The New Institutionalism in Education

reviewed by Andrew K. Shiotani - July 21, 2008

coverTitle: The New Institutionalism in Education
Author(s): Heinz-Dieter Meyer and Brian Rowan (Eds.)
Publisher: State University of New York Press, Albany
ISBN: 0791469050, Pages: 234, Year: 2006
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The present work is an edited volume of papers by education researchers and scholars on the new institutionalism in education. At slightly more than 230 pages, it is a slim and compact work consisting of thirteen chapters, few of which crack twenty pages (inclusive of notes and references). Most of the contributions to this volume began as conference papers, and many retain something of the flavor of this format. Studies are narrowly constructed and arguments succinctly stated, rather than given expansive discussion or treatment. The New Institutionalism in Education is therefore decidedly modest in scope, and is not likely to be entirely satisfying to anyone seeking a comprehensive survey of institutionalist writings in education, or an ambitious effort in agenda-building in education research. And yet, it’s a worthwhile read, if mainly as a fairly brisk introduction to different strands of education research currently taking place under the institutionalist banner, as well as a demonstration of some of the conflicting impulses and tendencies inhabiting this school of theory, which has been widely influential across a number of disciplines and academic contexts.

The work is edited by Heinz-Dieter Meyer and Brian Rowan, who provide a brief, jointly-written introduction in addition to their own individual papers (as well as a slightly redundant set of concluding reflections). They expend a certain amount of effort tying together the rather eclectic array of contributions, connecting them to an overview of the new institutionalism’s historical emphases and to a prospectus of its future development. In the main, though, it is to this book’s credit that the discussions don’t remain fixed within the orbit of domestic K-12 schooling, but range across educational levels and organizational contexts to include a number of international examples as well. Persons interested in the diversification of higher education, the spread of private education and market mechanisms, the growth of ‘shadow’ education, and related topics will find samples of interest here.

Considered in their cumulative effect, the different contributions can be read as an encouragement to scholars to move beyond the new institutionalism’ originating ideas, many of which can be traced back to articles that Brian Rowan himself co-authored with John W. Meyer in the late 1970s (Meyer & Rowan, 1977; 1978). This is as it should be, perhaps, given that the founding articulations of the theory are now some three decades old, and have been subjected to a number of important revisions and refinements – though not, especially, by education researchers – over the years. But one consequence, on ready display in this volume, is having to deal with quite discrepant visions and strategies about how researchers might use the new institutionalism to assess the rapid changes transforming educational systems in the United States and around the globe.

It may be helpful to think of this volume as conveying a set of implicit messages or areas for further consideration and development by education scholars. One such theme has to do with the reception of new institutional theory within education, and specifically the need by education scholars to make a more concerted effort to incorporate work that’s been done elsewhere to extend the theory. Rowan, especially, takes some pains to point out that education researchers remain heavily indebted in their understanding of new institutional theory to the previously-mentioned Meyer and Rowan articles, as well as to the vastly influential argument developed by Powell and DiMaggio (1991 [1983]). These early articles encouraged a view of school organization as ritualistic and recurrent enactments of cultural models, blueprints, scripts, and taken-for-granted cognitive frameworks circulating in ‘institutional environments,’ rather than as functionally-oriented entities organized around the efficient production of technical (i.e., educational) outcomes. Higher-order cultural models and schemata – ‘rationalized myths’ in the parlance of Meyer and Rowan (1977) – were seen as informing and legitimating the purposes and structures of schooling, explaining the widespread adoption and persistence of familiar ‘isomorphic’ organizational forms despite inefficiencies, and failures in their actual performance. However influential these insights were, they had the effect of emphasizing organizational similarity and persistence over variation and change, which is precisely what needs to be explained given today’s rapidly shifting educational environments. Rowan’s own proposal is to bring in the concept of ‘societal sectors’ (Scott & Meyer, 1991), which looks at the “networks of governance and exchange” (p. 17) that obtain among the different organizational actors in a particular field. For instance, in K-12 education, such actors include state agencies and regulatory bodies, political elites and interest groups, unions and professional associations, textbook publishers and curriculum developers, school services providers, and so on. Instead of conceptualizing the institutional environment of schooling in broadly cultural or ‘mythic’ terms, the sectoral approach draws attention to how different configurations of (public and private) actors shape and influence patterns of educational reform, governance, and change.

