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.