Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Get access
    Check if you have access via personal or institutional login
  • Cited by 198
  • Print publication year: 2009
  • Online publication date: September 2009

2 - Institutional work and the paradox of embedded agency



Institutions are social structures that are characterized by a high degree of resilience (Scott, 2001). They have a self-activating nature (Lawrence, Hardy & Phillips, 2002; Jepperson, 1991). Actors tend to reproduce institutions in a given field of activity without requiring either repeated authoritative intervention or collective mobilization (Clemens & Cook, 1999: 445). Early neo-institutional studies emphasized ways that institutions constrained organizational structures and activities, and thereby explained the convergence of organizational practices within institutional environments. They proposed that actors' need to be regarded as legitimate in their institutional environment determined their behavior. This work implicitly assumed that individuals and organizations tend to comply, at least in appearance, with institutional pressures. In fact, actors were often implicitly assumed to have a limited degree of agency.

Such a conception of agency was problematic when institutional theorists started tackling the issue of institutional change. While early neo-institutional studies accounted for organizational isomorphism and for the reproduction of institutionalized practices, they did not account well for the possibility of change. Even though institutions are characterized by their self-activating nature, we know that they do change (e.g. Fligstein, 1991). Since the late 1980s, institutional theorists have started addressing the issue of institutional change. They have highlighted the role that organizations and/or individuals play in institutional change.

Studies that account for the role of organizations and/or individuals in institutional change, however, face a paradox.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO
Abbott, A. (1988) The System of Professions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Archer, M. (1982) Morphogenesis versus structuration: on combining structure and action. The British Journal of Sociology, 33(4): 455–483.
Argyris, C. (1973) The CEOs' behavior – key to organizational development. Harvard Business Review, 51(2): 55.
Aron, R. (1967) Les étapes de la pensée sociologique. Paris: Gallimard.
Astley, W. G. & Ven, A. H. (1983) Central perspectives and debates in organization theory. Administrative Science Quarterly, 28: 245–273.
Barley, S. R. & Tolbert, P. S. (1997) Institutionalization and structuration: studying the links between action and institution. Organization Studies, 18(1): 93–117.
Battilana, J. (2006) Agency and institutions: the enabling role of individuals' social position. Organization, 13(5): 653–676.
Beckert, J. (1999) Agency, entrepreneurs, and institutional change: the role of strategic choice and institutionalized practices in organizations. Organization Studies, 20: 777–799.
Berger, P. & Luckmann, T. (1967) The Social Construction of Reality. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Bourdieu, P. (1977) Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bourdieu, P., (1984) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Bourdieu, P. & Wacquant, L. J. D. (1992) An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Boyer, R. (2003) L'anthropologie économique de Pierre Bourdieu. Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales, 150: 65–78.
Burrell, G. & Morgan, G. (1979) Sociological Paradigms and Organizational Analysis. London: Heinemann.
Calhoun, C. (ed.) (2002) Dictionary of the Social Sciences. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Callinicos, A. (1985) A. Giddens: a contemporary critique. Theory & Society, 14: 133–166.
Clegg, S. (1989) Frameworks of Power. London: Sage.
Clemens, E. S. & Cook, J. M. (1999) Politics and institutionalism: explaining durability and change. Annual Review of Sociology, 25: 441–466.
Colomy, P. (1998) Neo-functionalism and neo-institutionalism: human agency and interest in institutional change. Sociological Forum, 13(2): 265–300.
Crozier, M. & Friedberg, E. (1980) Actors and Systems: The Politics of Collective Action. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Dacin, M. T., Ventresca, M. & Beal, B. (1999) The embeddedness of organizations: debates, dialogue and directions. Journal of Management, 25(3): 317–356.
D'Aunno, T., Succi, M. & Alexander, J. (2000) The role of institutional and market forces in divergent organizational change. Administrative Science Quarterly, 45: 679–703.
Davis, G. F. & Marquis, C. (2005) Prospects for organization theory in the early twenty-first century: institutional fields and mechanisms. Organization Science, 16(4): 332–343.
Dawe, A. (1970) The two sociologies. The British Journal of Sociology, 21(2): 207–218.
DiMaggio, P. (1979) Review essay: on Pierre Bourdieu. American Journal of Sociology, 84: 1460–1474.
