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New institutionalism

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Title: New institutionalism  
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Subject: Institutionalism, Institutional theory, John W. Meyer, Delegation Theory, Rational choice institutionalism
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New institutionalism

New institutionalism or neo-institutionalism is a theory that focuses on developing a sociological view of institutions — the way they interact and the way they affect society. It provides a way of viewing institutions outside of the traditional views of economics by explaining why and how institutions emerge in a certain way within a given context. One of the institutional views that has emerged has argued that institutions have developed to become similar (showing an isomorphism) across organizations even though they evolved in different ways, and has studied how institutions shape the behavior of agents (i.e. people, organizations, governments) (DiMaggio and Powell, 1983).

Sociological new institutionalism is distinguished from, though related to, the new institutional economics and new institutionalism in political science.


  • History 1
  • Introduction to new institutionalism 2
  • Sub-fields of the new institutionalism 3
    • Normative institutionalism 3.1
    • Rational choice institutionalism 3.2
    • Historical institutionalism 3.3
    • Empirical institutionalism 3.4
    • Actor-centered institutionalism 3.5
    • Constructivist institutionalism 3.6
    • Feminist institutionalism 3.7
    • Sociological institutionalism 3.8
  • Critiques of new institutionalism 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7


The study of institutions and their interactions has been a particular focus of academic research for many years. In the late 19th and early 20th century, social theorists began to systematize this body of literature. One of the most prominent examples of the systematization that occurred during this period was that of the German economist and social theorist bureaucracy ) within society, and the institutionalization created by means of the iron cage organizational bureaucracies create.

In Britain and the United States, the study of political institutions dominated political science until after the post-war period. This approach, sometimes called 'old' institutionalism, focused on analyzing the formal institutions of government and the state in comparative perspective. After the behavioral revolution brought new perspectives to analyzing politics such as positivism, rational choice theory and behavioralism, the focus on institutions was discarded as it was too narrow. The focus moved to analyzing the individual rather than the institutions which surrounded him/her.

Institutionalism experienced a significant revival in 1977 with an influential paper published by John W. Meyer, of Stanford University (Meyer and Rowan 1977). The revised formulation of institutionalism proposed in this paper prompted a significant shift in the way institutional analysis was conducted. Research that followed became known as "new" institutionalism, a concept that is generally referred to as "neo-institutionalism" in academic literature.

Another significant reformulation occurred in the early 1980s when Paul DiMaggio and Walter W. Powell consciously revisited Weber's iron cage (DiMaggio and Powell 1983, 1991). The following decade saw an explosion of literature on the topic across many disciplines, including those outside of the social sciences. For a review of the work in Sociology that emerged during the decade immediately following this publication, see DiMaggio and Powell's 1991 anthology on the subject. In economics, see in particular the work of Douglass North, who received a Nobel Prize in 1993 for his significant contributions in this area.

Introduction to new institutionalism

New institutionalism recognizes that institutions operate in an environment consisting of other institutions, called the institutional environment. Every institution is influenced by the broader environment (or in simpler terms institutional legitimacy within the world of institutions.

Much of the research within New Institutionalism deals with the pervasive influence of institutions on human behavior through rules, norms, and other frameworks. Previous theories held that institutions can influence individuals to act in one of two ways: they can cause individuals within institutions to maximize benefits (regulative institutions, also called Rational Choice Institutionalism), similar to rational choice theory or to act out of duty or an awareness of what one is "supposed" to do (normative institutions, also called Historical Institutionalism). An important contribution of new institutionalism was to add a cognitive type influence. This perspective adds that, instead of acting under rules or based on obligation, individuals act because of conceptions. "Compliance occurs in many circumstances because other types of behavior are inconceivable; routines are followed because they are taken for granted as 'the way we do these things'" (Scott 2001, p. 57) - also called Social Institutionalism.[1] Individuals make certain choices or perform certain actions not because they fear punishment or attempt to conform; neither do they do so because an action is appropriate or the individual feels some sort of social obligation. Instead, the cognitive element of new institutionalism suggests that individuals make certain choices because they can conceive of no alternative.

