Encyclopedia  |   World Factbook  |   World Flags  |   Reference Tables  |   List of Lists     
   Academic Disciplines  |   Historical Timeline  |   Themed Timelines  |   Biographies  |   How-Tos     
Sponsor by The Tattoo Collection
New institutionalism
Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

New institutionalism


Like many social theories, institutionalism seeks to explain why things are the way they are. Through defining institutions, discussing the process of institutionalization, and explaining the effects of institutions, we can see that institutionalism provides an effective perspective from which to view society. The improvements of new institutionalism upon this perspective can be seen by further examining three frameworks that constitute institutionalism: regulative, normative, and cultural-cognitive (Scott 2001).


While the family, the government, and schools are often thought of as institutions, institutions also refer to more abstract structures. Institutions are social structures (such as the family but also including a system such as gender) that consist of symbols, actions, and material resources (Scott 2001). For example, gender as an institution includes symbols such as attitudes, appropriate behaviors based on gender (actions), and material resources such as a dichotomous gender system. These symbols, etc. are also called logics of appropriateness, or "material practices and symbolic constructions" (Friedland and Alford 1991, p. 248).


Institutions begin through institutionalization, which "occurs whenever there is a reciprocal typification of habitualized actions by types of actors" (Berger and Luckmann 1966, p. 54). That is, certain types of actors develop habits or patterns through interaction. Institutionalization occurs as these interactions are reproduced and become taken for granted (Jepperson 1991). Following the gender example, institutionalization of the gendered behavior of males paying for females during courtship may have began, in part, during a time when women were not able to provide for themselves. Over time this behavior became routinized and habitualized, or institutionalized, resulting in still traditional practices despite the lack of economic necessity for those practices.

Institutions are durable, transmittable, maintainable, and reproducible (Scott 2001). Berger and Luckmann (1966) speak of a dialectic process in which institutions are socially constructed but also act back on the producers. "Man…and his social world interact with each other. The product acts back upon the producer" (p. 61). In this way, institutions are durable - they persist across time (transmittable) and are somewhat difficult to change. Institutions are also maintainable and reproducible. When individuals follow appropriate institutional logics, they are reproducing institutions. A married couple is reproducing gender as an institution when they buy dolls for their daughters and toy trucks for their sons.

Rules, norms, and meaning

The effects of institutions, then, are in their pervasive influences upon behavior. Institutions give rules, norms, and meanings for behavior (Scott 2001). The regulative aspect of institutionalism consists of "a stable system of rules, either formal or informal, backed by surveillance and sanctioning power" (Scott 2001, p. 54). These rules may dictate appropriate behavior and action with the intent of evoking conformity (Scott 2001). Individuals who are constrained under this type of institutionalism will pattern their behavior by seeking to maximize benefits, similar to rational choice theories.

The normative aspect of institutionalism finds among its roots Talcott Parsons' view of the individual acting under normative systems, focusing on norms, values, and obligations. This framework "emphasize[s] the stabilizing influence of social beliefs and norms, which are both internalized and imposed by others" (Scott 2001, p. 56). Individuals under this type of institutionalism will act out of duty or an awareness of what one is "supposed" to do.

Both the regulative and normative conceptions of institutionalism provide useful explanations for behavior, but new institutionalism adds an important cognitive element. This perspective adds that, instead of acting under rules or based on obligation, individuals act because of conceptions. "Compliance occurs in many circumstances because other types of behavior are inconceivable; routines are followed because they are taken for granted as 'the way we do these things'" (Scott 2001, p. 57). Individuals make certain choices or perform certain actions not because they fear punishment or attempting to conform, and not because an action is appropriate or the individual feels some sort of social obligation. Instead, the cognitive element of new institutionalism suggests that individuals make certain choices because they can conceive of no other alternative. A "common framework of meaning" (Scott 2001, p. 58) attaches meaning to actions, expanding institutional logics to include a link between meaning and practices (Friedland and Alford 1991).

Individual choice

Under new institutionalism, individuals' choices are influenced by the societal context. The function of the action (or the desired end) may play a role in the individual's choice. Institutions come to include "both supraorganizational patterns of activity through which humans conduct their material life in time and space, and symbolic systems through which they categorize that activity and infuse it with meaning" (DiMaggio and Powell 1991, p. 232). For example, under a regulative framework a woman might wear a dress to worship services for fear of being sanctioned. Or, under a normative framework, the dress-wearing may be out of a sense of obligation. However, new institutionalism could highlight the meaning of this gendered behavior in a larger societal context; a woman, wanting to maintain her femininity in a gendered system, might consider the appropriate action for a woman to be to wear a dress to worship services (logics of appropriateness). Here we see the link between the meaning and the practice, and the meaning becomes taken for granted (institutionalized).


In conclusion, institutionalism is one way to explain societal behavior. The process of institutionalism, as actions become habitualized and also act back upon the producer, helps to explain pervasive influences upon behavior. Some understanding is granted by viewing institutionalism through regulative and normative frameworks, but an increased understanding and insight into the meaning behind practice is given through the cognitive element of new institutionalism.


Berger, Peter L. and Luckmann. 1966. The Social Construction of Reality. New York: Doubleday.

DiMaggio, Paul J. and Walter W. Powell. 1991. "Introduction." Pp. 1-38 in The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis, edited by Walter W. Powell and Paul J. DiMaggio. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Friedland, Roger and Robert R. Alford. 1991. "Bringing Society Back In: Symbols, Practices, and Institutional Contradictions." Pp. 232-263 in The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis, edited by Walter W. Powell and Paul J. DiMaggio. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jepperson, Ronald L. 1991. "Institutions, Institutional Effects, and Institutionalism." Pp. 143-163 in The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis, edited by W. W. Powell, DiMaggio. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Scott, Richard W. 2001. Institutions and Organizations, 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.