The development and application of sociological neoinstitutionalism*

In developing his ideas, Meyer was reacting to the enduring individualism of ..... Drawing upon his own historical and comparative research (Dobbin 1994b), Dobbin ..... the secularization and elaboration of individualism as a main theme in ...
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The development and application of sociological neoinstitutionalism

Ronald L. Jepperson Working Paper 2001/5, Robert Schuman Centre, European University Institute, Florence 2001

This working paper draws upon conversations or correspondence with Joseph Berger, John Boli, John Meyer, Thomas Risse, Marc Ventresca, and Morris Zelditch. Meyer endured multiple queries about the research program during the preparation of this paper, and Boli provided repeated commentary. The author appreciates the support of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies.

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INTRODUCTION INTELLECTUAL CONTEXT TWO BACKGROUND THEORETICAL ARGUMENTS ORGANIZATIONS IN INSTITUTIONAL ENVIRONMENTS NATION-STATES IN A WORLD POLITY AND CULTURE INDIVIDUAL IDENTITY WITHIN INDIVIDUALISM SOCIOLOGICAL NEOINSTITUTIONALISM AS A THEORETICAL RESEARCH PROGRAM CONCLUSION INTRODUCTION Sociological neoinstitutionalism is one of the most broad-ranging “theoretical research programs” (TRPs) in contemporary sociology and one of the most empirically developed forms of institutional analysis. This program, centered around the work of John W. Meyer and his collaborators (but now extending beyond this group), has produced an integrated and extensive body of research about the nation-states, individuals, and organizational structures of modern society. The central concern of this institutionalism is the embeddedness of social structures and social “actors” in broadscale contexts of meaning: more specifically, the consequences of European and later world culture for social organization (Meyer, Boli, and Thomas 1987:31). This institutionalism originated in a set of theoretical papers in the 1970s by Meyer, and in concurrent research in the sociology of education, where the program has remained central. The program expanded into full-blown research efforts concerning organizations, the world system, and individual identity. Applications continue to proliferate. For instance, this institutionalism now supports one of the most extensive lines of research on current “globalization” -- for example, John Boli and George Thomas‟ work on the extraordinary recent increase in international non-governmental organizations (Boli and Thomas 1997) -- as well as new efforts on collective identity, sexuality, law, and for that matter even accounting. These efforts are now found across the sociological community at many of its major research sites. This paper surveys and analyzes the development of this TRP. It explicates its intellectual core, surveys its inter-related applications in different substantive domains, and analyzes the growth of these applications over time (including the role of exchanges with other lines of theory and research in this growth).1 The primary concern is how this institutionalism has been used to generate substantive insights -- that is, both new observations and new explanations of the social world.2 INTELLECTUAL CONTEXT Meyer worked out a number of the core theoretical ideas by 1970.3 A set of fundamental papers, developing and consolidating main ideas, appeared in print between 1977 and 1980: on the “effects of education as an institution” (Meyer 1977), on “institutionalized organizations” (with Brian Rowan [Meyer and Rowan 1977]), and on “the world polity and the authority of the nation-state” (Meyer 1980).4

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In developing his ideas, Meyer was reacting to the enduring individualism of American sociology, the manifest empirical difficulties of its associated “action” and “socialization” theories (including Talcott Parsons‟ variant, emphasizing action guided by internalized norms), and the persistent attempt by much American social theory especially to analyze modern society as a “society without culture” (Meyer 1988).5 Asked to characterize the development of his thinking, in an interview in Soziologie und Wirtschaft (Krücken 2000), Meyer indicates that he did not think of society as fundamentally constituted by “actors,” or of people or structures as primarily actors. He “...took less ser