My “here” is their “there”: The social context of social re-contextualization

Note: This was written originally as an assignment for a PhD course I took in the Winter of 2020. I've been revisiting some of my notes in preparation for an upcoming "comprehensive" exam, and this is one of the very rare examples of my past writings that I do not instinctively hate.

In their seminal work on the sociology of knowledge, The Social Construction of Reality (1966), sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann engage in an extended discussion of the formation, coexistence, and persistence of social institutions. Descended as they are from the Marxian paradigm that man’s consciousness is determined by his social being, Berger and Luckmann are fundamentally interested in the interplay between socially distributed “objective” reality, and internalized and interpreted individual “subjective” reality, and their treatment of social institutions reflects this interest. It is somewhat fitting, then, that their conception of institutions underwent this same process of internalization and interpretation in a separate field of study and emerged as something quite different. In this post, I attempt to discuss how Berger and Luckmann’s notions of institutions and institutionalization have been re-constructed and given new meaning in the field of organizational studies.


Per Berger and Luckmann’s formulation, institutionalization is a process of social typification of actions, and any such typification that is transmitted and reinforced across generations is an institution. In its most essential form, an institution is a practice or role that is taken for granted as “the way things are”, a socially shared meaning divorced from its human authorship. This formulation proved influential within the realm of organizational research. In 1970s neo-institutional theory, organizational scholars like John Meyer and Brian Rowan framed this “taken-for-granted-ness” as shared understandings and rational myths about institutionalized practices, which may have arisen due to these practices’ original positive effect on firm performance, but which were soon imbued with added value and legitimacy that encouraged their (the practices) persistence and spread regardless of continued effect on performance. Both in its original form, and in the organizational adaptation, institutionalization - by way of its underlying mechanism of habituation and typification - was framed as a mechanism for easing the cognitive burden of decision-making when faced with a recurring task or interaction. Institutions and institutionalization were therefore fundamentally cognitive in nature, true to their social constructionist roots. 


A funny thing happened to institutions on their way to the 21st century… 

In Taking Social Construction Seriously: Extending the Discursive Approach in Institutional Theory (2008), authors Nelson Phillips and Namrata Malhotra argue that institutions veered away from theirs cognitive roots almost as soon as they were transplanted into their new organizational context. Guided by the premise that institutions represent social order, an early work in organizational neo-institutionalism was focused on the development of plausible theoretical mechanisms through which institutional social order can be enforced. This was famously (in some circles) manifested in Paul DiMaggio and Walter Powell’s (1983) conception of isomorphism-causing coercive, normative and mimetic institutional pressures. These were defined respectively as conformity driven by the threat of external organizational sanction, by the exigencies of membership in professionalized groups, and by “best practices” set by exemplar organizations. Organizational compliance with institutional pressure was thus no longer cognitive and the result of some type of “taken for granted” reality, but a rational response to external pressures that individuals in organizations responded to in predictable ways in order to maximize organizational survival. In attempting to internalize and objectivate a sociological theory into a context long dominated by considerations of rational behavior, the subjective reality of institutions and institutionalization was for organizational scholars that of a rational mechanism, whether they would admit it or not. Similarly, the concept of institutional logics, initially conceived of by Berger and Luckmann as a subjective and individually constructed reflection of institutional character, was re-objectivated within organizational neo-institutionalism as a set of organizing principles that “explained” the functions of an organization, something that could be measured empirically, and which could interact with other such logics to produce some desired effect on performance. Once again, neo-institutionalism’s need for rational, empirically testable explanations for organizational behavior, something it needed to gain parity with other more established organizational theories and their “grand project of rationalization”, created new subjective realities. Over time, these re-contextualized definitions came to be taken for granted by organizational scholars, and vigorously defended when challenged. Organizational institutionalism’s own institutionalization would continue. 


This example is useful in that it demonstrates ways in which knowledge can be internalized to construct subjective realities that adhere, consciously or otherwise, to broader narratives. These subjective realities may be incongruent with the subjective reality and intent of the creators or the knowledge, even in the case when the actors doing the interpretation and internalization are ostensibly impartial arbiters of knowledge, as academics are expected to be.