#5Papers – review of ‘institutional work’

by Nivek K Thompson


Lawrence TB, Leca B and Zilber TB ‘Institutional Work: Current Research, New Directions and Overlooked Issues’ in Organization Studies 34(8) 1023-1033, 2013

What attracted me to this Article / Chapter?     

This is the latest piece by Lawrence et al about the concept of institutional work. I’m interested to see how their thinking has developed since their initial work in 2006 (seven years is a long time in academia!). Also this article is an introduction to a special edition of the Journal on institutional work in organizational studies – I’m keen to see how this organizational focus operates and whether it is relevant to my PhD research which is focused more on institutions which aren’t always operationalised via organizations.

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

As the opening article in the special edition of Organization Studies devoted to institutional work the authors aim to review the field generally and also the contribution of the other articles in the special edition to this field of enquiry to identify the direction of research and gaps in research.

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

This paper is primarily a literature review with a focus on analysing the literature to identify what we know and what we still need to know.

 What did they do? (Methodology & Method)    

see above

 What did they learn? (Results / Discussion)      

The authors acknowledge the distinction as well as the history of convergence between organizations and institutions. They also note the more recent focus on different types of ‘work’ in an organizational context. Interestingly this reference to ‘work’ doesn’t relate to the jobs people do e.g. on a production line or as a policy officer or lawyer or gardener but to work related to how the organization operates, giving examples such as emotional work, boundary work, values work. Clearly these types of work sit very clearly within organizational studies. It seems that institutional work is part of this move to focusing on work that has some impact on how the organization operates.

They identify three broad approaches to the study of institutional work:

  1. how it occurs (focused on creating, maintaining or disrupting institutions)
  2. who does it (pointing primarily – in the organizational field – to professionals and leaders, and also to collectives ) and
  3. what is it (considering how it relates to the concept and knowledge around agency).

There is clearly overlap between these three approaches, for example their discussion of #1 specifically mentions institutional entrepreneurs, which seems to clearly sit within the ‘who’ approach.

They provide an overview of the six papers in the special issue of the Journal and point to some new directions these studies highlight:

  • using ‘more integrative models of institutional dynamics which allow us to appreciate the varieties of work’ at play rather than focusing only on one type of institutional work
  • in line with the above considering both attempts to change and maintain institutions in the same case study
  • the importance of ‘materiality’ in achieving institutional change and the importance of ‘artifacts’ to supporting actors institutional work
    the value of connecting scholarship around institutional work with other fields e.g. sociological literature on power, and research on strategic negotiations.

Finally, the authors identify gaps in the research around institutional work:

  • from a methodological perspective i.e. they note that most studies are retrospective and hence can not readily ‘attend to experience of individuals as they engage in, and are subjected to, institutional work’ p1029 – although they note that one of the papers in the special edition is an ethnographic account which does achieve this
  • developing our understanding of what undertaking institutional work requires from the actors doing this work with a focus on the level of reflexivity involved (does this go in some ways to the difference between these authors’ definition of IW and Beuen’s which doesn’t require actors to be intentional?)
  • the need for a moral dimension to research in this area and in particular to undertake research that would be of value beyond the academy.

 What did I learn?                 

In thinking about how I might apply the concept of institutional work to my research I expect there will be a nice overlap between my current focus on narratives as a means of either maintaining or changing institutions and a focus on institutional work in particular who is doing it and how, with the how likely linking back to the narratives aspect of my research.

This was a nice overview of the field and current thinking which will be very helpful both in the short term for the article I’m working on with my colleagues and in the longer term for my PhD research.

There are a couple of papers in this special edition which I think will be of value to my research, so I’ll have to follow them up.