#5Papers – meaning making and institutional change & maintenance

by Nivek K Thompson


Zilber TB ‘The Work of Meanings in Institutional Processes and Thinking’ in The SAGE Handbook of Organizational Institutionalism Greenwood R, Oliver C, Suddaby R & Sahlin K (eds) 2008 SAGE Publications Ltd, London pp150-169
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781849200387.n6

What attracted me to this Article / Chapter?    

I came across this chapter when doing a literature search on ‘institutional work’ and ‘narrative’ for the upcoming journal paper I am contributing to. I’m also thinking about how ‘institutional work’ and ‘narrative’ will be relevant to my PhD research. One arch of our journal paper is ‘storytelling’ and to me storytelling is about creating meanings and so this chapter caught my interest.

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

This is a reference chapter and so the author reviews empirical and theoretical literature on “ideational aspects of institutional processes” p2 of 21

The author aims to identify the value these works provide in considering institutions and to also identify areas for further research.

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

As mentioned above the author is looking at both empirical and theoretical literature in this field.

What did they do? (Methodology & Method)   

The author starts by noting that there is no one agreed definition (or even terminology) in the field relevant to ‘meaning.’ She doesn’t exactly define ‘meaning’ rather she identifies what it is & isn’t and what it does: “‘Meaning’ refers then to that which is not structure or practice per-se – that is to the intangible.’ She uses the term “to denote those aspects of institutions that are ideational and symbolic, to distinguish them from the material aspects of institutions.” Nonetheless she notes that “meaning and the material are intertwined… Meanings are encoded in structures and practices, while structures and practices express and affect those meanings.” p3 of 21

She undertook a broad literature review and in reading the literature focused on commonalities rather than differences. She notes that the concept of meaning and related concepts such as culture and myths were a key feature of the early neo-institutional literature. Legitimacy as an output of shared meaning gets a mention [I’m interested in the concept of legitimacy because it is one which is highly relevant in the field of democracy]. The author notes that despite the prominence of meaning and related concepts in the initial neo-institutional thinking there was very little empirical research specifically considering meaning. She suggests a few reasons for this including

  • the rational choice model which assumes individuals make rational choices based on their needs rather than based on ideas
  • because the material aspects of insititutions result from beliefs etc studying the material aspects should reflect the dominant meanings
  • the predominant methodologies of the field up until recently were positivistic and so did not lend themselves to the more qualitative approach required to study meanings.

What did they learn? (Results / Discussion)     

She notes that more recently there has been work at both an empirical and theoretical level specifically about meanings. She identifies four (interconnected) aspects arising from this work:

  1. being particular
  2. contextual
  3. conflictual
  4. ever dynamic.
  1. being particular – recent studies suggest that there are not universal laws around institutionalisation rather each institution is particular to itself even to the extent that different actors in one institution can hold different views on the meaning of the same institutional practices
  2. context – this aspects points to the broader environment in which institutions are embedded and how changes in the broader environment can be relevant to changes (or lack of change) in institutions
  3. conflictual (political) – studies point to the relationship between power and power relations and meanings and that meanings are subject to interpretation; an interesting (for my research) study she refers to by Greenwood Suddaby & Hining (2002) explores”‘the way professional associations actors aim at legitimating change by theorizing it – that is by interpreting, representing and translating relevant issues in a way that justifies change… highlights the role of such theorization in the diffusion of new institutional practices.” p8 of 21
  4. a work in progress – institutional maintenance and change is an ongoing process ie it does not have an end point; as well as evolving as they are implemented they change as a result of changes in their ‘operating environment’;

Zilber notes that initial research into institutionalization focused on material aspects of institutions and hence spoke about ‘diffusion’ as the mechanism for spreading change, whereas the focus on meaning has replaced diffusion with ‘translation’ which recognises that the change can itself change as it spreads. She mentions the move by some theorists to consider institutions to be based on discourses (ideas) rather than more material entities [I have come across this before and whilst I believe ideas play an important role in institutional change and maintenance I don’t accept that institutions are ‘no more’ than ideas or discourses].

The author links the concepts of ‘institutional work’ with the ‘work of meaning’: “The work of meaning refers to the interpretations, understandings and shared beliefs that are produced and processed through social action, and specifically through the efforts of institutional actors engaged in power relations and political negotiations, as these are all embedded within particular sociocultural and historical moments.” p14

Finally she points out the disconnect between the rich material in the case studies she reviewed and the theoretical aspects of institutional theory. In a similar vein she notes that studies of structures and studies of meanings rarely talk to each other or happen in tandem. The author suggests there would be value in bringing them together to provide a more rich and comprehensive model.

She identifies a further ‘gap’ and that is studies of attempts at institutional change that aren’t retrospective, and which aren’t ‘successful’ [I think my research may fill this gap!!].

Her final comment is that a focus on meaning may encourage a refocus on the organizational level rather than the inter-organizational or societal levels.

Very relevant to my research is the following quote:

These studies exemplify then the power of language and of actors in the processes of institutional change and emergence, as language constructs reality in lieu of the agenda of institutional actors. This is not a simple process. Institutional entrepreneurs need to balance novelty and tradition, as they try to frame new (or changing) practices in ways that will provide them legitimacy and will not raise too much resistance (Lounsbury & Pollack, 2001). Such framing may involve some manipulations of meaning, creatively tailoring accounts that (hopefully) serve actors’ interests (Arndt & Bigelow, 2000; Hargadon & Douglas, 2001).p8

What did I learn?      

I really enjoyed reading this chapter as it provided a useful overview of the development and use of the concept of meaning in institutional theory. In addition it provides multiple examples of case studies that I think will provide some useful guidance for me in my research, in particular (I hope) around how to analyse texts and interviews to identify various meanings.

It also nicely linked meaning making with ‘institutional work’ as I hoped it would!