Why you should consider going to the annual Workshop on New Institutionalism in Organization Theory


. . . if you are interested in institutional theory and organizations, of course. Still, if you are a higher education researcher and you are “shopping for theories,” you may want to check this one out.

I don’t think new institutionalism needs a special introduction here. This particular theoretical tradition has been extensively drawn on by scholars of higher education interested in organizational change, but also beyond. If you are now wondering what I am talking about, the references Meyer and Rowan (1977) and DiMaggio and Powell (1983) could ring a bell; or, terms like isomorphism, decoupling, organizational fields, and rationalized myths. Probably one reason why new institutionalism comes up so often in higher education studies is that the theory, as we know it today, owes a great deal to the study of educational organizations back in the 1970s.

I should probably underline that when I say (new or neo-) institutionalism, I am speaking of sociological institutionalism. As it turns out, there are many institutionalisms around and navigating them can be a challenge, especially if you are new to the topic. Some of the biggest frustrations during my PhD had to do with trying to understand what this theory was exactly about. I remember how confused I was over the meanings of terms such as institutional logics, institutional work, institutional complexity, actorhood, agency… The list goes on. Things did get better since then, but it’s not like I have it all figured out. Far from it.


What did help was reaching out to the people who did have a somewhat better idea what new institutionalism was, when and how it could or should be used, and what its limitations were. In this sense, finding out that there was an annual workshop in Europe where these people gathered and talked got me pretty excited.

And that’s how, in 2015, I ended up at my first Workshop on New Institutionalism in Organization Theory. I had to present a paper, so I was obviously very nervous. Although I had presented things before, this was different. In fact, when I think of that paper now, I feel slightly embarrassed (and I pray no one will ever get hold of it). Nonetheless, it did not feel so bad at the time and I went home energized and motivated. I went back next year and, somehow, over the years, this community became one of my “academic tribes.”

I am slightly tempted here to try and “sell” the institutional theory to you, but I will refrain from doing so. Suffice it to say that wrestling with institutional theory helped me understand the importance and see the advantages of taking social theory and theorizing seriously. Which, I believe, is no less relevant for those among us who are not interested in theory per se. And maybe most importantly, it helped me discover the sociologist in me, a disciplinary identity I never really had, but which I grew to embrace and enjoy.

So, if this is something you could relate to, the next Workshop on New Institutionalism in Organization Theory will take place in Odense (Denmark) in the first half of March 2020. It will be hosted by the University of Southern Denmark and the call will be opened in summer (the deadline for abstracts is usually mid-November). Note that, even though it is called workshop, it’s actually more like a small conference, usually gathering between 80 and 100 people. To get a better idea of what it is about, you can take a look at the program of the last workshop.

If you are a PhD student and you can’t wait until next year to get your institutional-theory muscles worked out, there is an excellent workshop, organized every year by Woody Powell (yep, the guy from the 1983 reference above) and colleagues. It’s called SCANCOR PhD Workshop on Institutional Analysis. This year’s edition will take place at the University of Mannheim (Germany), between August 25-30, 2019. Deadline for applying is very soon, April 25, 2019. The selection is usually tough, but the experience is totally worth putting some extra work in preparing a good application.

And if you have an experience like this to share or you want to know more about any of this, don’t be shy and get in touch!

Jelena Brankovic is a postdoctoral researcher and lecturer at the Faculty of Sociology, Bielefeld University, Germany. These days she is busy trying to figure out what lies at the intersection of global fields, competition, and actorhood. She is one of the lead editors of the blog you are visiting right now. You can follow her on Twitter.

Photo: Pixabay

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