DiMaggio, P. (1988) Interest and agency in institutional theory. In Zucker, L. (ed.), Institutional Patterns and Organizations, pp. 3–22. Cambridge, MA: Ballinger.
DiMaggio, P. & Powell, W. (1983) The iron cage revisited: institutional isomorphism and collective rationality in organizational fields. American Sociological Review, 48: 147–160.
DiMaggio, P. & Powell, W. (1991) Introduction. In Powell, W. & DiMaggio, P. (eds.), The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis, pp. 1–38. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Dorado, S. (2005) Institutional entrepreneurship, partaking, and convening. Organization Studies, 26(3): 383–413.
Eisenstadt, S. N. (1964) Institutionalization and change. American Sociological Review, 29(2): 235–247.
Eisenstadt, S. N. (1980) Cultural orientations, institutional entrepreneurs, and social change: comparative analysis of traditional civilizations. American Journal of Sociology, 85(4): 840–869.
Emirbayer, M. (1997) Manifesto for a relational sociology. American Journal of Sociology, 103: 281–317.
Emirbayer, M. & Johnson, V. S. (2008) Bourdieu and organizational analysis. Theory and Society, 37(1): 1–44.
Emirbayer, M. & Mische, A. (1998) What is agency? American Journal of Sociology, 103(4): 962–1023.
Fligstein, N. (1991) The structural transformation of American industry: an institutional account of the causes of diversification in the largest firms, 1919–1979. In Powell, W. & DiMaggio, P. (eds.), The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis, pp. 311–336. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Fligstein, N. (1997) Social skill and institutional theory. American Behavioral Scientist, 40(4): 397.
Fligstein, N. (2001) Social skills and the theory of fields. Sociological Theory, 19(2): 105–125.
Fligstein, N. & Mara-Drita, I. (1996) How to make a market: reflections on the attempt to create a single market in the European Union. American Journal of Sociology, 102(1): 1–33.
Fowler, B. (1997) Pierre Bourdieu and Cultural Theory: Critical Investigations. London: Sage.
Friedland, R. & Alford, R. R. (1991) Bringing society back in: symbols, practice, and institutional contradictions. In Powell, W. & DiMaggio, P. (eds.), The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis, pp. 232–263. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Garud, R., Jain, S. & Kumaraswamy, A. (2002) Institutional entrepreneurship in the sponsorship of common technological standards: the case of Sun Microsystems and Java. Academy of Management Journal, 45(1): 196–214.
Giddens, A. (1976) New Rules for Sociological Method. New York: Basic.
Giddens, A. (1979) Central Problems in Social Theory. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Giddens, A. (1984) The Constitution of Society. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Granovetter, M. (1985) Economic action and social structure: the problem of embeddedness. American Journal of Sociology, 91(3): 481–510.
Greenwood, R. & Hinings, C. R. (1996) Understanding radical organizational change: bringing together the old and the new institutionalism. Academy of Management Review, 21(4): 1022.
Greenwood, R. & Suddaby, R. (2006) Institutional entrepreneurship by elite firms in mature fields: the big five accounting firms. Academy of Management Journal, 49(1): 27–48.
Greenwood, R., Suddaby, R. & Hinings, C. R. (2002) Theorizing change: the role of professional associations in the transformation of institutionalized fields. Academy of Management Journal, 45(1): 58–80.
Hannan, M. T. & Freeman, J. (1977) The population ecology of organizations. American Journal of Sociology, 82: 929–964.
Haveman, H. A. & Rao, H. (1997) Structuring a theory of moral sentiments: institutional and organizational coevolution in the early thrift industry. American Journal of Sociology, 102(6): 1606–1651.
Hensmans, M. (2003) Social movement organizations: a metaphor for strategic actors in institutional fields. Organization Studies, 24(3): 355–381.
Hirsch, P. M. & Lounsbury, M. (1997) Putting the organization back into organization theory. Journal of Management Inquiry, 6(1): 79.
Holm, P. (1995) The dynamics of institutionalization: transformation processes in Norwegian fisheries. Administrative Science Quarterly, 40: 398–422.