For an interesting application of the new institutional approach see Terry Karl (1990), which portrays institutions as constraining elite actors' preferences and policy choices during transition. The focus upon economics in this article is misleading; institutions are politics: they are the substance of which politics is constructed and the vehicle through which the practice of politics is transmitted. New institutionalism was born out of a reaction to the behavioural revolution. In viewing institutions more widely as social constructs, and by taking into account the influence that institutions have on individual preferences and actions, new institutionalism has moved away from its institutional (formal legal descriptive historical) roots and become a more explanatory discipline within politics. A good example of this is Hasmath and Hsu's research looking at isomorphic pressures in state-NGO collaboration.[2]

More recent work has begun to emphasize multiple, competing logics (Friedland & Alford, 1991; Lounsbury, 2007), focusing on the more heterogeneous sources of diversity within fields (Lounsbury, 2001) and the institutional embeddedness of technical considerations (e.g., Scott et al., 2000; Thornton, 2004). The concept of logic generally refers to broader cultural beliefs and rules that structure cognition and guide decision-making in a field. At the organization level, logics can focus the attention of key decision-makers on a delimited set of issues and solutions (Ocasio, 1997), leading to logic-consistent decisions that reinforce extant organizational identities and strategies (Thornton, 2002). In line with the new institutionalism, social rule system theory stresses that particular institutions and their organizational instantiations are deeply embedded in cultural, social, and political environments and that particular structures and practices are often reflections of as well as responses to rules, laws, conventions, paradigms built into the wider environment (Powell, 2007).

Sub-fields of the new institutionalism

New institutionalism can take different focuses and can draw its inspiration from different disciplines. Here are some types of new institutional study:

Normative institutionalism

Normative institutionalism is sometimes seen as the "original" new institutionalism; much of the introduction of this article relates to a normative view of institutionalism. A

This approach can be readily contrasted with rational choice institutionalism: rather than a series of calculated actions designed to maximise perceived benefit, any given actor within an institution will feel to some extent constrained and obligated by the norms and rules of the institution.

Rational choice institutionalism

Rational choice institutionalism draws heavily from rational choice theory, but is not identical to it. Proponents of this theory argue that political actors' rational choices are constrained ("bounded rationality"). But, individuals realize their goals can be best achieved through institutions. In other words, institutions are systems of rules and inducements to behavior in which individuals attempt to maximize their own utilities.

Historical institutionalism

As the name suggests, this version of institutionalism states that "history matters." Paths chosen or designed early on in the existence of an institution tend to be followed throughout the institution's development. Institutions will have an inherent agenda based on the pattern of development, both informal (the way things are generally done) and formal (laws, rule sets and institutional interaction.)

A key concept is path dependency: the historical track of a given institution or polity will result in almost inevitable occurrences. In some institutions, this may be a self-perpetuating cycle: actions of one type beget further actions of this type.

This theory does not hold that institutional paths will forever be inevitable. Critical junctures may allow rapid change at a time of great crisis.

Empirical institutionalism

Actor-centered institutionalism

Actor-centered institutionalism or also called neo-institutionalism emphasizes the autonomy of political institutions from society in which they exist. It assumes a greater influence on human behaviour coming from the socio-political environment surrounding people and organizations than from within individual or group based interactions.[4]

Constructivist institutionalism

Recently, a number of authors have used the term "constructivist institutionalism"[5] or "discursive namic approach to institutional change than the older three new institutionalisms".[6] Sociological institutionalists assert that political, social, or policy discourses can perform communicative functions, in which actors publicly expressing ideas can lead to social change, or coordinating functions, in which ideas and meaning provides a mechanism for multiple actors to achieve consensus on norms and values and thus create social change.[7] This is increasingly moving beyond Political Science and in international relations theory and foreign policy analysis.[8]

Feminist institutionalism

Feminist institutionalism is a new institutionalist approach that looks at "how gender norms operate within institutions and how institutional processes construct and maintain gender power dynamics".[9]

Sociological institutionalism

Sociological institutionalism is a form of new institutionalism that concerns ‘the way in which institutions create meaning for individuals, providing important theoretical building blocks for normative institutionalism within political science’.[9]

Critiques of new institutionalism

New Institutionalism is often contrasted with "old" or "classical" institutionalism, the latter of which was first articulated in the writings of John Dewey, Thorstein Veblen, John Commons, and others, and which has been further extrapolated by various philosophers and scholars such as Donald Davidson, Richard Rorty, Amartya Sen, Donald McCloskey, Warren Samuels, Daniel Bromley, E. J. Mishan, Yngve Ramstad, and others. Proponents of the older institutionalism are strongly opposed to new institutionalism, most saliently in the manner in which new institutionalism seeks to explain institutional change as merely another instance of maximization. Instead, old institutionalism seeks to articulate reasons for institutional change in terms of social and political volition. In addition to the branches' current various meanings of Institutionalism, there is also an academic skeptism that, though European Institutionalism was originally derived from national response to people's demands on politico-economic changes especially on their polity or apparatus, as Positivism and Phenomenalism did for example, New Institutionalism rather implicates top-down approach and neglects to match each developmental meaning to its timely event so that the relatively casual interpretation mode carries retrospective effect on historical paths of each idealization.

