” level). While not ruling out the existence of “pure” macro-level
mechanisms, microfoundational research acknowledges the relevance of the micro level and draws
on micro-level theorizing to explain changes and/or heterogeneity at more macro levels. Naturally,
the choice for prioritizing more micro levels needs to be guided by theory rather than by taste,
ideology or the conventional research approaches in a given community. Treatises of microfoun-
dations in institutional theory tend to argue that institutions are enacted, though not necessarily
created or changed, by individual actors that may “carry” institutions (Scott, 2008). However, while
institutional theorists have emphasized that micro-level units (including individual actors) are in-
stitutional constructions that are informed or even determined by roles, responsibilities, behavioral
scripts, and models of actorhood (Barley & Tolbert, 1997; John W Meyer & Jepperson, 2000),
institutional theory’s “macrofoundations” should not be treated as a given. Rather, we need to
acknowledge that “macrofoundations” and the status of social facticity that is inherent to institu-
tions come from somewhere. Applying a microfoundational perspective clarifies that the institu-
tional context is the outcome of, and is molded by, a social construction process that involves local
interactions “on the ground.” These interactions and the unanticipated outcomes they generate at
more aggregated levels constitute an important explanandum in their own right (Furnari, this
volume, chapter 10B; Hallett & Hawbaker, this volume, chapter 16B). Thus, while the macro def-
initely affects the micro, the micro also helps illuminate the origin and effects of the macro
(Lizardo, this volume, chapter 12A).
Acknowledging this insight, some of the seminal concepts in institutional theory have been
recently “remodeled” as multi-level and inherently reciprocal constructs. Such remodeling has been
accomplished for institutional logics (Thornton et al., 2012), legitimacy (Bitektine & Haack, 2015),
institutional change (Smets et al., 2012) and the construct of “institution” itself (Gray et al., 2015;
Weber & Glynn, 2006). Some of the chapters of this double volume hint at the possibility that such
a multi-level view can be fruitfully extended to other not yet “remodeled” concepts in institutional
theory. For instance, advancing a multi-level perspective of decoupling would require acknowl-
edging that the decoupling concept focuses simultaneously on the societal pervasiveness of rational
myths and the interpretative work individual actors invest to “pull down” and translate these myths
to the everyday practicalities of local contexts (Steele et al., this volume, chapter 18B). Such a
multi-level perspective of decoupling would place emphasis on the sensemaking activities of or-
ganizational members, showing that they are able and willing to make sense of the anomalies and
contradictions in decoupled settings, problematize these conflicts, and develop solutions for them,
thereby generating and reproducing new understandings and practices that become institutionalized
(e.g., Hallett, 2010). Seminal institutional theory constructs such as legitimacy and decoupling thus
essentially operate at multiple levels, and there are huge gains to be had from modeling them as
such. The need to make these multiple levels explicit and subject to theorizing and empirical testing
logically follows from this insight.
Why Do We Need Microfoundations of Institutions?
Microfoundational research is important because knowledge of how cognition, communi-
cation and behavior at micro levels affect and are affected by higher-level structures allows scholars
to develop an improved understanding of heterogeneity in institutional outcomes, as well as of the
circumstances under which institutions persist or change (Powell, this volume, chapter 22B; Zucker
& Schilke, this volume, chapter 19B). In this view, microfoundations are indeed “foundational” for
institutional theory, as they facilitate the development of better theory. In other words, microfoun-
dations, if understood as a foregrounding of levels of analysis and micro-mechanisms, can improve
the robustness and explanatory power of institutional research. This point is eminently summarized
by Lynne Zucker in the postscript of her 1991 “orange” book chapter (Zucker, 1991, pp. 105-106).
Without a solid cognitive, micro-level foundation, we risk treating institutionaliza-
tion as a black box at the organizational level, focusing on content at the exclusion
of developing a systematic explanatory theory of process, conflating institutionaliza-
tion with resource dependency, and neglecting institutional variation and persistence.
