Why do people behave as they do within various social contexts — the workplace, the street, the battlefield, the dinner table? These are fundamental questions for sociologists — even when they are ultimately interested in the workings of supra-individual entities like organizations and structures. And generally speaking, sociology as a research tradition has perhaps not paid enough attention to this level of the social world.
Patricia Thornton, William Ocasio, and Michael Lounsbury describe an important theoretical development within the general framework of new institutionalism in The Institutional Logics Perspective: A New Approach to Culture, Structure and Process. And this body of research promises to shed more light on the ways in which individual social behavior is shaped and propelled. (Here is a summary description of the institutional-logics approach in a chapter in The SAGE Handbook of Organizational Institutionalism; link.)
What I find particularly appealing about this approach are four related things: it provides a deliberate effort to offer a more nuanced theory of the social actor, it recognizes heterogeneity across institutions and settings, it is deliberately cross-level in its approach, and it focuses on a search for the mechanisms that carry out the forms of influence postulated by the approach.
Here is how Thornton and Ocasio describe their goals:
Our aim is not to revive neoinstitutional theory, but to transform it. Recognizing both its strengths, the original insights on how macro structures and culture shape organizations, and its weaknesses–limited capacity to explain agency and the micro foundations of institutions, institutional heterogeneity, and change–the institutional logics perspective provides a new approach that incorporates macro structure, culture, and agency, through cross-level processes (society, institutional field, organization, interactions, and individuals) that explain how institutions both enable and constrain action…. We are excited by the opportunities for contributions from multiple disciplines and by the progress in moving institutional theory forward in multiple directions that conceptualize culture, structure, and process; restoring the sensibilities of the role of actors and structures while revealing multi- and cross-level processes and mechanisms. (vi-vii)
Here is how they define their understanding of “institutional logic”:
… as the socially constructed, historical patterns of cultural symbols and material practices, including assumptions, values, and beliefs, by which individuals and organizations provide meaning to their daily activity, organize time and space, and reproduce their lives and experiences. (2)
The institutional logics perspective is a metatheoretical framework for analyzing the interrelationships among institutions, individuals, and organizations in social systems. It aids researchers in questions of how individual and organizational actors are influenced by their situation in multiple social locations in an interinstitutional system, for example the institutional orders of the family, religion, state, market, professions, and corporations. Conceptualized as a theoretical model, each institutional order of the interinstitutional system distinguishes unique organizing principles, practices, and symbols that influence individual and organizational behavior. Institutional logics represent frames of reference that condition actors’ choices for sensemaking, the vocabulary they use to motivate action, and their sense of self and identity. The principles, practices, and symbols of each institutional order differentially shape how reasoning takes place and how rationality is perceived and experienced. (2)
This is a dense set of ideas about what the metatheory of institutional logics is intended to provide. But the key is perhaps the focus on the shaping of the actor’s frame by the institution. This parallels the idea of “cognitive/emotional frames” that has been discussed in earlier posts (link, link). And this makes it a valuable contribution to the richer theory of the actor that I’ve argued for earlier (link). The idea seems to be that one’s inculcation into a set of religious practices or an occupation produces a distinctive set of attitudes, emotions, beliefs, and processes of reasoning through which individuals perceive and act upon their environment. And these frames are not generic and interchangeable. (The researchers refer to Bourdieu’s notion of practice in this context, which is consistent with the interpretation I’m offering. And they link their ideas to those of Fligstein and McAdam in their development of strategic action fields; link.)
In the SAGE chapter mentioned above (link) Thornton and Ocasio offer five principles that underlie the institutional logics approach (103 ff.):
- Embedded agency — interests, identities, values, and assumptions of individuals and organizations are embedded within prevailing institutional logics
- Society as an inter-institutional system — [draws on Friedland and Alford (link); individuals are located within a diverse range of high-level institutions like family, market, religion, …; ]
- The material and cultural foundations of institutions — each of the institutional orders in society has both material and cultural characteristics
- Institutions at multiple levels — institutional logics may develop at a variety of different levels… This flexibility allows for a wide variety of mechanisms to be emphasized in research and theoretical development
- Historical contingency — [the approach emphasizes the ways in which institutions at every level take shape as a result of historically contingent events and actions]
The institutional-logics approach is intended to serve both as metatheory and as methodology. It suggests avenues of research for sociologists and it poses questions that require empirical answers. Accordingly, Thornton and Ocacio illustrate the linkages postulated by institutional logics between level by specifying a few mechanisms that do the relevant work: for example, the formation of collective identities, competition for status, social classification (a cognitive mechanism), and salience and attention (SAGE, 111-114). These are reasonably concrete cognitive and social mechanisms through which institutions influence behavior.
Research presented by Ernst Fehr at a workshop in Stockholm this summer is very relevant to the institutional-logics approach. Using some of the tools of behavioral economics, Fehr demonstrated that people (bankers, in the case he presented) behave very differently when presented with opportunities for gain through deception depending upon which frame has been made salient for them — the professional frame of the bank or the personal frame of the home life.
Thornton and her collaborators lay open the possibility of this kind of setting-specific behavior in The Institutional Logics Perspective: A New Approach to Culture, Structure and Process:
Individuals and organizations, if only subliminally, are aware of the differences in the cultural norms, symbols, and practices of different institutional orders and incorporate this diversity into their thoughts, beliefs, and decision making. That is, agency, and the knowledge that makes agency possible, will vary by institutional order. (4)
What is important from an institutional logics perspective is that more micro processes of change are built from translations, analogies, combinations, and adaptations of more macro institutional logics. (4)
This approach strikes me as providing a useful toolkit of ideas and proposed mechanisms that serve a very important methodological need: to help sociologists and other social scientists identify the mechanisms that underlie important social processes and events. It is a valuable contribution to both sociological theory and methodology.
(I think that Erving Goffman would have a lot to say about the photo from the bank above: the identical smiles on the faces of the female tellers, the politely queued customers, the business suits and handbags of the people waiting in line, the woman holding her child. Each of these bits of behavior, caught in the 1/60th of a second of the frame, says a lot about the rules and norms that govern behavior in the institution and the setting. One suspects that the customers aren’t flashing the same bright smiles — because there is nothing in their role as customers that requires them to. In fact, the gentleman on the upper right is distinctly not smiling at all. Gender, workplace, commerce, sales — all have inflected the behaviors of the individuals captured in the frame.)