Sub-theme 56: Institutional Theory: Taking Stock and Retooling

Gili S. Drori
Hebrew University, Israel
Renate E. Meyer
WU Vienna, Austria, & Copenhagen Business School, Denmark
Tammar B. Zilber
Hebrew University, Israel

Call for Papers

Since its development in the late 1970s, institutional theory has become a dominant approach for the study of organizations and organizing and took to the title of new institutionalism. Indeed, even though anchored in “old” institutionalism (Selznick, 1949; Clark, 1970), the early provocative claims of new institutionalists (Meyer & Rowan, 1977; Zucker, 1977; DiMaggio & Powell, 1983) regarding embeddeness and relations with the environment as well as the explanatory power of legitimacy and of rationalization have become axioms for many strands in organizational analysis. From this solid base grew a variety of theoretical foci: comparative and global tradition of world society theory (Meyer et al., 1997), diffusion (Strang & Meyer, 1993), translation (Czarniawska & Sevon, 1996), institutional logics (Thornton et al. 2012), and institutional work (Lawrence et al., 2009). These were accompanied by a whole host of concepts to describe institutional processes at the organization and field levels, including loose coupling (Weick, 1976; Bromley & Powell, 2012), attribution of agency to actors (Garud et al., 2007), network analysis (Powell et al., 2005), field configurations (Strang & Sine, 2002) and emergence (Padgett & Powell, 2012).
Given the multiplicity of theoretical and methodological approaches and interests, institutional theory is best described as a very large tent approach more than a specific set of theoretical claims. This canopy extends across the great expanse between streams of agency and social movement to phenomenological definitions of actorhood (Meyer & Jepperson, 2000; Schneiberg & Soule, 2005; for review, Hwang & Colyvas, 2011) or across the expanse between the study of micro-foundations and ethnographies (e.g., Powell & Rerup, 2016; Hallett, 2010; Zilber, 2016), on the one hand, and of meta-organizations and glocal organization, on the other hand (Ahrne & Brunsson, 2011; Drori et al., 2014). It extends across different levels of analysis and across different semiotic modes (Meyer at al., 2013).
What does this multiplicity and diversity of institutionalist approaches mean for future elaboration of institutional theory? What directions are most fruitful for future work in institutional analysis – conceptual, empirical and methodological? The goal of this sub-theme discussion is to propose, consider, assess, and mark such pathways. Although several recent volumes were devoted to “taking stock” of institutional theory (Greenwood et al., 2008), some scholars have been very critical of lost focus and thematic coherence (e.g., Greenwood et al., 2014; Meyer & Höllerer, 2014; Davis, 2015). We aim to further engage in meta-theoretical conversation that would not only identify the potential of specific institutionalist schools but also consider the state of institutional theory as a whole and possibilities for its research programs. We contend that much room remains for further discussions of the possibilities for retooling institutional theory and for identification of particular pathways for future research.
Overall, we intend for discussions to wrestle anew with the epistemology of institutionalization across various social levels, sectors, and regions and locales and to the ontology of institutions in relation to the place that identity and materiality, as both constructs and processes, take in institutions. We therefore welcome papers that offer new methods of institutional analysis, as well as papers that provide fresh insights for classic formulations. We invite colleagues to contribute to this discussion with essays and research that offer a vision of the conceptual, empirical and methodological trajectories of institutional theory.