Although important insights can be gained by examining the content of institutions,
there is an ever-present danger of making the institutionalist enterprise a taxonomic
rather than an explanatory, theory-building exercise. Institutional theory is always in
danger of forgetting that labeling a process or structure does not explain it.
The quest for (cognitive, communicative and behavioral) microfoundations must also be
seen as a critique of the existing focus on single-level explanations that fail to incorporate situa-
tional and transformational mechanisms. Indeed, there seems to be a growing concern that a “‘tax-
onomic’ approach has come to dominate institutional theory while there has been little attention
paid to developing an explanation for the process of production of institutions in the first place”
(Phillips & Malhotra, 2008, p. 393). Tolbert and Zucker (this volume, chapter 1A, p. XXX) see a
lack of “causal specificity” in research on institutional logics, asserting that scholarship has focused
“on different organizational types that behave differently, rather than on the roots of these differ-
ences.” Zucker and Schilke (this volume, chapter 19B, p. XXX) likewise encourage scholars to
“avoid imprecise concepts such as diffusion that encompass a wide range of quite different under-
lying mechanisms causing practices to remain stable or new practices to be adopted.”
In private conversations with contributors to this double volume, we sensed a general dis-
satisfaction with the explanatory power of mainstream institutional theory. Scholars are not content
with the vague and inconsistent definitions of institutional theory’s core concepts and are worried
that the theory’s interpretative capacity is fading. It may be the case that the “big tent” of institu-
tional theory has become too voluminous, with institutional theory moving from an explanatory
theory to an identity movement or “brand” (Alvesson, Hallett, & Spicer, 2019). Indeed, there tends
to be a substantial amount of “evangelism” in institutional theory, and “institutional terminology
seems to have become a prefix used to signal desired membership in a certain research community,
rather than indicating the actual study of institutions” (R. E. Meyer & Höllerer, 2014, p. 1230).
Astley (1985, p. 505) commented on the evangelistic character of scientific fields, noting that “the
theories that gain dominance are those that are able to win the most converts; they need not neces-
sarily have greater explanatory power to emerge victorious.” In this context, it seems evident that
advancing a microfoundational research agenda can enhance the empirical validation, rigor, and
explanatory power of institutional theory.
It is our contention that side-stepping the issue of multi-level complexity and the emergent
properties of process dynamics on the grounds that they complicate empirical research or concep-
tual development, or assuming homogeneity at micro levels instead of studying it, unduly replaces
the process of scientific inquiry with intellectual fatalism. However, Meyer (this volume, chapter
21B) and Jepperson and Meyer (2011) remind us that explanation does not automatically require a
micro-level account, and these scholars bring to the fore macro-mechanisms which they see as
foundational to institutions. While the minimal view posits that microfoundations of institutions
typically involve an explanatory account at the micro level, the “criterion for whether it is worth-
while to theorize at lower levels is whether it makes the theory at the higher levels better, not
whether lower-level theorizing is philosophically necessary” (Stinchcombe, 1991, p. 367). Thus,
the relevant question is not whether microfoundations are needed, but when and to what degree. It
is our conviction that microfoundations are needed rather often and that a microfoundational re-
search agenda, if understood as a holistic, comprehensive and integrative effort of multi-level the-
orizing, can bring profound insights and huge benefits to institutional theory (Steele et al., this
volume, chapter 18B). Indeed, a full microfoundational explanation comprises situational mecha-
nisms and thus covers what advocates of the term “macrofoundations” seem to have in mind. The
term “macrofoundations” thus appears to be redundant. We suspect that the popularity of this term
reflects an unarticulated fear of a “positivist capture” and a fear that microfoundations scholars will
“psychologize” institutional theory, removing it from its intellectual roots in social constructionism
and phenomenology. We hope that this double volume demonstrates the opposite: that is, that mi-
crofoundations, if embedded in the larger conversation on multi-level research, enable scholars to
re-connect to the intellectual origins of institutional theory and develop richer and more powerful
theory (Zucker & Schilke, this volume, chapter 19B).
