Institutional Analysis in Sociology Research Paper

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Institutional analysis addresses the processes by which social structures—including both normative and behavioral elements—are established, become stable, and undergo change over time. It addresses the fundamental issues of social order and shared meaning. The normative elements include schemas, values, norms, and rules; the behavioral elements include activities, routines, interactions, and the use of resources. More so than the other social sciences, sociology has from its origins to the present time steadfastly placed the examination of institutional structures and processes at the center of its scholarly agenda.

Although attention from sociologists has been steady, the ways in which institutions are viewed and explained have varied substantially among scholars and over time. Leading classical European scholars reflect, and were no doubt partly responsible for, this diversity. Karl Marx argued that materialist structures gave rise to ideologies justifying their legitimacy—in effect, that behavioral systems determined normative frameworks. By contrast, both Max Weber and Emile Durkheim insisted that normative (symbolic) elements played an independent role in the structuring of social orders. Durkheim, particularly in his later work, stressed the important role that shared cognitive frames and belief systems—”collective representations”—played in the stability and meaning of social life. And Weber stressed the importance of “interpretation”— the employment of shared meanings by the social actor that mediate between the actor and the materialist conditions confronted.

Scholars such as Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner treated institutions as providing the specialized “organs” of societies, performing distinctive functions. The rules and relations defining appropriate behavior were observed to vary across political, economic, religious, and kinship sectors, and thus to give rise to diverse institutional complexes. This vision of functionally specialized subsystems organized around distinctive norms and values provided the basis for much of the research agenda for sociologists throughout the twentieth century, culminating in the theoretical codification of Talcott Parsons (1951), with his view of societal sectors differentiated by distinctive “pattern variables” (value dichotomies, such as universalism/particularism and ascription/achievement). While most sociologists pursued this macro-orientation, a few, such as Charles Horton Cooley and George Herbert Mead, emphasized the micro-foundations of institutions, arguing that it is in the minds of individuals that connections between symbols and actions take place.

In the latter part of the twentieth century, two developments have been of special significance. First, the insights of Cooley and Mead were revived and reformulated by phenomenological scholars, especially Alfred Schutz and Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann (1967). They stress the extent to which (1) social reality is a social construction; and (2) the relative importance of shared cognitive conceptions (ideas, schema) rather than normative commitments (emphasized by Parsons among others) in the establishment and preservation of social order. Meyer and Rowan (1977) applied these ideas to help account for the similarities observed in the structures of both nation-states and formal organizations. The second important development is the theoretical work of Anthony Giddens (1984), who asserts the value of privileging social processes over social structure—”structura-tion” versus structure. He emphasizes the “duality” of social structure, which operates both as social context— providing the framework within which all social action takes place—and as social outcome: a product that incorporates earlier understandings and practices, but also modifications introduced by present users.

DiMaggio and Powell (1983) applied these insights to analyze the structuration of organizationalfields—col-lections of dissimilar organizations engaged in interrelated activities in some specialized social arena (e.g., automobile production or delivery of mental health services). DiMaggio (1991) first examined the often contentious processes by which such fields come into existence, select appropriate logics and forms, and begin to operate as a taken-for-granted part of the social world. These twin emphases on cognitive systems influencing structuration processes have been pursued productively in the past two decades by scholars examining the emergence and dominance of organizations as actors in modern societal structures and their coevolution within specialized organizational fields (Scott 2001).


  1. Berger, Peter L., and Thomas Luckmann. 1967. The Social Construction of Reality. New York: Doubleday Anchor.
  2. DiMaggio, Paul J. 1991. Constructing an Organizational Field as a Professional Project: U.S. Art Museums, 1920–1930. In The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis, eds.Walter W. Powell and Paul J. DiMaggio, 267–292. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  3. DiMaggio, Paul J., and Walter W. Powell. 1983. The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields. American Sociological Review 48 (2): 147–160.
  4. Giddens, Anthony. 1984. The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  5. Meyer, John W., and Brian Rowan. 1977. Institutionalized Organizations: Formal Structure as Myth and Ceremony. American Journal of Sociology 83: 340–363.
  6. Parson, Talcott. 1951. The Social System. New York: Free Press. Scott, W. Richard. 2001. Institutions and Organizations. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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