  • Ahrne, G., & Brunsson, N. (2011): “Organization outside organizations: The significance of partial organization.” Organization, 18 (1), 83–104.
  • Bromley, P., & Meyer, J.W. (2015): Hyper-Organization: Global Organizational Expansion. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Bromley, P., & Powell, W.W. (2012): “From smoke and mirrors to walking the talk: Decoupling in the contemporary world.” The Academy of Management Annals, 6 (1), 483–530.
  • Czarniawska, B., & Sevon, G. (eds.) (1996): Translating Organizational Change. Berlin: de Gruyter.
  • Davis, G.F. (2015): “Celebrating organization theory: The after-party.” Journal of Management Studies, 52 (2), 309–319.
  • DiMaggio, P.J., & Powell, W.W. (eds.) (1991): The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Drori, G.S., Höllerer, M.A., & Walgenbach, P. (2014): “Unpacking the Glocalization of Organization: From Term, to Theory, to Analysis.” European Journal of Cultural and Political Sociology, 1 (1), 85–99.
  • Greenwood, R., Hinings, C.R., & Whetten, D. (2014): “Rethinking institutions and organizations.” Journal of Management Studies, 51 (7), 1206–1220.
  • Greenwood, R., Oliver, C., Sahlin, K., & Suddaby, R. (eds.) (2008): SAGE Handbook of Organizational Institutionalism. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications.
  • Hwang, H., & Colyvas, J.A. (2011): “Problematizing actors and institutions in institutional work. Journal of Management Inquiry, 20 (1), 62–66.
  • Lawrence, T.B., Suddaby, R., & Leca, B. (eds.) (2009): Institutional Work: Actors and Agency in Institutional Studies of Organizations. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Lounsbury, M., & Beckman, C.M. (2015): “Celebrating organization theory.” Journal of Management Studies, 52 (2), 288–308.
  • Meyer, R.E., Höllerer, M.A., Jancsary, D., & van Leeuwen, T. (2013): “The visual dimension in organizing, organization, and organization research: Core ideas, current developments, and avenues.” Academy of Management Annals, 7, 487–553.
  • Meyer, R.E., & Höllerer, M.A. (2014): “Does institutional theory need redirecting?” Journal of Management Studies, 51 (7), 1221–1233.
  • Meyer, J.W., Boli, J., Thomas, G., & Ramirez, F.O. (1997): “World Society and the Nation-State.” American Journal of Sociology, 103, 144–181.
  • Meyer, J.W., & Jepperson, R.L. (2000): “The ‘actors’ of modern society: The cultural construction of social agency.” Sociological Theory, 18 (1), 100–120.
  • Powell, W.W., & Rerup, C. (2016): “Opening the Black Box: The Microfoundations of Institutions.” In: R. Greenwood, C. Oliver, R. Suddaby & K. Sahlin-Andersson (eds.): The SAGE Handbook of Organizational Institutionalism. 2nd edition. London: SAGE Publications, forthcoming.
  • Powell, W.W., White, D.R., Koput, K.W., & Owen‐Smith, J. (2005): “Network dynamics and field evolution: The growth of inter-organizational collaboration in the life sciences.” American Journal of Sociology, 110 (4), 1132–1205.
  • Schneiberg, M., & Soule, S.A. (2005): “Institutionalization as a Contested, Multilevel Process.” In: G.F. Davis, D. McAdam, W.R. Scott & M.N. Zald (eds.): Social Movements and Organization Theory. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 122–160.
  • Strang, D., & Sine, W.D. (2002): “Inter-organizational institutions.” In: J.A.C. Baum (ed.): Companion to Organizations. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 497–519.
  • Thornton, P.H., Ocasio, W., & Lounsbury, M. (2012): The Institutional Logics Perspective: A New Approach to Culture, Structure, and Process. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Zilber, T.B. (2016): “How institutions matter: A bottom-up exploration.” In: J. German, M. Lounsbury & R. Greenwood (eds.): Research in the Sociology of Organizations, forthcoming.
  • Zucker, L.G. (1977): “The role of institutionalization in cultural persistence.” American Sociological Review, 42, 726–743.
Gili S. Drori is Associate Professor of Sociology and the Head of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the Hebrew University, Israel. Her publications speak to her research interests, elaborating on the themes of glocalization, organization and rationalization, empirically studying science and higher education, and recently researching the visuality and spatiality of organizations and institutions.
Renate E. Meyer is a Professor of Organization Studies at WU – Vienna University of Economics and Business, Austria, and Permanent Visiting Professor at the Department of Organization, Copenhagen Business School, Denmark. She works mainly from a phenomenological perspective on institutions and has recently focused on framing and legitimation strategies, visual rhetoric, identities, and new organizational forms.
Tammar B. Zilber is Associate Professor of Organization Theory at Jerusalem School of Business, The Hebrew University, Israel. Her research focuses on the dynamics of meaning and action in institutional processes. She examines the translation of institutions over time, across social spheres and given field multiplicity; the role of discursive acts (like narrating) in constructing institutional realities, and the institutional work involved in creating and maintaining field level collective identity.