#5 Papers: institutional work to deliver institutional change

by Nivek K Thompson


Beunen & J.J. Patterson (2016): Analysing Institutional change in environmental governance: exploring the concept of ‘institutional work,’ Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, DOI: 10.1080/09640568.2016.1257423

What attracted me to this Article / Chapter?

I’m writing an article on institutional work and environmental governance with my supervisor and another academic for a special issue of the Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, and this article is the foundation one for that special issue.

This article would be of interest even if I weren’t co-authoring a paper because the concept of ‘institutional work’ is likely very relevant to my Ph.D. research (although not in the environmental governance field specifically).

What is it about? (Problem / Purpose / Research Questions)           

This article aims to set the scene for the special issue of the Journal of Environmental Planning and Management by identifying a useful way of thinking about and analysing institutional change in the area of environmental governance.

Where does this come from? (Literature / Theoretical Framework) 

The authors adapt the concept of ‘institutional work’ from organisational studies to apply to environmental governance, which is defined as the actions through which actors create, maintain, or disrupt institutional structures (Lawrence, Suddaby, and Leca. 2009)’ p1

‘this puts emphasis on the ways in which humans construct, maintain, or revise the meaning of institutions.’ pp1-2

The authors provide an overview of institutional literature noting the diverse range of approaches to considering institutionalism and the ongoing evolution of these. In particular, the recognition that ‘institutional change and institutional stability depend on sustained human endeavour and effort.’ p2 and ‘the dynamic interplay between actors and institutional structures.’ p2

What did they do? (Methodology & Method)

The authors review the literature on institutional change, focusing on the concept of institutional work and how it might apply in the area of environmental governance. In keeping with the purpose of this paper to set the scene for the special issue of this Journal around institutional work and environmental governance they identify challenges and opportunities and future areas for research.

What did they learn? (Results / Discussion)  

Institutional change literature is increasingly focusing on ‘the interplay between actors and institutional structures’ p3

They identify various explanations for institutional stability: path dependence, unequal power within institutions and the costs of change. Plus explanations for institutional change: exogenous vs. endogenous and incremental vs. radical. They also note some overlap between how these different approaches to change play out in the real world. Referring to Baumgartner and Jones 1993 pp16-17 “positive feedback and cascades around new ideas develop – slowly at first, but eventually leading to ‘change [that] comes quickly and dramatically’. Streeck and Thelen (2005) also suggest that incremental change can lead to transformation change.

They refer to similar ideas arising in other academic fields e.g. sociology where Fligstein and McAdams (2012) have developed a theory of change which identifies three levels: macro i.e. overall patterns of social order: meso i.e. strategic action fields where actors share common viewpoint about the world with change coming from the micro level i.e. ‘challengers’ who may benefit from openings created by exogenous shocks.

The authors identify the concept of ‘institutional work’ developed by Lawrence and Suddaby (plus Leca) 2006 & 2009 as a useful, albeit with some reworking to fit their area of interest i.e. environmental governance.

They highlight that not all change is a result of intentional action by particular actors, making reference here to the inherent ambiguity in many institutions which require decisions to be made regularly and which can over time lead to change without a particular view on where that change might lead.

They compare the concept of institutional work to other some other key concepts used in the area of institutional change:

  • institutional design which focuses on ‘outcomes of intentional change’ whereas IW focuses on ‘efforts to bring about intentional change’ and ID ignores process of achieving change and motivation of actors
  • institutional (policy) entrepreneurs focuses on particular individuals or groups – authors argue that this concept may overlook other actors and strategies (I’m not sure this is a correct analysis)
  • institutional bricolage focuses on how actors use existing institutional diversity and ambiguity to re-interpret rules and norms to achieve particular outcomes – authors don’t really highlight a difference between IB and IW, although I guess IW can be done by actors seeking to maintain the current institutions as well as those seeking change?

They identify particular challenges in using the concept of institutional work in the area of environmental governance:

  • the political nature of environmental governance (wouldn’t this apply to everything?) – they highlight as an example differences in perspectives on how decisions should be made as fundamental here
  • the relationship between institutions i.e. the broader landscape within which any particular institution operates (this may be relevant to our local government case study as local government is quite constrained in Australia as a creature of statute rather than recognised in the constitution).

They also identify a few opportunities arising from the use of the concept of institutional work:

  • supports attention to details of how actors can and do support both institutional maintenance and/or change within context of existing institutions
  • might help understand better how sustainability transformation can be achieved
  • helps consider change at three levels i.e. micro looking at ‘dynamics of agency-structure interplay’; at meso looking at how to ‘overcome institutional inertia’; and at the macro by providing insights into how to ‘bring about sustainability transformations’ p11

They propose redefining institutional work for application to the field of environmental governance as follows:

  • expand the definition to include ‘non-purposive’ actions because these can effect change and not always easy to identify purpose (does this make the distinction between IW and institutional bricolage even less clear?)
  • original definition didn’t require any change to be demonstrated/achieved, Beunen and Patterson note that whilst it can be difficult to identify institutional change, it is important to do so to effectively consider the relationship between actors and structures and because they hold a normative perspective on the need for change in the area of environmental governance.

So their definition of IW is ‘those actions which actors attempt to, or in effect do, create, maintain, or disrupt institutional structures.’ p12 And they suggest that there would be value in distinguishing between direct and indirect impacts.

They suggest that institutional work in the area of environmental governance is more complex because environmental governance is a more complicated area involving numerous institutions, actors, scales, and impacts.

They highlight the important of context for any consideration of institutional change.

They conclude that there is a need to focus on

  • temporality i.e. the order in which actions are taken, sequencing of actions and recognition that impacts may only be seen over a long term
  • the inter-relationship between actors and cumulative impact of their actions
  • considering communication and discourse as a key element of generating institutional change.

Finally, they note some limitations in the use of IW

  • what is IW and what isn’t? is their definition potentially all-encompassing?
  • disentangling the various actions happening over time and identifying how they relate to existing order
  • recognition that not all stability is bad.

 What did I learn?                            

I like the concept of institutional work as a way of thinking about both institutional stability and change. IW supports a focus on the interplay between actors and structures as well as change agents and those working to protect the existing institutions (either consciously or unconsciously).

I don’t totally agree with how the authors distinguish between IW and institutional design, institutional entrepreneurs and institutional bricolage.

I too sympathise with Lawrence and his co-author’s reluctance to link IW with outcomes – this is the issue faced in designing my Ph.D. research question – is it possible in the short term to ‘see’ institutional change? Nonetheless, I agree with Beunen and Patterson that we shouldn’t exclude this from our consideration just because it might be difficult.

I also like the macro, meso and micro levels they identify and think these would be useful in considering how change actually happens.

When I’ve completed my contribution to the article for the special issue of the Journal, I will aim to sketch out how IW might be useful to my research and whether it might help guide the revision of my interview protocol for the final round of case studies I’ll be doing next year.