Sub-theme 32: Micro-dynamics of Institutions: Taking Stock and Looking Forward

Eva Boxenbaum
Copenhagen Business School, Denmark
Mélodie Cartel
UNSW Business School, Sydney, Australia
Tammar B. Zilber
The Jerusalem School of Business, The Hebrew University, Israel

Call for Papers

A major trend in institutional theory over the past decade has been to explore and (re-)conceptualize the micro-dynamics at play in wider institutional processes (Powell & Colyvas, 2008; Powell & Rerup, 2017), prompting scholars to look outside the traditional frontiers of the field and engage with other research traditions. Our aim with this sub-theme is to strengthen the quality and coherence of research on the micro-dynamics of institutions by highlighting opportunities of integrating insights from various schools of thought. These include communicative institutionalism, practice driven institutionalism, inhabited institutionalism, institutional entrepreneurship, institutional work, and an emotional and embodied version of institutions:

  • Communicative institutionalism focuses on communication as the means whereby speakers and addresses share, enact and co-produce institutional meaning in everyday encounters (Cornelissen et al., 2015); building on a broad understanding of “communication” as both performative (Cooren et al., 2011; Green, 2004; Green & Li, 2011), and transmissive (Lammers, 2011), and including multiple modes (Cartel et al., 2018b; Jancsary et al., 2018; Meyer et al., 2018).

  • Practice driven institutionalism builds on the research tradition of the sociology of practice (e.g. Bourdieu, 1977; Giddens, 1984; Schatzki, 2001) and focuses on the everyday work of practitioners (Smets et al., 2017; see also Smets et al., 2015; Suddaby et al., 2013). This stream of research views institutions as the dynamic product of situated practices that both enact institutionalized ways of doing and generate new ones (Lounsbury & Crumley, 2007; Smets et al., 2012; Smets & Jarzabkowski, 2013).

  • Inhabited institutionalism, rooted in interactionist sociology (e.g. Becker, 1982; Blumer, 1969; Goffman, 1967), focuses on local interactions among people at work (Hallett & Ventresca, 2006; Hallett, 2010; see also Barley & Tolbert, 1997), viewing institutions as both reproduced and altered in interaction by their inhabitants (Hallett & Ventresca, 2006).

  • Institutional entrepreneurship focuses on how embedded actors generate new institutions by crafting and implementing organizational forms and practices that break with established institutions (Battilana et al., 2009; DiMaggio, 1988; Garud et al., 2007)). This stream of research emphasizes ideation, actors’ social position and field conditions (Battilana, 2006; Greenwood & Suddaby, 2006; Maguire et al., 2004).

  • Institutional work also relates to actors’ agency, yet attempts to offer a more balanced and relational account of agency and structure through attention to collective practices of creating, maintaining, and disrupting institutions (Lawrence & Suddaby, 2006). This stream of research construes institutions as the constantly changing sum of distributed inputs of institutional work (Lawrence et al., 2013; Lawrence et al., 2009).

  • A last stream of research introduces emotions and embodied experience in institutional analysis (Voronov & Vince, 2012; Zietsma & Toubiana, 2018), considering institutions as both constituted by people’s emotions (e.g. Cartel et al., 2018a; Fan & Zietsma, 2017; Wright et al., 2017) and constituting people’s emotions (e.g. de Rond & Lok, 2016; Friedland, 2018; Jarvis, 2017; Voronov & Weber, 2016).

These developments in conceptualizing the micro-dynamics of institutions are stimulating and promising. Altogether, they have built a more nuanced and realistic view on actors, agency and actorhood in institutional analysis. The concept of actor has evolved from an undifferentiated entity – either individual or organizational – responding to the social order in a stylized way to a myriad of unique persons that experience institutions through a range of singular embodied social interactions.
A challenge facing these recent developments, however, is an insufficient articulation with one another. Institutional theory is often criticized for losing its core due to ever-expansion, and the variety of approaches to its micro-dynamics may cause further dispersion and internal contradictions. Thus, we see a unique and timely opportunity to foster a fruitful dialogue among these approaches. While each of them clearly developed within different intellectual traditions, it is worthwhile to explore their differences and similarities in relation to core ontological (e.g. individual vs relational, strategic vs emergent) and epistemological considerations (e.g. internal processes, e.g. thoughts and feelings) versus externally observable features (e.g. verbal and non-verbal communication and behaviours). Discussing how they relate to each other and to the earlier, foundational texts in institutional theory; reflecting on how to empirically capture micro-dynamics and still offer broad-level institutional insights will stimulate a constructive dialogue that will set the basis, so we hope, for an integrated micro-perspective of institutions.
We invite colleagues to contribute to this endeavor with conceptual work, empirical studies, and methodological reflections.


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Eva Boxenbaum is a Professor of Organization and Management Theory at Copenhagen Business School, Denmark. She conducts research on how organizational actors shape the innovation and spread of management practices and organizational forms. Her most recent work focuses on the respective roles of verbal, visual and material modes of communication in institutionalization processes. Eva’s research has been published in journals such as ‘Academy of Management Review’, ‘Academy of Management Annals’, ‘Journal of Management Studies’, ‘Organization Studies’, ‘California Management Review’, and ‘Strategic Organization’.
Mélodie Cartel is a Lecturer at the School of Management, University of New South Wales (UNSW) Business School, Sydney, Australia. Her research focuses on institutional processes of innovation and change. Mélodie’s current research projects focus on the role of (1) experiments and spaces in institutional processes of innovation and change, and (2) visual versus verbal discourse in institutional processes of innovation and change.
Tammar B. Zilber is an Associate Professor of Organization Theory at The Jerusalem School of Business, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 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; the institutional work involved in creating and maintaining field level collective identity, and the work of institutional logics on the ground. Tammar’s work has been published, among others, in ‘The Academy of Management Journal’, ‘Organization Science’, ‘Organization Studies’, and ‘Journal of Management Inquiry’.