Several of the chapters in this double volume open the “black box” of institutions and illus-
trate the benefits and explanatory power that emerge from doing so. For instance, Tolbert and Da-
rabi (this volume, chapter 15A) highlight the distinction between normative and informational con-
formity, which reflect a desire for social approval and a desire for accuracy in making decisions.
Different kinds of institutional pressures thus generate variations in motives for conformity—an
insight that has been largely ignored by institutional theorists. Tolbert and Darabi show how the
explicit recognition of different motives can improve our understanding of the heterogeneity in
adoption decisions and post-adoption behavior, complementing the work of Bitektine and Haack
(2015), which highlighted that a seemingly stable and institutionalized macro-structure may mask
significant heterogeneity in judgments and motives at the micro level. Chapters in this double vol-
ume also highlight the crucial role of cognitive, communicative, and behavioral elements in ex-
plaining heterogeneity and change at more macro levels. For instance, Cholakova and Ravasi (this
volume, chapter 6A) expand the works of Schilke (2018) and Raaijmakers and colleagues (2015)
by suggesting that the complexity of individuals’ cognitions of institutional logics and their role
identities explain variations in individuals’ perception of and response to institutional complexity.
Meanwhile, Furnari (this volume, chapter 10B) and Hallett and Hawbaker (this volume, chapter
16B) elucidate the transformational potential of social interactions. The volume chapters offer val-
uable illustrations of when and why microfoundations of institutions are needed and how micro-
foundational research can help strengthen the explanatory power and interpretive capacity of insti-
Ultimately, microfoundational research can also make institutional theory more “relevant”
for developing practical implications. The presumed dichotomy between “rigor” and “relevance”
seems nonsensical when considering real organizational and (grand) societal challenges. Most
problems that managers and policy makers face imply phenomena at multiple levels, and the de-
velopment of sound policy implications needs to consider these multiple levels. It follows that
microfoundational research, with its explicit recognition of micro- and cross-level mechanisms,
brings us closer to the reality and complexity of organizational practice and governance.
How Can We Study Microfoundations of Institutions?
Although the call for microfoundations of institutions has generated much positive re-
sponse and yielded important conceptual contributions, thus far we have seen relatively little em-
pirical research activity (Tchalian, this volume, chapter 6B). This is perhaps not surprising given
that empirical research on microfoundations involves processes and variables at multiple levels of
analysis and thus poses a challenge to model and test interactions and relationships within and
across these levels. This challenge is echoed in the three perspectives to the extent that the methods
that are typically used in the context of these perspectives are often rooted in capturing only one
level of analysis.
Addressing the challenge of multi-level research thus requires that scholars update their
methodological toolkit; develop novel research designs; and advance their sampling, data collec-
tion, and data analysis strategies. Scholars have suggested that a narrow set of measurement tech-
niques and research approaches has constrained theory development on the microfoundations of
institutions, such as when researchers employ proxies for institutions that are too distant from their
ideational aspects and underlying meaning systems (Suddaby, 2010b; Zucker, 1989). The overre-
liance on a narrow set of methods may thus have limited the ability of institutional theorists to
address many pivotal questions on micro-level and multi-level institutional processes: “Standard
research strategies are much more attuned to the covariance of factors than to the processes that
underlie the production of institutional effects” (Schneiberg & Clemens, 2006, p. 200). Hence,
while cross-sectional research designs provide snapshots of top-down influences and may help
scholars to explore the impact of macro-level contexts on micro-level cognition, communication
and behavior, they seem less suited to examine the process dynamics and interactions that are
constitutive of macro-level phenomena (Eckardt et al., 2019).
The study of the microfoundations of institutions and of the multi-level dynamics of insti-
tutional processes presupposes methodological diversity—or, more precisely, the elaboration and
application of methodologies that are appropriate for the analysis of interactions across multiple
levels and of the emergent properties of processes at the micro level. The chapters in this double
volume attest that there are plenty of opportunities for methodological innovation. Adding to these
contributions, we would like to highlight three important avenues for future microfoundational
research: mixed-methods approaches, multi-level analysis, and experimental research.
