Casting Call: The Expanding Nature of Actorhood in U.S. Firms, 1960-2010

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It is an unexpected twist of history that today we routinely discuss firms in the United States as coherent actors with an autonomous “self.” Although court decisions dating back to the 19th century granted corporations some of the same legal rights and protections afforded to individuals, firms were not envisioned as independent actors in the sense that the term is used today. Instead, firms were contexts for action or instruments for achieving owners’ goals and interests, which have been variously described along a spectrum ranging from benevolent to dangerously selfish.

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They Are All Organizations’: The Cultural Roots of Blurring between the Nonprofit, Business, and Government Sectors.

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Abstract. An important transformation is reshaping once-distinct social structures, such as charitable and religious groups, family firms, and government agencies, into more analogous units called organizations. We use the ideas of sociological institutionalism to build a cultural explanation for the blurring between traditional sectors. In contrast to mainstream theories of power or functionality, we argue that it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between these historically separate entities because of global cultural shifts characterized by a growing emphasis on science, which renders the world subject to systematic principles, and the expansion of individual rights, responsibilities, and capacities. Focusing mainly on nonprofits, our approach explains two important features of contemporary blurring that are overlooked in current explanations: that the practices associated with becoming more like business or government in the nonprofit sector spread beyond known instrumental utility and the demands of funders or clients, and that sector blurring is not simply a transfer of new practices into the world of nonprofits and government. All sectors are changing in similar ways in the current period.

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Walk the Line: How Institutional Influences Constrain Elites.

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Abstract. Private foundations in the United States (US) are powerful actors in contemporary society. Their influence stems in part from their lack of accountability – they operate free from market pressures or finding sources of funding, and they are not subject to formal democratic systems of checks and balances such as elections or mandatory community oversight. In recent decades, foundations have become increasingly influential in shaping public policy governing core social services. In US education policy, for example, the influence of private foundations has reached an unprecedented scope and scale. Although economic and electoral accountability mechanisms are absent, foundations are aware that their elite status is rooted in a wider acceptance of their image as promoters of the public good. They are incentivized to maintain their role as “white hat” actors and, in balancing their policy goals with the desire to avoid social sanctions, the ways in which they exert influence are shaped and limited by institutional processes. Drawing on rare elite interview data and archival analyses from five leading education funders, we observe that foundations seek to sustain their credibility by complying with legal regulations and by drawing on cultural norms of participation and science to legitimize their policy activities.

Keywords: foundations, K-12 educational policy, elites, organizational theory, institutions

Managed Morality: The Rise of Codes of Conduct in the US Nonprofit Sector.

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Calls for accountability in the nonprofit sector have never been stronger, and the rise of various forms of self-regulation represents a profound shift for nonprofits. Existing studies tend to focus on effective design and implementation of accountability policies, with an eye toward improving nonprofit efficiency and reducing instances of misconduct. Against this backdrop, we draw on sociological institutionalism to theorize an alternative view of one form of self-regulation, formal codes of conduct or ethical codes. In this view, formal policies, such as codes, are assumed to be adopted as a response to pressures in an organization’s institutional environment, beyond their purported instrumental value. Using a quantitative analysis of code adoption by 24 of 45 state nonprofit associations over the period 1994 to 2011, we provide evidence that codes arise due to general environmental conditions, particularly related to the influences of neoliberalism and professionalization, net of the functional demands of any particular context.

Institutional Theories and Levels of Analysis: History, Diffusion, and Translation.

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Contemporary institutional theory spans multiple levels of analysis and includes several loosely related conceptual streams developing in parallel. A number of these perspectives address how and why social structures spread. In this study we show how drawing on three forms of institutionalism – historical, world polity, and Scandinavian approaches – can provide nuanced insights into diffusion. These three theories similarly reject strong notions of rational choice and functionality as the explanation for diffusion, but they emphasize different facets of diffusion and levels of analysis. Historical institutionalism, and its attendant concepts of critical junctures and path dependency, can shed light on how and when ideas emerge and gain traction. The world polity approach helps to explain macro-level global diffusion of formal structures and decoupling between policy and practice. Ideas such as translation from Scandinavian institutionalism help to clarify the role of individuals and micro-processes in diffusion, revealing that “variation within diffusion” is a common, if not expected, outcome. Rather than challenging or displacing one another, attention to historical context, macro- trends, and micro-processes can add richness to our understanding of the flow of social phenomena. Using the case of human rights education in U.S. universities, we build on these institutional perspectives to develop a research agenda that will provide a holistic understanding of an expanding social phenomenon.