See also


  1. ^ Schmidt, V.A. (2010) "Taking ideas and discourse seriously: explaining change through discursive institutionalism as the fourth ‘new institutionalism’"
  2. ^ Hasmath, R. and Hsu, J. (Forthcoming) “Isomorphic Pressures, Epistemic Communities and State-NGO Collaboration in China”, The China Quarterly.
  3. ^ March, James G. 1994. Primer on Decision Making: How Decisions Happen. Free Press.
  4. ^ Howlett & Ramesh (2009). studying public policy policy cycles and public policy subsystems. Canada. pp. 43–44.  
  5. ^ Hay, Colin (2006). "Constructivist institutionalism". In Rhodes, R.A.W.; Binder, Sarah A.; Rockman, Bert A. The Oxford Handbook of Political Institutions. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 56–74.  
  6. ^ Schmidt, Vivien A. (2008). "Discursive institutionalism: The explanatory power of discourse". Annual Review of Political Science 11: 303–326.  
  7. ^ Dodds, Anneliese, (2013). Comparative Public Policy. Palgrave MacMillan.
  8. ^ Oz Hassan (2012) "Constructing Americas freedom agenda for the Middle East" ; Oz Hassan (2011) Constructing Crises, (in)securitising terror: the punctuated evolution of EU counter terrorism policy
  9. ^ a b Lowndes, Vivien (2010) 'The Institutional Approach' in "Theories and Methods in Political Science". D. Marsh, G. Stoker. (eds.) Basingstoke: Palgrave. P.65

Further reading

  • Berger, Peter L. and Luckmann. 1966. The Social Construction of Reality. New York: Doubleday.
  • Chappell, Louise (June 2006). """Comparing political institutions: revealing the gendered "logic of appropriateness.  
  • DiMaggio, Paul J.; Powell, Walter W. (April 1983). "The iron cage revisited: institutional isomorphism and collective rationality in organizational fields".  
  • DiMaggio, Paul J. and Walter W. Powell. 1991. "Introduction." Pp. 1–38 in The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis, edited by Walter W. Powell and Paul J. DiMaggio. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Friedland, Roger and Robert R. Alford. 1991. "Bringing Society Back In: Symbols, Practices, and Institutional Contradictions." Pp. 232–263 in The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis, edited by Walter W. Powell and Paul J. DiMaggio. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Jepperson, Ronald L. 1991. "Institutions, Institutional Effects, and Institutionalism." Pp. 143–163 in The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis, edited by W. W. Powell, DiMaggio. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • March, James G.; Olsen, Johan P. (1989). Rediscovering Institutions. The Organizational Basis of Politics. New York: The Free Press. (also Italian, Japanese, Polish and Spanish (Mexico) editions)
  • Michael Lounsbury (2001). "Institutional Sources of Practice Variation: Staffing College and University Recycling Programs." In: Administrative Science Quarterly.Vol 46. pp. 29–56.
  • Meyer, Heinz-Dieter and Brian Rowan, 2006. The New Institutionalism in Education. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
  • Meyer, J. and Rowan, B. (1991) ‘Institutionalized Organizations: Formal Structure as Myth and Ceremony’ in W. Powell and P. DiMaggio (eds) The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis, Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press
  • Meyer, John W.; Rowan, Brian (September 1977). "Institutionalized organizations: formal structure as myth and ceremony".  
  • Nicita, Antonio; Vatiero, Massimiliano (July 2007). "The contract and the market: towards a broader notion of transaction?". Studi e Note di Economia ( Pdf.  
  • Ocasio, William (July 1997). "Towards an attention-based view of the firm".  
  • Parto, Saeed. 2003. Economic Activity and Institutions, Economics Working Paper Archive at WUSTL.
  • Powell, W.W. 2007 " The New Institutionalism". In The International Encyclopedia of Organization Studies The International Encyclopedia of Organization Studies. Thousand Oaks, Ca.: Sage Publishers
  • Scott, Richard W. 2001. Institutions and Organizations, 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.
  • Scott, W.R., Ruef, M., Mendel, P. & Caronna, C. 2000. Institutional Change and Healthcare Organizations: From Professional Dominance to Managed Care. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Thornton, Patricia H. (February 2002). "The rise of the corporation in a craft industry: conflict and conformity in institutional logics".  
  • Thornton, P.H. 2004. Markets from Culture: Institutional Logics and Organizational Decisions in Higher Education Publishing. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
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