The term mixed methods refers to a combination of quantitative and qualitative approaches.
An important presumption of mixed methods is that a triangulation of different methods offers a
better understanding of complex multi-level phenomena than either approach alone. Elsbach’s
study (1994) on legitimation exemplifies the merits of a mixed-methods approach. Her study qual-
itatively examined the verbal accounts used by organizational spokespersons to manage legitimacy
in the California cattle industry and then assessed experimentally the effectiveness of these ac-
counts, showing that accounts that combined acknowledgments with references to institutionalized
characteristics resonated more strongly with the cognitions and expectations of relevant audiences.
The chapters by Soppe and Pershina (this volume, chapter 5B) and Tchalian (this volume, chapter
6B) exemplify the value of mixed-methods approaches in advancing multi-level explanations in
institutional theory. Certainly, a mixed-methods approach need not be present in every single ar-
ticle, but such an approach can be advanced within a larger “ecology” of research articles, while
the integration of research findings can be accomplished with the help of systematic reviews and
meta-analyses (Steele et al., this volume, chapter 18B).
As the use of mixed-methods approaches is far from institutionalized and deviates from
established methodological approaches, such approaches pose opportunities a nd risks for resear ch-
ers. On the one hand, given that researchers rarely use multiple methods that inform each other,
mixed-methods research may become an important differentiator in publication decisions. On the
other hand, mixed methods can be risky because there is a lack of standard procedures for using
them, and submissions may attract reviewers with different disciplinary backgrounds and funda-
mentally different expectations regarding “good research” (Wright, Coff, & Moliterno, 2014).
These strategic considerations notwithstanding, a good deal of risk-taking seems worthwhile, as
the potential return on the investment is large.
Institutional scholars have long developed multi-level theory (e.g., institutional work or
institutional logics) and used mostly qualitative methods to investigate situational, action-for-
mation, and transformational mechanisms. To further advance our understanding of the micro-
foundations of institutions, we recommend the application of quantitative multi-level analysis.
Multi-level analysis—or hierarchical linear modeling—considers the nestedness of units (e.g., in-
dividuals) within higher-level units (e.g., teams or organizations). Although multi-level analysis
has become influential in management research (e.g., Hitt, Beamish, Jackson, & Mathieu, 2007;
Paruchuri, Perry-Smith, Chattopadhyay, & Shaw, 2018), it is not yet established as a research
approach in institutional theory. The present double volume includes two notable exceptions. First,
Roulet, Paolella, Gabbioneta, and Muzio (this volume, chapter 14A) use multi-level models with
observations of employees nested within firms to explore how individual characteristics and or-
ganizational characteristics are related to the erosion and emergence of practices within the field
of UK law firms. Keller (this volume, chapter 11A) applies cultural consensus theory to link vari-
ance in individuals’ micro-level conditions with cross-level variance in individuals’ adoption of
macro-level socially constructed knowledge.
