Sub-theme 45: Pluralism and Patterns in Institutional Trajectories

Robert J. David
McGill University, Canada
Pamela Tolbert
Cornell University, USA
Paul Tracey
Judge Business School, University of Cambridge, UK

Call for Papers

The idea that organizational innovations – new behaviours, practices, or structures – have distinct institutional trajectories is implicit in much institutional research. Explicit theorization of and empirical work on such trajectories is surprisingly limited, however (Lawrence et al., 2001). One example is provided by Berger and Luckmann (1966), who posit a trajectory that goes from initiation to habituation to objectification, ultimately resulting in new behaviours becoming taken-for-granted. A second example is the rational-to-ceremonial shift theorized by Tolbert and Zucker (1983). Here, innovations first take hold for rational, or technical reasons, but eventually become widespread for ceremonial ones.

While each of these provides a useful point of departure, a number of studies suggest that trajectories of continually increasing institutionalization characterize only a fraction of innovations (Abrahamson, 1996; David & Strang, 2006; Zucker, 1988). We believe that a variety of patterns remain to be documented and theorized, and that this is an important project for the development of institutional theory. Our aim in this sub-theme, therefore, is to assemble work that will allow us to explore more fully both the pluralism and the patterns in institutional trajectories.


The following points illustrate some of the issues that papers in this session may address:

  • Temporal scales in institutional trajectories. Institutional studies lack explicit consideration of time. Some institutionalization processes appear to unfold over several decades, while others follow a much faster process. Why is it that some institutional trajectories take many years to unfold while others evolve more quickly?
  • Key drivers of institutional trajectories. Institutions are supported in varying degrees by regulative, normative, and cognitive forces (Scott, 1995). Are there patterns in the alignment of institutional forces, and do these patterns affect trajectories? For example, if an innovation originating in regulative sources fails to gain normative support, is a declining trajectory inevitable? What are the possible trajectories of innovations that embody a contested logic or multiple, conflicting logics?
  • Bumpy, declining, or reversal trajectories. Most innovations never become highly institutionalized, yet there has been limited theorizing on the conditions that lead to declines or stalls in innovation adoption. What do we know about trajectories that do not lead to high levels of institutionalization? Related, under what conditions will innovations that have stalled or declined be subject to resuscitation, or phoenix-like revival?
  • Imitation, translation and editing in institutional trajectories. The concepts that underpin the Scandinavian tradition of institutional theory – imitation, translation and editing – resonate with the notion of institutional trajectories, and have the potential to offer an alternative perspective on organizational innovation to the North American tradition. How does a focus on these concepts illuminate our understanding of institutional trajectories?
  • Relations among trajectories. Although much research examines the spread of a single innovation, general observation suggests that innovations are often "bundled", with similar innovations spreading around the same time. Are there legitimizing influences of institutionalized innovations on subsequent innovations? The relationship among trajectories remains an intriguing avenue for exploration.

These are just a sample of the possible topics that would fit into this sub-theme, and we welcome papers addressing other, related topics as well.



Abrahamson, Eric (1996): 'Management fashion.' Academy of Management Review, 21, 254–285.
Berger, Peter & Thomas Luckmann (1966): The Social Construction of Reality. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.
David, Robert J. & David Strang (2006): 'When fashion is fleeting: transitory collective beliefs and the dynamics of TQM consulting.' Academy of Management Journal, 49, 215–233.
Lawrence, Thomas B., Monika I. Winn & P. Devereaux Jennings (2001): 'The temporal dynamics of institutionalization.' Academy of Management Review, 26, 624–644.
Scott, W. Richard (1995): Institutions and Organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Tolbert, Pamela S. & Lynne G. Zucker (1983): 'Institutional sources of change in the formal structure of organizations: the diffusion of civil service reform, 1880–1935.' Administrative Science Quarterly, 28, 22–39.
Zucker, Lynne (1988): 'Where do institutional patterns come from?' In: Lynne Zucker (ed.): Institutional Patterns and Organizations. Cambridge, MA: Ballinger, 21–43.


Robert J. David is Associate Professor of Strategy & Organization and Cleghorn Faculty Scholar at the Desautels Faculty of Management, McGill University. He is also Director of the Centre for Strategy Studies in Organization at McGill. He received a PhD from Cornell University. He studies the evolution of management practices, organizational forms, and industries from an institutional perspective.
Pamela Tolbert is the Lois S. Gray Professor of Industrial Relations and Social Sciences at Cornell University, and the chair of the Department of Organizational Behavior in ILR. She has published widely on the topic of institutional theory. Her substantive areas of research interest include organizations and social inequality, professions, and entrepreneurship.
Paul Tracey is Reader of Human Resources and Organizations at Judge Business School, University of Cambridge. He received his PhD from the University of Stirling. His main research interests are institutional change, regional innovation and social entrepreneurship.