sociolo-geeze (or Meyer and Rowan revisited)

Update: Three-plus years later, this is still one of my most frequently googled pages. If you’re interested in John Meyer’s current work, you might check out the Stanford Comparative Sociology Workshop site. It’s a bit bare at the moment, but worth a look for those of you into the current state of world systems.

Not too long ago, while studying for a preliminary exam, I posted a one-sentence summary of a particular piece I was reading. The piece in question, by John Meyer and Brian Rowan, is a landmark work in sociology and is extremely widely cited.

Vanity domains being what they are ( being one, after all), I find it interesting to check my logs every now and then, to see what circuitous route brings scant few visitors to these pages. As it turns out, this very site is number one on Google’s list for the term “Meyer and Rowan.” That just blows me right away. I mean, here I am posting pictures of closet-painting, and I’m at the top of Google’s.

If there was ever a kind of strange sociological omen, I guess this is it. For those of you looking for something that is actually useful on this topic (I can’t blame you for your disappointment on arriving here after no doubt searching an otherwise-quite-reliable search engine), read further for my lengthy summary of: Meyer, John W., and Brian Rowan. 1977. Institutionalized Organizations: Formal Structure as Myth and Ceremony. American Journal of Sociology 83 (2):340-363.


Meyer and Rowan (1977) argue that organizations incorporate societally-rationalized procedures to achieve legitimacy, independent of the practices’ actually efficacy. “Institutionalized products, services, techniques, policies, and programs function as powerful myths, and many organizations adopt them ceremonially” (340). This conformity can actually undercut efficiency, which in turn can undercut “ceremonial conformity” and hence reduce legitimacy. Loose coupling, gaps between formal structure and actual activity, is one solution to this bind.

The rise of formal organization is attributed to two factors: 1) As economies become more complicated and boundary-spanning (Thompson 1967), rational organization is seen as an efficient way to structure work; 2) Bureaucratic control is perceived to be especially useful for dealing with political processes and the standardization that political actors demand (see Bendix). However, most theories assume that the prevailing problems (and eventual successes) of organizations have to do with coordation and control leading to bureaucracy, and that organizations function according to their blueprints. The authors, however, make a strong distinction between the structure of institutions or practices, which they call a “blueprint” of modern, rational bureaucracy, and actual day-to-day activity.

Norms of rationality exist in institutional structure; they are a part of social reality and are deeply ingrained in life. Hence, the “myths” of institutions take on 1) rationalized, impersonal properties. They are rulelike ways to pursue socially-acceptable purposes. 2) They are institutionalized, beyond individuals, and hence have legitimacy apart from the outcomes of their implementations. Examples of highly institutionalized structures are professions, programs, and technologies (344). Further, new domains of activity are organized according to pre-existing forms—myths of legitimate organization are already codified, and are drawn upon to create new activities. With only a little entrepreneurial energy, these forms can (and in fact must) be used to create organizations with legitimacy.

Meyer and Rowan (1977) present several propositions. 1) Formal organizations emerge in domains defined by institutional myths; extant organizations adopt institutional structures to achieve isomorphism within extant domains. 2) Modern society tends to have more institutionalized domains and more rationalized institutional structures. Hence, formal organizations are more likely to emerge in modern societies, and formal orgs in modern societies are more likely to have rational structures. Bureaucracy forms because relational networks become complex with the onset of modernity; institutional myths work as rules depicting formal, rational structure for attaining ends in such a system. This logic relates to that of Thompson (1967), in that structural elements diffuse where boundaries are spanned and interdependencies are managed. Eventually, organizations become a part of the institutional environment, disappearing as distinct and bounded units, becoming “dramatic enactments of the rationalized myths pervading modern societies, rather than as units involved in exchange…with their environments” (346).

Origins of rational institutional myths -> modern bureaucracy. 1) Elaboration of complex relational networks. The complexity of social networks leads to generalized principles (universalism, Parsons; restitution Durkheim; and expertise, Weber) as well as specific strctures. 2) Degree of collective organization. “The stronger the rational-legal order, the greater the extent to which rationalized rules and procedures and personnel become institutional requirements.” (347-8) 3) Leadership efforts of local organizations. Organizations often adapt to institutional contexts (see Selznick 1949), but they can also shape their environments by creating demand for their services in a structure or by institutionalizing their own goals. (De facto and de jure standardization)

Isomorphism has three consequences: organizations incorporate elements which are legitimate, not necessarily efficient; they employ ceremonial evaluation criteria (reliance on external awards or standardized prices); and the dependence on externally fixed and legitimate institutions reduces uncertainty and maintains stability (via associations and agreements that have to do not with performance but with affiliation, reminiscent of Dore, or state institutionalization, which provides a great degree of stability).

Institutional structure demonstrates an organization’s adherence to valued purposes and means. Meyer and Rowan write that the labels and vocabulary of structure are important, as they are the signals to legitimacy. That is, the myth of “doctor” “engineer” and “secretary” “provide prudent, rational, and legitimate accounts” (349) of collective orientation and collective ends. The myth endows both rationality and importance to the activity.

Proposition 3) Long-term organizational survival increases as state structures elaborate and as orgs respond to institutional rules. Survival depends both on managing demands of boundary-spanning relations and meeting ceremonial demands of highly institutionalized environments. Ie, both efficiency and myth conformity can endow legitimacy, resources, and ultimately survival, upon an organization. Meyer and Rowan (1977) arrange organizations along a continuum of technology and strength of output control given certainty of production: At one end, where production organizations have a great deal of ouput control, success rests on the management of relational networks (with suppliers, etc). At the other end of the continuum, highly institutional organizations promote trust and confidence in situtions of variable technology and unpredictable output, depend on isomorphism with institutional rules, not efficiency, for their success.

Problems with institutional rules: “Categorial rules conflict with the logic of efficiency” (355). Ceremonies have costs in terms of efficiency. Further, because institutional rules tend to be highly generalized, they may be inappropriate for some situations, especially those in which technological or procedural anomolies are present. Finally, institutional elements can be inconsistent: Professions contend over the same domain, for example.

To solve the problems with institutional rules, the authors present several resolutions: Resisting ceremonial requirements, maintining institutional hard-lines by cutting other network ties, acknowleding the inconsistencies, or promising reform. Instead of these, however, they turn to decoupling and the logic of confidence as better solutions.

Decoupling involves the separation of structure from activity. Disconnecting structure and activity helps to avoid recognition of inconsistency, for example between practices and measures of achievement in schools, where categorical ends are substituted for technical ends. “Schools produce students, not learning” (357). As such, “the assumption that formal structures really are working is buffered from the inconsistencies and anomalies involved in technical activities” (357). An important assumption is revealed here: That the institution is socially understood to be an efficient structure; ie, that it really works.

The second solution lies in the logic of confidence, the belief that internal and external participants are acting in good faith. This helps to absorb the uncertainty while preserving the formal structure of the organization (March and Simon 1958). The more an organization is institutionally derived, they propose, the more it elaborately displays confidence and good faith, both internally and externally.

Finally, Meyer and Rowan present several hypotheses for future research. H1: Formal organizations rise and become more complex as a result of the rise of the elaborated state and other institutions for collective action. H2: Organizations which incorporate institutionalized myths are more legitimate, successful, and likely to survive. H3: The more highly institutionalized, the more time and energy elites devote to managing public image and status and the less they devote to coordination and control and boundary-spanning relationships.