Sub-theme 59: Actor-centered Institutionalism: Comparing Actors, Contexts, Interactions and Change

Ruth V. Aguilera
Northeastern University, USA
Mike Geppert
Friedrich-Schiller-University Jena, Germany
Gregory Jackson
Freie Universität Berlin, Germany

Call for Papers

Neo-institutionalism has become a ‘big church’ in contemporary organization studies, showing how and why organizations become more similar over time, also within and across organizational fields. Scholars have pointed to the crucial role of institutional isomorphism (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983), and of gaining legitimacy (Suchman, 1995) – beyond economic and technical environmental pressures – when organizations adopt certain social practices and/or transfer knowledge (Kostova, 1999) across societal, social and professional borders.
Neo-institutional perspectives in organization studies have also been criticised for not paying sufficient attention to the role of actors and social agency (Clegg, 2010). Several recent theoretical approaches respond to this critique, including research on institutional logics (Thornton et al., 2012), institutional entrepreneurship (Garud et al., 2007) and institutional work (Zietsma and Lawrence, 2010). These approaches attempt to bring back social agency and focus on institutional change. However, critics see even these new institutionalist studies as reluctantly and still insufficiently reoriented toward the role of power and conflict (Hirsch & Lounsbury, 2015), being linked to ‘positive conservatism’ around classical questions like organizational power and politics, conflicts between management and labour, and class (Munir, 2015, Greenwood et al., 2014).
This sub-theme seeks to explore actor-centred institutionalism as a theoretical alternative. This research approach has a long tradition – conceptually and empirically – in the cross-national comparative analysis of institutional diversity across national borders. This perspective focuses on the mutually constitutive and interactive relations between societal actors and their institutional contexts. For example, pioneering work on the ‘societal-effect’ examined the non-identical nature of managers and workers across countries, thereby explaining divergent responses to similar pressures (Sorge, 1991).
A poignant theoretical statement on actor-centred institutionalism came from the comparative analysis of governance processes across different societal sectors (Mayntz & Scharpf 1995; Scharpf, 1997). Against more deterministic and structural perspectives, institutions are seen as a ‘context for action’ within which ‘constellations of actors’ may interact with one another. First, institutions shape the identities and interests of collective actors, such as business firms or professions, who are themselves often constituted through institutional rules, such as the legal frameworks governing corporate governance (Aguilera & Jackson, 2003) or the systems of professional certification such as doctors or lawyers. Second, institutions are arenas for interaction that shape how actors further define their strategic interests, develop both normative orientations toward one another, and engage in politics (see also Fligstein & McAdam, 2012). Actor-centred institutionalism stresses that institutions themselves never fully determine actors’ identities, their perceptions, goals and orientations, or ultimately their actions. Actors retain scope for choice within constraints or even alter those constraints by strategic, interpretative and self-reflective acts.
Institutional analysis therefore offers an essential but inherently incomplete explanation of particular outcomes (Scharpf, 1997). Institutional rules, values or ‘logics’, and the taken-for-granted categories are by nature general and transposable enough to be applied across different situational contingencies, thereby creating ‘gaps’ for adaptation and strategic manoeuvring in the situation (Streeck & Thelen, 2005). Organizations may therefore seek to avoid or deviate from institutional rules (Oliver, 1991; Aguilera et al., 2018). Equally, institutions must be specific enough to be mobilized as a power resource by actors seeking to sanction deviant action (see also Mohr & White 2009), such as state actors enforcing legal rules or when investors divest from firms not conforming to a taken-for-granted form. Methodologically, institutional analysis is best seen a tool for theorizing about particular kinds of organizations in their historical and social context, rather than a universal and parsimonious theory of organization.
Actor-centred institutionalism places these kinds of contextualized interactions and processes at the heart of the matter. For example, Aguilera and Jackson (2003) compare how three types of corporate governance coalitions at the firm level are influenced by macro-level institutional factors in interaction with different interest groups. Likewise, Geppert et al. (2003) demonstrates the different situational rationalities of similar actors across the contexts of MNE subsidiaries.
Generally, we welcome papers using actor-centred frameworks drawn from traditions such as comparative institutional analysis, organizational institutionalism, behavioural theory of the firm, social movement theory, micro-politics, and critical management studies, and approaches which building bridges between to neo-institutional theories. We particularly encourage submissions addressing:

  • Non-identical actors: To what extent do actors have different identities and interests either within organizational fields (e.g., public vs private pension funds) or between them (e.g. pension funds across different countries)?

  • Organizational politics: How are organizations structured by the institutional rights and responsibilities of different sets of collective actors? How do these shape conflicts and coalitions involved in the governance of the organization? How do managers, employees, investors interpret and strategically mobilize the institutional rules, values or ‘logics’ embodied in institutions? How actors chose to what logics adhere to?

  • Comparing institutions: How can similarities and differences in institutions across countries influence the interactions among organizational actors? How can comparative analysis build new middle-range theories of institutions and institutional change for specific fields? How institutions and organizational actors co-evolve?

  • Conflict and macro-level institutional change: How are institutions created and transformed through temporary historical compromises between conflicting groups? How do dominant groups utilize institutions to entrench or challenge the power or inequality in organizations?

Empirically, the sub-theme encourages submissions that address the following:

  • Corporate governance: How do the institutionalized rights and responsibilities of stakeholders in different countries influence corporate strategic decision making? When and why heterogeneous or new emerging types of owners engage in arbitrage or bonding with its institutional environment?

