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Colloquially, institutions are referred to as a large organization that occupies a central position in society. The new or sociological institutionalism conceputalizes institutions somewhat differently. Broadly speaking, institutions are stable, established rules and expectations that developed and exist in societies and influence structures and actions of organizations, other social entities (e.g., families) and individuals. From a social constructivist perspective they describe social facts that people take for granted in a given social setting like democracies and the right to vote, markets and money, or the use of computers and email communication at work (Scott 2014; Walgenbach 2014). According to Scott (2014, pp. 59-70) institutions are based on three pillars:

  • The regulative pillar that focuses regulatory aspects (rule-setting, monitoring, sanctioning) of institutions that influence future behavior through enforcing formal (e.g., laws) or informal (e.g., traditions) rules.
  • The normative pillar highlights the importance of values (what is desired and preferred) and norms that identify the appropriate and legitimate means for reaching valued goals. Institutions describe broad and general norms and values as well as such that are related to social position and roles (e.g., through a certain position in an organization). Obligation and appropriateness are the central mechanisms.
  • The cultural-cognitive pillar underlines the social construction of meanings that leads to "symbolic systems viewed as objective and external to the individual" (p. 67). This means actors are hardly aware of these meaning systems or cultures that arise through interactions with the environment so that they do not need to be governed or enforced.

Although institutions primarilly are symbolic systems they also depend on social behavior (their active production and reproduction) and material resources (Scott 2014, p. 57). Thus, they are very relevant in the context of Online-Participation.

Theories: Organizational Institutionalism


Several organizations and organizational actors represent important stakeholders regarding Online-Participation at the local level. Viewed from an institutional perspective Online-Participation is not only a technological challenge but also encompasses questions about the social evaluations and understandings of participation and the use of networking technologies in different social settings, like business to customer interactions or the communication of parties or public administrations with citizens in the policy-making process. Organizational institutionalism that focuses on such different interpretations of rational behavior can be a helpful lens for analyzing Online-Participation. Foundational and important perspectives in this stream of research are (see Walgenbach 2014; Süß 2008):

  • Macro-institutionalism: There is a long tradition in organizational institutionalism that focuses on diffusion and the (de-)institutionalization of institutions in social groups or organizational fields (e.g., not-for-profit sector, local governments or the automotive industry). Macro-institutionalisms concentrates on how institutions that exist in the social environment constrain and guide which actions or organizational forms are legitimate. Because legitimacy, that is social approval, is necessary in order to secure support and resources, social entities - their forms, practices, actions etc. - are not only determined through technical efficiency but also through a necessary conformity with historically emergent institutions (Meyer/Rowan 1977), i.e., with "widespread social understandings [...] that define what it means to be rational" (Greenwood et al. 2008, 3). Organizations can also decide to only formally adopt institutionally expected structures or practices and 'decouple' them from their actual way of working in order to stay capable of acting (Meyer/Rowan 1977).
  • Micro-institutionalism: Another important branch of organizational institutionalism puts stronger focus on the cultural-cognitive aspects of institutions that actors perceive as taken-for-granted and objective facts in specific situations (e.g., organizational settings) compared to the compliance with demands from the broader institutional environment. Organizations can themselves represent taken-for-granted entities that are highly institutionalized through their formal structure and routines, which means they are highly legitimate and themselves possess the power to influence existing institutions. Depending on the context, institutions can vary in their degree of institutionalization or set conflicting demands and leave scope for actions. Organizations and other actors are not only recipients of institutional pressures but can also influence the institutional context (Zucker 1977, 1987).
  • Embedded agency and actors: Considering this tension between agentic, active, strategic, and selective interpretation and engagement with institutions and the objectified, internalized, and structuring role of institutions has lead to a stronger debate about the embeddedness of actors and agency in organizational institutionalism (Walgenbach 2014). While the studies analyzing the role of 'institutional entrepreneurs' that have the power, resources, and interst to change institutions focused on rare, heroic, and powerful actors (e.g., Hardy/Maguire 2008), the 'institutional work' approach has broadened that debate. Institutional work highlights that all actors are relevant in the production and reproduction of institutions. It can be defined as the 'the purposive action of individuals and organizations aimed at creating, maintaining and disrupting institutions' (Lawrence & Suddaby 2006). Hence, institutional work can help us to explain the stability of institutions as well as processes of institutional change (creating and changing them) although actors are embedded in institutionalized structures.

Institutional Logics & Institutional Complexity

  • One currently very prominent approach in organizational institutionalism is the Institutional Logics Approach. Its goal is the development of an integrated understanding of institutions through ideal-typical descriptions of dominant societal institutional logics and how they work at different societal levels (society, organizational fields, organizations or individual). Logics are defined "as the socially constructed, historical patterns of cultural symbols and material practices, including assumptions, values, and beliefs, by which individuals and organizations provide meaning to their daily activity, organize time and space, and reproduce their lives and experiences."(Thornton et al. 2012, 4). For example Thornton et al. (2012) described global institutional logics of the western world (e.g., the market, family, religion, state, community etc.); others took a closer look at one organizational field and analyzed for example institutional logics of public administrations and contrasted the traditional bureaucratic-legalistic logic with new public management related managerial logic (Meyer et al. 2014; see also Tilcsik 2010).
  • This coexistence of logics can lead to conflicts and complex situations. Such institutional complexity in organizational fields (Greenwood et al. 2011) challenges organizations and its members but also enables various possible reactions. It is common in highly institutionalized contexts, like local and municipal politics that is characterized through the interaction of multiple stakeholders of political actors like councils, public administrations, or NGOs. The institutional perspective offers lenses for the analyses of the complexity (e.g., potentially conflicting values or goals) in specific organizational settings arising from reforms and innovative practices associated with Online-Participation.
  • For example, focusing on institutional complexity offers perspectives for analyzing how conflicting institutional logics can be balanced in organizational practices (Smets et al. 2015) and how (public) organizations translate new institutional demands into organizational routines (see Kornberger et al. 2017 for an example of the translation of municipal open government practices).


So far, only few studies analyzed the institutional context of Online-Participation or the "institutional resistance" (Susha/Grönlund 2012, p. ) from an organizational perspective. See for example:

  • Chadwick (2011) was among the first who emphasized a stronger focus on the institutional complexity of online-participation initiatives that can ultimatively lead to projects' failure if not addressed adequately. He states that analyzing local online-participation "requires that we examine and weigh the relative importance of actors’ motivations and narratives, their proximate decision-making processes, institutional networks and hierarchies, and the complex interplay of different actors and interests within a given organization. In short, such an approach requires a method that allows us to think inside the box." (p. 23)
  • Panagiotopoulos (2011) highlights that local governments undergo a change process when implementing online-participation. However, external institutional pressures do not get implemented directly but internal actors adapt new practices to the institutionalized local context (e.g., organizational structures, identities, or norms). In another study Panagiotopoulos et al. (2012) how coercive pressures from national government policies (making e-petitions mandatory for local governments) do not necessarily lead to an intensive use of these new practices. The local context (e.g., size of the municipality or socio-economic status of the population) as well as previous experience (e.g., with e-participation) strongly influence top-down diffusion.
  • Kolsaker and Lee-Kelley (2009) compare the institutional perspectives of local councillors and administrators. They observed "a lack of shared vision amongst key stakeholders responsible for implementing e-enabled participation" (p. 161) because they had different priorities and perspectives. However, both groups need to work together in order to offer effective digital participation opportunities for citizens.

Pages in category "Institutions"

The following 21 pages are in this category, out of 21 total.