Jepperson, R. (1991) Institutions, institutional effects, and institutionalism. In Powell, W. & DiMaggio, P. (eds.), The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis, pp. 143–163. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Karnoe, P. (1997) Only in social action. American Behavioral Scientist, 40: 419–430.
Kondra, A. Z. & Hinings, C. R. (1998) Organizational diversity and change in institutional theory. Organization Studies, 19(5): 743–767.
Kraatz, M. S. & Zajac, E. J. (1996) Exploring the limits of the new institutionalism: the causes and consequences of illegitimate organizational change. American Sociological Review, 61: 812–836.
Lawrence, P. R. & Lorsch, J. W. (1967) Differentiation and integration in complex organizations. Administrative Science Quarterly, 12(1): 1–47.
Lawrence, T. B. (1999) Institutional strategy. Journal of Management, 25: 161–187.
Lawrence, T. B., Hardy, C. & Phillips, N. (2002) Institutional effects of inter-organizational collaboration: the emergence of proto-institutions. Academy of Management Journal, 45(1): 281–290.
Lawrence, T. B. & Suddaby, R. (2006) Institutions and institutional work. In Clegg, S. R., Hardy, C., Lawrence, T. B. & Nord, W. R. (eds.), Handbook of Organization Studies, pp. 215–254. London: Sage.
Leblebici, H., Salancik, G., Copay, A. & King, T. (1991) Institutional change and the transformation of interorganizational fields: an organizational history of the US radio broadcasting industry. Administrative Science Quarterly, 36(3): 333–363.
Leca, B., Battilana, J. & Boxenbaum, E. (2008) Agency and institutions: a review of institutional entrepreneurship. Harvard Business School Working Paper 08-096. Cambridge, MA.
Levy, D. L. & Egan, D. (2003) A neo-Gramscian approach to corporate political strategy: conflict and accommodation in the climate change negotiations. Journal of Management Studies, 40(4): 803–829.
Lounsbury, M. (2007) A tale of two cities: competing logics and practice variation in the professionalizing of mutual funds. Academy of Management Journal, 50(2): 289–307.
Lounsbury, M. & Ventresca, M. (2003) The new structuralism in organizational theory. Organization, 10(3): 457–480.
Maguire, S., Hardy, C. & Lawrence, T. B. (2004) Institutional entrepreneurship in emerging fields: HIV/AIDS treatment advocacy in Canada. Academy of Management Journal, 47(5): 657–679.
Meyer, J. & Rowan, B. (1977) Institutionalized organizations: formal structure as myth and ceremony. American Journal of Sociology, 83: 340–363.
Meyer, J. & Scott, W. (1983) Centralization and the legitimacy problems of local government. In Meyer, J. & Scott, W. (eds.), Organizational Environments: Ritual and Rationality, pp. 199–251. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
Meyer, J., Scott, W. & Deal, T. E. (1983) Institutional and technical sources of organizational structure: explaining the structure of educational organizations. In Meyer, J. & Scott, W. (eds.), Organizational Environments: Ritual and Rationality, pp. 45–67. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
Mutch, A. (2003) Communities of practice and habitus: a critique. Organization Studies. 24(3): 383–401.
Oakes, L., Townley, B. & Cooper, D. (1998) Business planning as pedagogy: language and control in a changing institutional field. Administrative Science Quarterly, 43(2): 257–292.
Ocasio, W. (2002) Organizational power and dependence. In Baum, J. A. C. (ed.), Companion to Organizations, pp. 363–385. Oxford: Blackwell.
Oliver, C. (1991) Strategic responses to institutional processes. Academy of Management Review, 16: 145–179.
Oliver, C. (1992) The antecedents of deinstitutionalization. Organization Studies, 13(4): 563–588.
Palmer, D. & Biggart, N. W. (2002) Organizational institutions. In Baum, J. A. C. (ed.), Companion to Organization, pp. 259–280. Oxford: Blackwell.
Pfeffer, J. (1997) New Directions for Organization Theory: Problems and Prospects. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Phillips, N., Lawrence, T. & Hardy, C. (2000) Inter-organizational collaboration and the dynamics of institutional fields. Journal of Management Studies, 37(1): 23–45.
Ranson, S., Hinings, B. & Greenwood, R. (1980) The structuring of organizational structures. Administrative Science Quarterly, 25(1): 1–17.
