Thursday, March 31, 2005

Can't Sleep Syndrome Leads to Institutional Questions

Since I can't sleep, I decided to get up and read something I've already read. It's too late to tackle something new. So I grabbed the New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis, edited by Walter Powell and Paul DiMaggio (1991). Like I said, I've already read some of this when I was more awake. In reading the introduction I found more I liked about institutional theory. They talk a bit about the compatibility with Bourdieu's "Theory of Practice" as well as the turn toward understanding cognitive structures and processual orientations. They also mention history, legitimacy, culture, and reproduction as issues new institutionalisms have tried to incorporate and understand. Fantastic!

Then, they get to where they would like new institutionalisms to go: explanations/understandings of institutional "change, power, and efficiency" (p. 26). I have every reason to believe they sincerely would like to see new institutional theorists undertake issues of "change, power, and efficiency" with regard to institutions. I'm new to the "new institutionalism" literature so issue may already have been addressed (this was publish in '91), but just in case... One of those pesky paradoxes has crept up, it seems to me. The institution of sociology tends to marginalize studies and scholars who are already undertaking these issues, specifically scholars studying race, class, and/or gender with regard to resistance. Nowhere is this addressed or alluded to that I can find - please correct me if I'm wrong. But it seems this is entirely overlooked.

Scholars of gender/race/class centrally focus on power, stasis and change, and the efficiency/inefficiency of mechanisms that in various ways control or empower groups of people. These are the scholars documenting and highlighting "conflict, contradiction, and ambiguity" (p.28). By making a call for this kind of research, don't they highlight and reify the marginalization of the body of work that new institutionalist theorists clearly don't engage with as part of the institution? This is not a value judgement, just a question.

I think this bolsters the case for mainstream sociology to take into consideration class/gender/race, not just as variables that can be added or extracted, but as categories of experience and meaning-making that inform ways of inciting change structurally through challenging power and the inefficiency of the status quo, or stasis, that keeps certain groups in/out of power or influence (like scholars of race/class/gender). Hence, we have the example of this "Introduction" to New Institutionalisms calling for research that is already being done (inefficient). The question should have been how to bring research already being done into the framework of new institutionalisms, should it have not (more efficient)?

Like I said in the first paragraph, I like institutional theory, it keeps growing on me. I look at this paradox simply as a product of the institution of sociology.


At 10:42 AM, Blogger Brayden said...

Erin - I agree with you on this one. First, let's just ignore the efficiency question. I'm not sure why they threw it in there alongside change and power. Efficiency has a very specific meaning in organizational contexts and it's not one that really mixes well with discussions of power. I'd just as soon leave questions of efficiency to the economists, unless we want to create some post hoc explanation for how "efficiency" gets constructed.

As for change - there's been a lot done on change recently in the literature. For a great review and introduction to the work on institutional change look at Clemens and Cook's Annual Review piece in 1999.

Power - there's been less done explicitly on power. Fligstein seems to be the most well-known institutional scholar addressing the issue. I think one of the problems is that we haven't done a good job operationalizing power in our studies.

Re the main issue here - Yes, institutional scholars have almost completely ignored the study of race, class, and gender. Even though you could conceive of each of these arenas of social life as offering competing logics for understanding and framing behavior - see the Friedland and Alford piece in that volume - you rarely see them mentioned. I think that will change over time, but one of the things that has to happen is that race, class, and gender scholars have to be willing to pick up the institutional literature and figure out how to engage with it.

Until then, Marie Cornwall and I have a working paper on utilizing new institutional theory to understand gender as an institution.

At 11:16 AM, Blogger Erin said...

Thanks for the references. And good luck with the working paper!

But, you put the onus for fixing this gap with new institutionalist literature on race/class/gender scholars. Doesn't this continue to reify the paradox, since their work is less incorporated in mainstream sociology (i.e. mainstream sociology journals)? Who's to say even if we take it up it will be addressed? (Not that this has ever stopped scholars before.) Either way, race/class/gender scholars would not only be studying change and power, but inciting change and challenging power.

It's not that I disagree with you that race/class/gender scholars will end up having to engage the new institutional literature, which may or may not be interesting to them given the scientistic language and framework of much of it. It's just that the irony of the introduction to the volume on new institutionalisms making a call for research already being done and not acknowleding some common threads is indicative of the institution of sociology. And to make significant progress, it would be nice if the change wasn't always coming from the bottom up (it's so cliche). But we're back to standpoint and ways of seeing that lead to specific critiques. Wouldn't significant strides in scholarship be made if that was acknowledged and embraced in sociology, so as to offer some legitimacy to the work on race, class, and/or gender? and shake up the stasis of the discipline?

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