These two works and the body of research upon which they draw can inspire future insti-
tutional research on situational and transformational mechanisms. With respect to situational
mechanisms, we suggest that institutional theorists can learn much from research on organizational
climate. Organizational climate refers to employees’ shared perceptions of organizational policies
and practices and their shared perception of behaviors that are supported and expected within an
organization (Schneider, Ehrhart, & Macey, 2013). It follows that organizational climate may—at
least to some extent—capture institutions within an organization; thus, organizational climate re-
search is potentially relevant for institutional researchers from both a content and a method per-
spective. We suggest that organizational climate research is particularly relevant from a method
perspective, because climate researchers have gathered broad experience with regard to the anal-
ysis of macro-micro relationships within organizations (i.e., the situational mechanism) and with
regard to whether and when researchers can aggregate individual-level beliefs and perceptions to
form higher-level constructs. This knowledge is of value for institutional researchers who aim to
analyze the recursive relationship between institutions (e.g., shared and taken-for-granted beliefs
and behaviors of employees within an organization) and the beliefs and behavior of individuals
With respect to transformational mechanisms, we deem it important to analyze the emer-
gence of institutions and the machinery through which taken-for-granted beliefs and behaviors
coalesce into institutions. Analyzing transformational mechanisms and the process dynamics of
emergent properties is important for institutional theory, as these mechanisms and dynamics may
offer important insights into the origin of institutions. In these contexts, institutional researchers
need to critically examine whether institutions represent shared or configural constructs (Klein &
Kozlowski, 2000). That is, does the emergence of institutions from individual-level beliefs and
behaviors require that all individuals—or at least a vast majority—share the beliefs and behaviors,
or do institutions emerge from the complex conglomeration of the beliefs and behaviors of some
(very influential) individuals? Qualitative comparative analysis (QCA) offers a promising
methodological platform to explore this question (Misangyi et al., 2017) and may generate im-
portant insights into the bottom-up emergence of institutions.
We also recommend greater use of experimental designs, such as laboratory and field ex-
periments. Experiments can play a central role in advancing microfoundations and multi-level re-
search in institutional theory (Bitektine, Lucas, & Schilke, 2018). For instance, in the context of
legitimacy research, there is an opportunity to develop laboratory experiments that model and test
legitimacy as a multi-level process (Bitektine & Haack, 2015). Such experiments can help scholars
to explore how institutional logics shape individual action (Glaser, Fast, Harmon, & Green Jr,
2016) and whether and how variations in institutionalization affect the decision and behavior of
managers (John W. Meyer & Rowan, 1977). However, it should be noted that adapting laboratory
experimental designs from psychology or behavioral economics, which tend to focus on single-
level outcomes and neglect the processual character of cross-level interaction, may often be inap-
propriate to advance a microfoundational research agenda in institutional theory. Future experi-
mental designs thus need to pay attention to multiple levels and the social dynamics involved in
institutional emergence. The analysis of digital traces (e.g. communication in social media), wear-
able technology and the experience sampling method allow researchers collect and analyze fine-
grained longitudinal data in the field.
Additionally, we see largely untapped potential in the use of natural experiments. Natural
experiments represent situations in which an exogenous factor—such as new regulations and laws
or natural disasters—creates a naturally occurring contrast that generates a treatment and a control
condition to allow for plausible causal inferences. This assignment process is called an as-if ran-
domization, meaning that the assignment is “plausibly as good as random” (Dunning, 2012, p. 10).
The as-if random assignment is a major advantage of natural experiments because it rules out
endogenous explanations for group differences (e.g., self-selection bias) and balances the treat-
ment and control groups with regard to observable (e.g., demographic characteristics) and unob-
servable (e.g., beliefs) variables, so that any differences in the outcome variable can be plausibly
attributed to the treatment. Natural experiments have received much attention in economics and
political science, but they also have the potential to advance the microfoundational agenda in in-
stitutional theory. For example, institutional researchers may investigate the effect of exogenous
shocks on dynamics related to institutional incomes. In one instance, Rao and Greve (2018) used
the exogenous shock of the influenza pandemic after World War I to explain why some commu-
nities were more resilient in the face of disaster than others. Meanwhile, Haack and Sieweke (2018)
analyzed the ramifications of the German reunification on the legitimation of inequality in East
Germany. Contrasting attitudinal data of East Germans (the treatment group) with data from West
Germans (the control group) allowed for the identification of adaptation and replacement as two
important mechanisms of inequality legitimation. Institutional scholars can also examine how ex-
ogenous shocks affect individuals’ beliefs and behaviors, potentially leading to the emergence of
new institutions and/or to the modification or even deinstitutionalization of established institutions.
Finally, researchers can exploit settings in which treatments are assigned based on a unit’s score
on an observed variable. Such regression discontinuity designs have been fruitfully applied in stra-
tegic management to analyze the causal relationship between corporate social responsibility and
firm financial performance (Flammer, 2015) and in leadership research to analyze the effect of
female leaders on female followers (Arvate, Galilea, & Todescat, 2018).
