Sub-theme 31: The Agency-ing of Agency: Linking Actors and Institutions

Hans Hasselbladh
Örebro University, Sweden
Jannis Kallinikos
London School of Economics, United Kingdom
Samer Abdelnour
University College London, United Kingdom

Call for Papers

It is a widespread view that agency stems from the freedom or autonomy actors obtain vis-à-vis the institutional contexts in which they are embedded. Agency is thus tied to the capacity of actors to circumnavigate, resist or act in ways that evade the constraints imposed by these contexts and is considered a foundation for renewal, innovation and change in organizations, professions and fields. At the same time, agency is treated as a pre-given ontological constant, an independent or exogenous force that exists sui generis from the contexts in which actors operate. This limits the ability of the concept to explain institutional reproduction and change by glossing over how institutional environments empower or incline actors to act in certain ways while precluding, disengaging or dis-incentivizing others (see, for example, Abdelnour et al., 2017; Emirbayer & Mische, 1998; Hacking, 1999).
What is missing in such a widely-diffused understanding of agency is the agency-ing of agency: the forms, cultural schemes, processes and resources that shape the capacity of actors to act in specific ways (e.g. as financial experts, accountants, university professors, managers) that transcend the biological makeup and psychological predispositions of individuals (Kallinikos et al., 2013; Searle, 1995, 2010). Though recently diluted, the assumption that agency is constructed rather than found has been central in institutional theory. Agency forms are fashioned on the basis of cultural and instrumental experiences, including power relations and ideologies, underlying particular organizations, professions and fields (Meyer & Jepperson, 2000).
The agency-ing of agency is both a social ontology and a fundamental epistemological lens. It is a window to reality that shifts attention from agency as a cause or exogenous force of organizational reproduction and change to the material, cultural and social processes and resources that constitute, direct and intermingle agency forms with the rationalization of organizations (Kallinikos et al., 2013; Townley et al., 2003). Many of these forms coincide with ubiquitous means through which purposeful action is structured and mediated such as procedures, routines and roles, measurement and performance systems, hardwired ways of codifying and instrumentalizing tasks, the making of international standards and protocols, climate and health policy, and indicators to measure, simulate and influence reality. Standardardized measures, in particular, have acquired new momentum over the last couple of decades, perpetuating metrics for ranking and evaluation across societal and policy domains (Espeland & Sauder, 2007; Hasselbladh & Kallinikos, 2000; Miller & Power, 2013).
These developments acquire particular importance in the context of the ongoing and often profound digital transformation of our societies. Daily action patterns and forms of agency are currently interspersed by the power of contemporary technologies. These include the diffusion of algorithms, machine learning, sensors and actuators that increasingly construct complex entanglements of material and social forces that require conceptual analysis and empirical investigation. Such changes often transcend the bounded space of organizations, shaping consumption patterns over the Internet, restructuring media power (Turow, 2011) and impinging upon primary forms of relating and interacting (e.g. social media; cf. Alaimo & Kallinikos, 2017).
Our sub-theme aims to explore the implications of the above for how we understand agency and formal organizing through the following and related questions:

  • What new tasks, routines, action protocols and agency forms do these developments promote?

  • How do employees digitally renegotiate how work and their private sphere are related?

  • Will increasingly transparent and technified work processes alter fundamental notions such ‘accountability’, ‘autonomy’ and ‘collaboration’?

  • Is work socialization becoming oriented to mastering formal skills?

  • How will the ongoing datafication and looming robotization of human services affect the role of what were once understood as uniquely human qualities in working life, such as social responsiveness, empathy and compassion?

  • How do international standards, measures and standardization construct or change agency forms in social and public policy forums?

We invite conceptual and empirical contributions in one or more of the following:

  • Agency, skills and knowledge

  • Accounts of field emergence and change

  • Codification, knowledge and action

  • Performance and role systems

  • Ratings, ranking and actors

  • Machines, algorithms and agency

  • Technological transformation and merging of fields

  • Personalized consumption and the Internet

  • Power and international standards

  • Climate and public policy measures, indicators and simulations



  • Abdelnour, S., Hasselbladh, H., & Kallinikos, J. (2017): “Agency and institutions in organization studies.” Organization Studies, 38 (2), 1775–1792.
  • Alaimo, C., & Kallinikos, J. (2017): “Computing the everyday: Social media as data platforms.” The Information Society, 33 (4), 175–191.
  • Emirbayer, M., & Mische, A. (1998): “What is agency?” American Journal of Sociology, 103 (4), 962–1023.
  • Espeland, W.N., & Sauder, M. (2007): “Rankings and reactivity: How public measures recreate social worlds.” American Journal of Sociology, 113 (1), 1–40.
  • Hacking, I. (1999): The Social Construction of What? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Hasselbladh, H., & Kallinikos, J. (2000): “The project of rationalization: A critique and reappraisal of neo-institutionalism in organization studies.” Organization Studies, 21 (4), 697–720.
  • Kallinikos, J., Hasselbladh, H., & Marton, A. (2013): “Governing social practice: Technology and institutional change.” Theory and Society, 42 (4), 395–421.
  • Meyer, J.W., & Jepperson, R.L. (2000): “The ‘actors’ of modern society: The cultural construction of social agency.” Sociological Theory, 18 (2), 100–120.
  • Miller, P., & Power, M. (2013): “Accounting, organizing, and economizing: Connecting accounting research and organization theory.” Academy of Management Annals, 7 (1), 557–605.
  • Searle, J.R. (1995): The Construction of Social Reality. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • Searle, J. (2010): Making the Social World. The Structure of Human Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Townley, B., Cooper, D.J., & Oakes, L. (2003): “Performance measures and the rationalization of organizations.” Organization Studies, 24 (7), 1045–1071.
  • Turow, J. (2012): The Daily You. How the New Advertising Industry is Defining Your Identity and Your Worth. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Hans Hasselbladh is Professor in Organization Theory, Örebro University, Sweden. His research interests are public sector reforms, professions, autonomy, power and historical perspectives on organizations. Hands has published in, among others, the journals ‘Organization Studies’, ‘Organization’, ‘Public Administration’, ‘Theory & Society’, and ‘Research in Organizational Sociology’, and he has authored several books.
Jannis Kallinikos is Professor in the Department of Management at the London School of Economics and Political Science, UK. His research focuses on the impact of information and communication technologies on organizations and economic institutions. He has published widely in management, information systems and sociology journals and written several monographs, including “The Consequences of Information: Institutional Implications of Technological Change” (Edward Elgar, 2007), and “Governing Through Technology: Information Artefacts and Social Practice” (Palgrave, 2011). Jannis has, together with Paul Leonardi and Bonnie Nardi, co-edited “Materiality and Organizing: Social Interaction in a Technological World” (Oxford University Press, 2012).
Samer Abdelnour is Assistant Professor at the University College London, United Kingdom. He employs organization theory and qualitative methods to study topics such as improved cookstoves and gender violence, and the reintegration of former fighters in the Sudan. Samer has published in ‘Organization Studies’, ‘Organizational Research Methods’, ‘International Political Sociology’, ‘Journal of International Business Studies’, and ‘Journal of Business Research’.