Rowan’s proposal has the effect of transforming institutionalist research into a kind of industry studies. In doing so, however, it forces a second set of questions raised by several of the contributions to this book. These concern contentious methodological issues generated by the new institutionalism’s well-known commitment to a generally macrosociological perspective. This perspective, as already indicated, assigns causal priority to higher-order cultural elements that are institutionalized or incorporated within lower-level organizational structures and identities (for an overview, see Schneiberg & Clemens, 2006). Scholars working in the ‘world society’ or ‘world polity’ tradition – represented in this volume by Francisco Ramirez (chapter eight) and to an extent by David Baker (chapter ten) – remain perhaps the most faithful adherents to this original approach, examining evidence for the global diffusion and sedimentation of rationalized models of education and organization across different national and local contexts. But against these fairly ‘smooth’ accounts of institutionalization as global diffusion of cultural models, Charles Bidwell (chapter three) offers a contrasting position and incisive critique. He urges scholars to attend to historical processes of institutionalization through detailed examination of contingent conflicts of interest and struggles for power between contextually situated agents and groups of actors, thus moving institutionalism in the direction of historically-informed studies of ‘path dependencies.’ Standing somewhat to the side of these controversies is the contribution by H-D. Meyer (chapter four), whose account of the emergence and changing fortunes of the American ‘common school’ myth gestures at a kind of natural history of educational ideologies, in which narrative and cultural elements are related to contingent features of social structure. His argument, which is virtually alone in this collection in its attempted reworking of the institutionalist category of ‘myth,’ points new institutional theory in the direction of a relational sociology in which education is seen as a nexus of cultural and structural elements whose dynamics can be modeled in complex ways.

These rather abstract considerations, detailing conflicting explanatory strategies, may not spark much interest among educational researchers focused on day-to-day specifics of educational policy. Nevertheless, they have important implications for a third theme running throughout this book, which has to do with the growth of private education, standards-based accountability, and market mechanisms. These measures, sharply controversial and at the source of some of the most polemical and political debates in education today, have been justified as necessary in order to tighten public school management toward greater efficiencies and educational effectiveness. These ‘reform’ efforts call into question the now-familiar new institutionalist argument that schools rely on a certain amount of ‘loose coupling’ in their internal structures, whereby inspection and managerial effort is directed away from core task areas and outcomes toward ritualistic displays of conformity to culturally-defined norms and expectations, precisely to mask operational inefficiencies and uncertainties while preserving and organizational legitimacy. However, a number of chapters in this volume – especially the study by Scott Davies, Linda Quirke, and Janice Aurini (chapter seven) of the growth of private education markets in Toronto and Andres Bernasconi’s discussion of the transformation of Chilean higher education (chapter eleven) – point to evidence suggesting that market-based mechanisms intertwine with or are embedded in cultural categories. That is, even market-oriented actors presuppose cultural and ideational influences in the way they structure, organize, and evaluate personnel, services, and activities. These insights could form the basis of an institutionalist critique of market-oriented movements in education policy, exposing these as themselves culturally and ideologically informed rather than merely ‘technical’ in nature. But much more work has to be done in bringing the conceptual and methodological resources of the new institutionalism up to date in order to sustain such an argument.

This adumbration of some of the book’s central themes certainly doesn’t cover all of the territory sketched out within its pages. However, as already indicated, one shortcoming of the book is that its contributions are too widely cast, and their individual arguments too quickly developed, to constitute anything more than a prolegomena to more ambitiously systematic work. Readers more doctrinally inclined might quibble with a number of interpretations of points of theory, but no significant purpose is served here debating whether or not a particular author or set of authors has gotten it precisely ‘right’ with respect to concepts such as ‘loose coupling’ or ‘isomorphism.’ Greater substantive and theoretical tasks are at hand, and this book can be taken as an aid for educational scholars interested in meeting them.


DiMaggio, P. J., & Powell, W. W. (1991). The iron cage revisited: Institutional isomorphism and collective rationality in organization fields. In W. W. Powell & P. J. DiMaggio (Eds.), The new institutionalism in organizational analysis (pp. 63-82). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Meyer, J. W., & Rowan, B. (1977). Institutionalized organizations: Formal structures as myth and ceremony. American Journal of Sociology, 83(2), 340-363.

Meyer, J. W., & Rowan, B. (1978). The structure of educational organizations. In M. W. Meyer, et. al. (Ed.), Environments and Organizations (pp. 78-109). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Schneiberg, M., & Clemens, E. S. (2006). The typical tools for the job: Research strategies in institutional analysis. Sociological Theory, 24(3), 195-227.

Scott, W. R., & Meyer, J. W. (1991). The organization of societal sectors: Propositions and early evidence. In W. W. Powell & P. J. DiMaggio (Eds.), The new institutionalism in organizational analysis (pp. 108-140). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 21, 2008 ID Number: 15315, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 10:36:39 PM

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