Sub-theme 08: (SWG) Institutions and knowledge: The role of materiality

Michael Lounsbury, University of Alberta Business School and National Institute for Nanotechnology, Canada
Renate E. Meyer, Vienna University of Economics and Business Administration, Institute for Public Management, Austria
Marc Schneiberg, Reed College, USA

Call for Papers

Institutions reside in intersubjectively shared knowledge about the world. This fundamental link between institutions and social knowledge is highlighted by many different strands of institutional thinking: It has been the central point of departure for cognitive institutionalism in Northern America; it is the core contribution of the sociology of knowledge that has its origins in the continental European sociology and of American pragmatism; it is a central characteristic in the so called Scandinavian institutionalism with its emphasis on meaning, interpretation and transmission of knowledge, and is also inherent in many other theoretical traditions and lines of thought.

The relationship between institutions and knowledge touches a number of key themes that will be addressed in the four-year programme of this standing work group. In this first year we draw attention to the role of materiality in institutional stability and dynamics. Several scholars underscore the central role of materiality in the coordination and structuring of practices and point out that institutions are actually defined through such material conditions or locales. For instance, Friedland and Alford explicitly draw attention to the ideational and material aspects of institutional logics. Goffman's (1959) "settings" or Giddens' (1984) "locales" combine features of the material world with social properties are to a great deal responsible for the "fixity" underlying institutions.

Institutions are, of course, tied to their sedimentation in socially available stocks of knowledge. Social knowledge is embodied in various "depositories". Language and discourse are certainly important depositories, but by no means the only ones. Many scholars have also emphasized the role of categorization and boundaries that distinguish some kinds of entities from others. Classic categorical distinctions embedded in race, gender and ethnicity have been fodder for sociological analyses of inequality, but such processes are ubiquitous in a wide variety of fields and industries in categories that distinguish organizational forms, products, and kinds of actors. Categorical boundaries can also be sites of contestation and highlight important ways in which knowledge becomes socially organized and has important material consequences.

While language and discursive processes have been at the centre of much recent institutional research, the more material "containers" of social knowledge, such as buildings, fashion, technology, tokens or other tangible objects, are rarely touched, or if so, mostly only as factors exogenous to the "actual" institution or as add-ons to the cognitive dimensions and discursive representations of institutional phenomena. However, in a great variety of institutionalized practices, certain material objects are almost predictably associated with the institutions' enactment. They are characteristic for the social context in which institutionalized scripts are evoked and work as framing cues to help actors to decide which institutional logic or script is appropriate. In other cases, such as in the use of certain technologies, a particular materiality is constitutive of the institutionalized practice. This is emphasized in actor-network theory and in science and technology studies. This formative or constitutive character for institutions has so far been widely neglected in organizational institutionalism.

This subtheme will explore the role material objects play in the creation, transmission and change of institutions. We invite papers that make a specific contribution on the theoretical, conceptual and/or methodological level, but are particularly keen to see these issues addressed in empirical research. We are also especially interested in work drawing on qualitative/quantitative combinations of methods and/or methodological advances. We hope to inspire a broad conversation about the relationship of materiality to more ideational aspects of institutions and institutional dynamics. Some of the more refined papers may be considered for a future issue of research in the Sociology of Organizations on the topic.

Michael Lounsbury 
Renate E. Meyer 
Marc Schneiberg