Rao, H., Morrill, C. & Zald, N. (2000) Power plays: how social movements and collective action create new organizational forms. Research in Organizational Behavior, 22: 239–282.
Reay, T., Golden-Biddle, K. & Germann, K. (2006) Legitimizing a new role: small wins and microprocesses of change. Academy of Management Journal, 49(5): 977–998.
Rousseau, D. M. (1978) Characteristics of departments, positions, and individuals: contexts for attitudes and behaviour. Administrative Science Quarterly, 23: 521–540.
Schmidt, M. (1997) Habitus revisited. American Behavioral Scientist, 40(4): 444–453.
Schneiberg, M. & Clemens, E. (2006) The typical tools for the job: research strategies in institutional analysis. Sociological Theory, 3: 195–227.
Schneiberg, M. & Soule, S. (2005) Institutionalization as a contested, multi-level process: politics, social movements and rate regulation in American fire insurance. In Davis, G., McAdam, D., Scott, W. R. & Zald, M. (eds.), Social Movements and Organizations, pp. 122–160. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Scott, W. R. (1996) The mandate is still being honored: in defense of Weber's disciples. Administrative Science Quarterly, 41(1): 163–171.
Scott, W. R. (2001) Institutions and Organizations, 2nd edn. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Selznick, P. (1949) TVA and the Grass Roots. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Selznick, P. (1956) Leadership in Administration: A Sociological Interpretation. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Seo, M. G. & Creed, W. E. D. (2002) Institutional contradictions, praxis, and institutional change: a dialectical perspective. Academy of Management Review, 27(2): 222–247.
Sewell, W. H. (1992) A theory of structure: duality, agency, and transformation. American Journal of Sociology, 98(1): 1–29.
Simon, H. A. (1997) Administrative behaviour: a study of decision-making processes. Administrative Organization, 4th edn. New York: Free Press.
Starr, P. (1982) The Social Transformation of American Medicine. New York: Basic Books.
Stern, R. N. & Barley, S. R. (1996) Organizations and social systems: organization theory's neglected mandate. Administrative Science Quarterly, 41: 146–162.
Strang, D. & Sine, W. D. (2002) Inter-organizational institutions. In Baum, J. (ed.), Companion to Organizations, pp. 497–519. Oxford: Blackwell.
Suddaby, R. & Greenwood, R. (2005) Rhetorical strategies of legitimacy. Administrative Science Quarterly, 50(1): 35–67.
Thoenig, J. C. (1998) Essai: how far is a sociology of organizations still needed? Organization Studies, 19(2): 307–320.
Thompson, J. D. (1967) Organizations in Action: Social Science Bases of Administrative Theory. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Tolbert, P. S. (1985) Resource dependence and institutional environments: sources of administrative structure in institutions of higher education. Administrative Science Quarterly, 20: 229–249.
Tolbert, P. S. & Zucker, L. G. (1983) Institutional sources of change in the formal structure of organizations: the diffusion of civil service reform 1880–1935. Administrative Science Quarterly, 28(1): 22–39.
Tolbert, P. S. & Zucker, L. G. (1996) The institutionalization of institutional theory. In Clegg, S. R., Hardy, C. & Nord, W. R. (eds.), Handbook of Organization Studies, pp. 175–190. London: Sage.
Wade-Benzoni, K. A., Hoffman, A. J., Thompson, L. L., Moore, D. A., Gillespie, J. J. & Bazerman, M. H. (2002) Barriers to resolution in ideologically based negotiations: the role of values and institutions. Academy of Management Review, 27(1): 41–58.
Whittington, R. (1992) Putting Giddens into action: social systems and managerial agency. Journal of Management Studies, 29(6): 693–712.
Woodward, J. (1958) Management and Technology. London: HMSO.
Zilber, T. B. (2002) Institutionalization as an interplay between actions, meanings, and actors: the case of a rape crisis center in Israel. Academy of Management Journal, 45(1): 234–254.
Zucker, L. (1983) Organizations as institutions. In Bacharach, S. B. (ed.), Research in the Sociology of Organizations, 2: 1–47. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.
Zucker, L. (1991) Postscript: microfoundations of institutional thought. In Powell, W. & DiMaggio, P. (eds.), The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis, pp. 103–106. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.