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Network Perspectives

In this section, we introduce three perspectives on microfoundational research in institutional theory. These perspectives form the basis for systematic inquiry within the context of our network.

Please note:
The website of this project is now located at: https://www.uni-bremen.de/en/mo/research/microfoundations-of-institutions/network-perspectives/

Three Perspectives on Microfoundational Research concerning Institutions

The notion of microfoundations has attracted growing interest in new institutional theory (NIT) (see, e.g., DiMaggio & Powell, 1991; Gehman et al. 2017; Powell & Colyvas, 2008; Powell & Rerup, 2017). The popularity of the microfoundations concept and its application to many theoretical and empirical contexts has layered the notion of microfoundations with different meanings and allowed it to be used in a variety of perspectives. Specifically, we suggest that the microfoundational research agenda in NIT has been informed by various research traditions and evolved in three distinct and only loosely connected ways. First, some scholars have emphasized a cognitive perspective that explored how institutional change and institutional maintenance are influenced by shared thought structures (labeled as frames, categories, schemas, etc., see Cornelissen, Durand, Fiss, Lammers, & Vaara, 2015). Second, scholars have advocated a behavioral perspective, and explored how the institutional context is structured and restructured by daily activities and routines (e.g., Barley & Tolbert, 1997). A third camp of scholars has promoted a communicative perspective by highlighting the role of various types of communication (labeled as discourse, narratives, rhetoric, etc., see Sandhu, forthcoming) in developing a joint understanding of appropriate behavior (e.g., Haack, Schoeneborn, & Wickert, 2012).

The purpose of our proposed network is twofold: First, we seek to map the evolution of the three perspectives on the microfoundations of institutions. This will allow us to classify the three perspectives on the basis of both their intellectual origins and recent trends in them (see Suddaby, 2010). Second, the network will investigate proximity in the ontological and epistemological assumptions of the perspectives. This enables us to scrutinize whether and how the perspectives can be integrated into a comprehensive microfoundations framework. Overall, we intend to explore the possibility of building theory “by combining lenses” (Okhuysen & Bonardi, 2011). That is, we will critically examine whether the assumptions of the three perspectives are sufficiently similar to justify theoretical integration and form a coherent and “commensurable” microfoundational explanation of institutions (see Scherer & Steinmann, 1999). These two goals are based on the premise that mapping the development of different microfoundational research traditions and exploring the potential of their theoretical integration can deepen our understanding of the antecedents, consequences, and underlying processes of contemporary institutional phenomena.

Cognitive Perspective to Microfoundational Research on Institutions

The cognitive perspective is mainly based on the early work of Berger and Luckman (1967) and Zucker (1977) and more recent developments by scholars such as Thornton, Ocasio, and Lounsbury (2012) that characterized institutions as “cognitive structures” (Phillips & Malhotra, 2008, p. 702) or “taken-for-granted facts” (Barley & Tolbert, 1997, p. 94). By ‘cognition,’ we refer to individual and collective thought structures or mental representations such as frames, categories, schemas, and scripts that prescribe the legitimate ways of acting socially in particular contexts (Cornelissen et al., 2015; Sieweke, 2014; Thornton et al., 2012). This perspective applies a broad understanding of cognition and thus also covers the emotional underpinnings of institutions (Voronov, 2014; Voronov & Vince, 2012).

Cognitive approaches have been criticized for being too atomistic and for their intellectual proximity to methodological individualism (Jepperson & Meyer, 2011). Furthermore, scholars have lamented that the cognitive perspective would reduce “social reality to individual and collective cognitive categories” (Cornelissen et al., 2015: 11). One goal of the network is to analyze past and current research within the cognitive perspective and to discuss the recent critique to elaborate the implications of developing a microfoundational research program on institutions.

Behavioral Perspective to Microfoundational Research on Institutions

The behavioral perspective on microfoundational research concerning institutions attends to how practices, i.e., clusters of recurrent human activity informed by shared institutional meanings (Schatzki, 1996), shape and are shaped by institutions (Barley & Tolbert, 1997). Hence, this perspective highlights that institutions “are not fixed in some structural order but are continuously and flexibly instantiated in the momentary processes by which individuals adjust to any given situation” (Smets, Jarzabkowski, Burke, & Spee, 2015: 937). The behavioral perspective has its roots in social constructionism (Berger & Luckmann, 1967), symbolic interactionism (Goffman, 1959), and practice theories (Giddens, 1984). It draws on a process-ontology where practices, while being institutionally embedded, also have the potential to (de-)stabilize institutions (Barley & Tolbert, 1997; Lawrence & Suddaby, 2006). Hence, this perspective takes a moderating stance between voluntarism and determinism by emphasizing how competent actors continuously (re)produce the institutions in which they are embedded (Smets et al., 2015; Zilber, 2002).

Important works within the behavioral perspective have also taken into account that practices unfold in spaces (Lawrence & Dover, 2015) and that practices may draw on material artifacts like information technology (see Barley, 1986, 1990; Berente & Yoo, 2012; Hultin & Mähring, 2014; Raviola & Norback, 2013; Seidel & Berente 2013; Smets et al., 2015). This inclusion of materiality is a promising response to the criticism that institutional theory does not attend to the question of how using artifacts contributes to maintaining or changing institutions (Cloutier & Langley, 2013; Henfridsson & Yoo 2014; Orlikowski & Barley, 2001; Pinch, 2008). In our network, we will discuss and reflect on what a stronger focus on materiality implies for developing a research agenda on the microfoundations of institutions.

Communication Perspective to Microfoundational Research on Institutions

Several institutional scholars have highlighted the significance of communication for creating, shaping, and disrupting institutions, emphasizing that at “its core, institutional theory is a theory of communication” (Suddaby, 2011: 188). By ‘communication’ we refer to social interaction that draws on discourse (Phillips, Lawrence, & Hardy, 2004; Vaara & Monin, 2010), framing (Lefsrud & Meyer, 2012; Meyer & Höllerer, 2010), rhetoric (Green, 2004; Suddaby & Greenwood, 2005), narratives (Haack et al., 2012; Hardy & Maguire, 2010), tropes (Sillince & Barker, 2012), and other means. The communicative perspective within the microfoundational research agenda in NIT is influenced by social constructionism, ethnomethodology, and structuration theory (Sandhu, forthcoming), as well as linguistic philosophy, ranging from Wittgenstein’s (1953) ‘language games’ to Searle’s (1969) ‘speech acts.’ Ontologically, communication amounts to a relational construct which can be defined as “a process of interaction within which actors exchange views and build up mutual understanding” (Cornelissen et al., 2015: 16). The rationale of the communicative perspective is grounded in a social-constructionist epistemology which assumes that “language is not literal (a means of reflecting reality) but creative in giving form to reality” (Cunliffe, Luhman, & Boje, 2004: 264). Hence, the central insight of the communicative perspective is that communication constitutes institutions, and does not simply transmit them in the sense of sending and receiving messages (Reddy, 1979). At the same time, the communicative perspective acknowledges that institutions that emerge from communication are unlikely to fully resemble the intentions of involved actors, given the non-linear and contingent properties of language use (Suddaby, 2011). In the context of the network we seek to advance the rich heritage of these research streams.


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