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5 - Institutional work as the creative embrace of contradiction

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 September 2009

Thomas B. Lawrence
Simon Fraser University, British Columbia
Roy Suddaby
University of Alberta
Bernard Leca
ESC Rouen
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In 2006, Lawrence and Suddaby introduced the concept of institutional work into the study of institutions and institutional change. They define institutional work as “the purposive action of individuals and organizations aimed at creating, maintaining and disrupting institutions” (2006: 215). Their effort represents an important advance within a series of efforts to systematically incorporate agency into neo-institutional theory (DiMaggio, 1988; Fligstein, 1997; Oliver, 1991). Lawrence and Suddaby point out that neo-institutionalists have given relatively little attention to “the relationship between institutional work and the contradictions that are inherent in organization fields” (2006: 248). In this chapter we address this gap. We do so by presenting a dialectical perspective on institutional change and then examining different approaches to managing institutional contradictions. Our main argument is that an important aspect of institutional work is the ability to use the tension between contradictory elements as a source of innovation. We refer to the work of the noted community organizer Saul Alinsky to illustrate this argument.

Our perspective suggests that the effective institutional actor, whether incumbent or challenger, takes actions to both stabilize and change institutions. Incumbents must not only maintain institutions, but also disrupt disrupters and refine existing arrangements. Similarly, challengers must attempt to preserve parts of existing institutions as well as suggest alternative arrangements. Our perspective further suggests that effective institutional actors recognize the interdependence of incumbents' and challengers' strategies; exploit gaps between espoused values and actual behavior; and undertake mutually reinforcing institutional work practices across levels of organization.

Institutional Work
Actors and Agency in Institutional Studies of Organizations
, pp. 120 - 140
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2009

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