Time for Retooling
Why have we seen so little empirical research on the microfoundations of institutions? We
see the past and current development of the microfoundations of institutions as the result of theory-
method co-evolution (Greenwald, 2012), with the advancement of the field depending on a self-
enforcing and continual cycle between theory development and empirical research aimed at testing
and consolidating new theory. In this view, the development of methods is just as crucial for the
advancement of the microfoundational research agenda as is theory development for the creation
of new methodological approaches. Hence, methodology cannot advance in the absence of soundly
developed theory; in other words, it is hampered by weakly defined concepts and an inadequate
understanding of the relationships among different concepts. Conversely, a narrow set of measure-
ment techniques and methodological tools may severely constrain theory development, such as
when researchers employ proxies for their theoretical concepts that are too distant from the mean-
ing systems and ideational aspects of institutions (Schneiberg & Clemens, 2006; Suddaby, 2010b).
Microfoundations research will benefit from collaborative teams of scholars with expertise
in different methods and styles of theorizing. Engaging in more intense dialogue and interdiscipli-
nary collaboration could prove highly fruitful, as it would help scholars integrate psychological
and sociological perspectives on institutional phenomena (DiMaggio, 1997; DiMaggio & Markus,
2010). Institutional theorists need to overcome old habits, look beyond incentive structures, and
make an effort to gain experience in and apply novel methods. Indeed, in order to advance a mi-
crofoundational research agenda, institutional scholars have to turn from “method specialists” (i.e.,
researchers who are constrained by a narrow set of methods) into “domain specialists”; that is,
they need to learn to apply “more diverse, but sometimes less ‘legitimate’ (and therefore more
‘risky’) research methods to address research questions that cannot be explored through ‘more
legitimate’ methods” (Bitektine, 2009, p. 219).
It seems fair to say that institutional theory research has moved beyond questions of whether
microfoundations are needed to an inquiry into when and what kind of microfoundations are
needed. While building a “grand theory” of the microfoundations of institutions lies beyond the
scope of the present double volume (and is perhaps neither possible nor desirable), we nevertheless
hope that the chapters as a whole can help channel different micro-level conversations in institu-
tional theory into key questions that can bring clarity and coherence to existing research. We hope
that this double volume can act as a focal point, integrating disparate research streams and offering
a unique contribution to the emerging microfoundational research agenda.
Today, microfoundational research in institutional theory constitutes a “fragmented adhoc-
racy” (Whitley, 2000) that is impaired by a diffuse set of goals lacking coordination and a consistent
terminology. It is evident that scholars in this field would benefit from developing a cohesive re-
search community and a joint research agenda that integrates these fragmented discussions into a
more coherent and comprehensive discourse on microfoundations and multi-level research on in-
stitutions. We believe that this discourse can be fruitfully bolstered by a dialogue between the two
“camps” of micro-institutionalists and macro-institutionalists; such an exchange would help build
bridges between scholars focusing either on the transformational force of micro-level mechanisms
or the constraining influence of the macro-level context. The gap between micro-oriented or macro-
oriented research is not only stabilized and perpetuated by identity concerns (Eckardt et al., 2019)
but also reflects disciplinary divides and fundamental differences in the ontological and epistemo-
logical assumptions that come with such divides (Molloy, Chadwick, Ployhart, & Golden, 2011).
However, integration and interaction between the two camps is highly needed, as scholars other-
wise forego the opportunity to advance important questions of the microfoundational research
agenda, such as how social interactions aggregate and coalesce into the taken-for-granted commu-
nity beliefs that are characteristic of an institution. Hence, institutional scholars in each camp need
to be cognizant of such divides and differences and would be well advised to develop tolerance and
openness towards the insights generated by the other camp. The result will be a better and more
powerful institutional theory.
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Figure 1: Growing popularity of microfoundations of institutions, 1990-2018
Figure 2: “Bathtub” model