  • CSR: How do different actors respond strategically to the diffusion of new management practices, such as those related to CSR, sustainability, digitalization and innovation?

  • MNEs: How is the implementation of ‘global standards’ in different MNEs shaped by the different actors’ constellations and political strategies of key actors and groups of actors in host country contexts?

  • Employment relations: How do changes in work-related technology, markets or values challenge existing institutionalized patterns of employment relations and thereby elicit conflicts around institutionalized rights in the workplace?



  • Aguilera, R.V., & Jackson, G. (2003): “The Cross-National Diversity of Corporate Governance: Dimensions and Determinants.” Academy of Management Review, 28 (3), 447–465.
  • Aguilera, R.A., Judge, W.Q., & Terjesen, S.A. (2018): “Corporate Governance Deviance.” Academy of Management Review, 43 (1), 87–109.
  • Clegg, S. (2010): “The state, power, and agency: missing in action in institutional theory?” Journal of Management Inquiry, 19 (1), 4–13.
  • DiMaggio, P.J., & Powell, W.W. (1983): “The iron cage revisited – Institutional isomorphism and collective rationality in organizational field.” American Sociological Review, 48, 147–60.
  • Fligstein, N., & McAdam, D. (2012): A Theory of Fields. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Garud, R., Hardy, C., & Maguire, S. (2007): “Institutional Entrepreneurship as Embedded Agency: An Introduction to the Special Issue.” Organization Studies, 28 (7), 957–969.
  • Geppert, M., Williams, K., Matten, D. (2003): “The Social Construction of Contextual Rationalities in MNCs: An Anglo-German Comparison of Subsidiary Choice.” Journal of Management Studies, 40 (3), 617–641.
  • Greenwood, R., Hinings, C.R., & Whetten, D. (2014): “Rethinking institutions and organizations.” Journal of Management Studies, 51 (7), 1206–1219.
  • Hirsch, P., & Lounsbury, M. (2015): “Toward a more critical and ‘powerful’ institutionalism.” Journal of Management Inquiry, 24 (1), 26–29.
  • Kostova, T. (1999): “Transnational transfer of strategic organizational practices: A contextual perspective.” Academy of Management Review, 24, 308–324.
  • Mayntz, R., & Scharpf, F.W. (1995): “Der Ansatz des akteurzentrierten Institutionalismus.” In: R. Mayntz & F.W. Scharpf (eds.): Gesellschaftliche Selbstregelung und politische Steuerung. Frankfurt/Main: Campus, 39–72.
  • Mohr, J.W., & White, H.C. (2009): “How to model an institution.” Theory and Society, 37 (5), 485–512.
  • Munir, K.A. (2015): “A loss of power in institutional theory.” Journal of Management Inquiry, 24 (1), 90–92.
  • Oliver, C. (1991): “Strategic Responses to Institutional Processes.” Academy of Management Review, 16, 145–179.
  • Scharpf, F.W. (1997): Games Real Actors Play. Actor-Centered Institutionalism in Policy Research. Boulder: Westview Press.
  • Sorge, A. (1991): “Strategic Fit and the Societal Effect: Interpreting Cross-National Comparisons of Technology, Organization and Human Resources.” Organization Studies, 12 (2), 161–190.
  • Streeck, W., & Thelen, K. (eds.) (2005): Beyond Continuity. Explorations in the Dynamics of Advanced Political Economies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Suchman, M.C. (1995): “Managing legitimacy: Strategic and institutional approaches.” Academy of Management Review, 20, 571–610.
  • Thornton, P.H., Ocasio, W., & Lounsbury, M. (2012): The Institutional Logics Perspective. A New Approach to Culture, Structure, and Process. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Zietsma, C., Lawrence, T.B. (2010): “Institutional work in the transformation of an organizational field: The interplay of boundary work and practice work.” Administrative Science Quarterly, 55 (2), 189–221.

Ruth V. Aguilera is a Full Professor at the D’Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern University, USA, and a Visiting Professor at ESADE Business School, Spain. Her research interests lie at the intersection of strategic organization and global strategy, specializing in international and comparative corporate governance, corporate social responsibility, and internationalization. She is a Senior Editor at Organization Science, an Associate Editor at ‘Corporate Governance: An International Review’, and a Consulting Editor at the ‘Journal of International Business Studies’. Ruth serves on the Board of the Strategic Management Society and the International Corporate Governance Society and is a Fellow of the Academy of International Business.
Mike Geppert is a Professor of Strategy and International Management at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany. He has published widely in leading international journals in the fields of industrial relations, international business and management, organization and management theory and the sociology of work. His current research includes organizational sensemaking, socio-political issues in multinational firms, and work and employment relations in international retailing and the airline industry. Mike recently co-edited the Special Issue on the “Politicization and political contests in contemporary corporations” for ‘Human Relations’. Currently, he is book review editor of the ‘Journal of International Management’.
Gregory Jackson is a Professor of Management at the Freie Universität Berlin, Germany, and International Research Fellow of the Center for Corporate Reputation at Oxford University, UK. His research examines how corporate governance and CSR practices are influenced by diverse organizational and institutional contexts from an actor-centred and cross-nationally comparative perspective. His current projects focus on how corporate governance influences inequality by influencing processes of exploitation and social closure within the corporation. Currently, Gregory is an Editor of ‘British Journal of Industrial Relations’ and serves as Chief Editor of ‘Socio-Economic Review’ since 2012.