*** This is not intended to be comprehensive, but rather a “starting point”. ***
Sociological institutionalism — also called neo-institutionalism or simply institutional theory — is one of the major theoretical perspectives in contemporary sociology. Ideas from sociological institutionalism have been applied in areas across sociology, including organizational research, sociology of education, political sociology, and globalization. Research on globalization has developed under the labels of world polity theory or world society theory.
Sociological institutionalism emerged in the 1970s, parallel with the development of “institutionalisms” across the social sciences. The key feature of “institutional” arguments is that they focus on the external environment within which social actors are embedded. Institutionalisms vary, however, on how they conceptualize the environment and how they conceptualize actors. Some see institutions as fragile structures that only occasionally influence the behavior of social actors. Others view social actors as powerfully shaped or “constituted” by the institutions in their wider environment.
Even within sociological institutionalism, scholars vary in the extent to which they embrace more “radical” social constructionist imagery. Such work is often called cultural or phenomenological institutionalism. Drawing off of phenomenological ideas about the socially constructed nature of reality(e.g., Berger and Luckmann 1966), sociological institutionalism suggests that social actors are profoundly shaped by their wider environment, which not only guides their behavior, but endows them with identities, interests, and even “actorhood.”
For a review of different kinds of institutionalisms, see: Edwin Amenta and Kelly M. Ramsey, “Institutional Theory.” Chapter 2 in The Handbook of Politics: State and Civil Society in Global Perspective, eds. Kevin T. Leicht and J. Craig Jenkins. New York: Springer, 2010. A pre-publication version is available here: Amenta & Ramsey Institutional Theory.pdf
Resources and Key Works in Cultural / Phenomenological Institutionalism
I periodically teach a class on cultural/phenomenological institutionalism. The syllabus contains useful readings. And, I have some lectures notes on the web (which are currently rudimentary, but will be developed more in the future).
Ron Jepperson wrote an outstanding overview/review, which really captures the distinctive character of cultural/phenomenological institutionalism: Jepperson Sociological Institutionalism EUI 5.2001.pdf
Ron’s chapter in the DiMaggio/Powell “orange book” on neo-institutionalism is also a must-read. It provides the clearest definition of “institution” I’ve ever come across:
Jepperson, Ronald L. 1991. “Institutions, Institutional Effects, and Institutionalism.” Pp. 143-163 in Walter W. Powell and Paul J. DiMaggio (eds.). The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
A smart paper that looks provides some general material, and also helpful thoughts about research issues:
Schneiberg, Marc and Elisabeth Clemens. 2006. “The Typical Tools for the Job: Research Strategies in Institutional Analysis,” Sociological Theory 3: 195-227.
John Meyer has written a couple of overviews, which are extremely helpful:
Meyer, John W. 2007. “Reflections on Institutional Theories of Organizations.” In The Handbook of Organizational Institutionalism, ed. by R. Greenwood, C. Oliver, R. Suddaby & K. Sahlin-Andersson, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2007.
Meyer, John W. 2010. “World Society, Institutional Theories, and the Actor.” Annual Review of Sociology, 36:1-20.
Meyer, John W. 2009. “Reflections: Institutional Theory and World Society.” Pp. 36-65 (Chapter 2) in Krücken, Georg and Gili Drori (eds.). 2009. World Society: The Writings of John W. Meyer. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
My favorite theory paper on diffusion: David Strang and John W. Meyer, “Institutional Conditions for Diffusion.” Theory and Society 22 (1993): 487-511.
My favorite paper on “actors”/”actorhood”: John Meyer and Ronald Jepperson. 2000. “The “Actors” of Modern Society: Cultural Rationalization and the Ongoing Expansion of Social Agency.” Sociological Theory, 18, 1: 2000: 100-120.
I also really like Ron & John’s paper on “levels of analysis.” Jepperson Meyer Levels of Analysis 1.10.2010.pdf