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Policy and Administration as Culture: Organizational Sociology and Cross-National Education Trends.

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The study of public policy and administration, including research on education, has long been dominated by assumptions rooted in the disciplines of politics and management. Politicallyoriented research focuses on causal processes driven by power and self-interest, looking at sources of inequality and hegemony. Research using a management lens emphasizes economic notions of robust individual capacity for strategic and self-interested action, focusing on function and efficiency. Although some phenomena are well-described by these views, they overlook important elements of global educational administration and policy that are best understood through a cultural lens. Core features of contemporary policy and administration, such as privatization and the rise of network forms of governance, are not fully explained by ideas of power or function. Using examples from education, I show that a cultural explanatory framework, drawn from recent developments in organizational sociology, can provide additional insights into the most pressing global administrative and policy issues.

Hyper-Organization: Global Organizational Expansion

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Hyper-Organization offers an institutional explanation for the expansion of formal organization in the contemporary era-in numbers, internal complexity, social domains, and national contexts. Much expansion is hard to justify in terms of technical production or political power, it lies in areas such as protecting the environment, promoting marginalized groups, or behaving with transparency.

The authors argue that expansion is supported by widespread cultural rationalization characterized by scientism, rights and empowerment discourses, and an explosion of education. These cultural changes are transmitted through legal, accounting, and professionalization principles, driving the creation of new organizations and the elaboration of existing ones. The resulting organizations are constructed to be proper social actors, as much as functionally effective entities. They are painted as autonomous and integrated but depend heavily on external definitions to sustain this depiction. So expansion creates organizations that are, whatever their actual effectiveness, structurally arational.

This book advances theories of social organization in three main ways. First, by giving an account of the expansive rise of ‘organization’ rooted in rapid worldwide cultural rationalization. Second, explaining the construction of contemporary organizations as purposive actors, rather than passive bureaucracies or loose associations. Third, showing how the expanded actorhood of the contemporary organization, and the associated interpenetration with the environment, dialectically generate structures far removed from instrumental rationality.

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New Institutionalism and the Analysis of Complex Organizations.

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Abstract: The new institutionalism in sociology and organizational research is best represented as an extended family of scholars that share a broadly defined theoretical orientation. The multiple lines of thought in this tradition have a common interest in the relationship between social structure and organizations. Within this frame, researchers differ in their conceptualization of institutions (e.g. as specific legal or resource relationships versus a wider culture), the focus of causal arguments (e.g. top-down versus bottom-up), and the focal feature of organizations (e.g. formal structures versus practices and behavior). This robust theoretical tradition provides a valuable lens for understanding contemporary organizations and management.

Can Ratings Have Indirect Effects?: Evidence From the Organizational Response to Peers’ Environmental Ratings.

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Organizations are increasingly subject to rating and ranking by third-party evaluators. Research in this area tends to emphasize the direct effects of ratings systems that occur when ratings give key audiences, such as consumers or investors, more information about a rated firm. Yet, ratings systems may also indirectly influence organizations when the collective presence of more rated peers alters the broader institutional and competitive milieu. Rated firms may be more responsive to ratings systems when surrounded by more rated peers, and ratings may generate diffuse or spillover effects even among firms that are unrated. We test these arguments by analyzing how rated and unrated firms change their pollution behavior when more firms in their peer group are rated on environmental performance. Results indicate that the presence of more rated peers was often associated with emissions reductions. However, this relationship varies by the whether a firm was rated, whether the rating was positive or negative (if rated), and, often, features of the competitive and regulatory environment.

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