In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Institutions

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Old Institutionalism
  • New Institutionalism
  • World Polity Theory
  • Conflict, Social Movements, and Institutionalization
  • Institutional Logics and Institutional Work
  • Institutional Theory in Global and Comparative Perspective
  • Institutional Theory Outside of Sociology
  • Criticisms of Institutional Theory

Sociology Institutions
Fabio Rojas
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0132


Sociologists have long noticed that communal life is often orderly. This observation motivates the idea of “institution.” One definition is that institutions are stable patterns of behavior that define, govern, and constrain action. Another definition is that an institution is an organization or other formal social structure that governs a field of action. Sociologists have a long-standing interest in institutions because they wish to explain social order. The earliest discussion of institutions, dating to the early 20th century, focuses on micro-level interactions with a community or a single organization. In the 1960s and 1970s there was a shift to studying how institutions produce order on a national or global scale. Theoretically, institutions are rules that connect an individual or organization to a larger social environment. Work in the 21st century has moved away from institutions as purely constraining forces. Scholars are interested in how individuals create institutions, or how institutions erode and thus lose their power or otherwise change.

General Overviews

Institutional analysis is a popular area of research that attracts attention from scholars in sociology, management, and political science. A number of books and surveys have been written that survey this ever-growing literature. In general, these books are authored by leading scholars and provide a synthesis, overview, and critique of various strands of institutional research. Some texts, such as Scott 2008, are monographs that provide a thorough account of this area, while others are anthologies that collect highly influential articles and provide contextualizing introductory essays. DiMaggio and Powell 1991; Scott and Meyer 1994; Brinton and Nee 1998; and Greenwood, et al. 2008 each give summaries of the main ideas of institutional research as it existed at the time. Clemens and Cook 1999 focuses on the relationship to political science.

  • Brinton, Mary C., and Victor Nee. 1998. The new institutionalism in sociology. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

    Explores how institutions may be viewed as rules that emerge from individual decisions that reflect cost-benefit calculations. Thus, institutional theory may have a basis in rational choice theory.

  • Clemens, Elisabeth, and James Cook. 1999. Politics and institutionalism: Explaining durability and change. Annual Review of Sociology 25:441–466.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.soc.25.1.441

    An overview of work up to the late 1990s, this review article raises a fundamental question: if institutions are made up of rules or norms that constrain behavior, then how does social change occur according to institutional theory? This essay focuses on the processes that might disrupt institutions.

  • DiMaggio, Paul J., and Walter W. Powell, eds. 1991. The new institutionalism in organizational analysis. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Collects most of the important articles that defined new institutional theory in the 1970s and 1980s. The introductory essay by DiMaggio and Powell and a commissioned essay by Freidland and Alford have become influential as well. There are two sections, one is on theory and the other on empirical applications.

  • Greenwood, Royston, Christine Oliver, Kerstin Sahlin, and Roy Suddaby. 2008. The SAGE handbook of organizational institutionalism. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    Provides an overview and selection of institutional theory as it has been developed and applied in sociology and management.

  • Scott, W. Richard, and John W. Meyer. 1994. Institutional environments and organizations: Structural complexity and individualism. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    Explains how institutions define an organization’s environment. This book is also notable because it contains the original analysis of schools that motivated Meyer and Rowan’s argument about loose coupling of organizations and environments.

  • Scott, W. Scott. 2008. Institutions and organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    Functions as both a textbook on organizational sociology and a survey of institutional theory. This book is the most comprehensive monograph on this topic and covers a wide range of topics.

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