ASQ Book Review - Patricia H. Thornton

Patricia Thornton, William Ocasio, and Michael Lounsbury: The Institutional Logics
Perspective: A New Approach to Culture, Structure, and Process. New York: Oxford
University Press, 2012. 234 pp. $35.00, paperback.
In The Institutional Logics Perspective, Thornton, Ocasio, and Lounsbury have crafted a
foundational treatise that will be a touchstone for future inquiry on logics. As an explanation for
how actors, actions, and context come together in organizational and institutional settings, the
institutional logics perspective has found a broad and diverse audience; this book will only widen
its appeal. The authors break fresh theoretical ground and offer a solid conceptual footing for the
study of logics; as such, the book has much to recommend it.
The book is notable for its comprehensive perspective on institutional logics, which the authors
describe as a metatheoretial framework for “analyzing the interrelationships among institutions,
individuals, and organizations in social systems” (p. 2). Importantly, this perspective redirects
scholarship away from institutional isomorphism and persistence and toward institutional
transformation, for which logics are the tools of change. The authors move beyond a simplified
view of logics as unified sets of beliefs that underline action to a more complex view that allows
for the pluralism, contestation, competition, and complementarity of logics, which in turn can
thwart (or enable) organizational change. Moreover, the authors reveal how the power of logics
resides in their generative capability as critical mechanisms of organizational change (or
stability) because of their connection to practices, identities, and cultural meanings.
To start, Thornton, Ocasio, and Lounsbury state their aims as twofold: “. . . [first] to produce a
primer that imparts a programmatic statement on the institutional logics perspective that
distinguishes it from neoinstitutional theory and [second] to synthesize and propose novel theory
to further flesh out the metatheory initially suggested by Friedland and Alford (1991)” (p. 1).
The authors succeed admirably on both counts. First, as a primer, the book offers a supple and
adaptable definition of the core construct: “. . . logics represent frames of reference that condition
actors’ choices for sensemaking, the vocabulary they use to motivate action, and their sense of
self and identity” (p. 2). Prominent in this definition is that logics are more than cognitive frames
of reference; rather, they are action oriented, embedded in fields of meanings and constitutive of
actors’ identities. Thus there is a tight coupling between logics and practices: logics become
manifest in practices and, in turn, practices render logics transparent.
An important jumping off point for the authors is the seminal article on logics by Friedland and
Alford (1991) which associates particular logics with particular institutional orders, i.e., the
cornerstone institutions or ideal prototypes in society. Friedland and Alford identified five of
these in Western society—family, religion, market, democracy, and the bureaucratic state—and
argued that each is characterized by a core logic that constitutes actors (both individuals and
organizations) and society. Thus logics light the way to recognizing which actions are
appropriate in each institutional order by typifying behaviors and structuring practices endemic
to that order.
Thornton, Ocasio, and Lounsbury elaborate Friedland and Alford’s (1991) core insights, adding
two more institutional orders: community and profession. More importantly, however, they
decouple logics from institutional orders, which, I believe, is one of the book’s biggest
contributions. Freeing logics from singular institutional orders frees researchers to explore logics
in dynamic play, so that different types of logics can co-exist within organizations or be
associated with different types of institutions, thereby defining organizations’ core identities and
bounding the parameters of change. This enables Thornton, Ocasio, and Lounsbury to associate
the logic of the market, for instance, with schools or nonprofit organizations, thereby accounting
for the observed plurality of identities and practices. In turn, new research questions arise about
the co-existence and compatibility of logics and how their affinity (or abrasion) may propel (or
stall) organizational and institutional change. Disassociating logics from institutions is the gem
here, because it sanctions a theorization of logics as flexible bits of culture that constitute actors
and shape their actions. Opening this theoretical window freshens thinking about logics and
neatly satisfies the authors’ second aim, that of proposing new theory.
Another shining gem in the book is linking the logics perspective with other theoretical
perspectives in organization studies. What this amounts to is filling in the blank to pair “logics
and ______.” Three ways of filling the blank struck me as particularly promising: logics and
organizational design, logics and practices, and logics and identity.
Linking logics to organizational design illustrates not only how logics span but also how they
penetrate multiple levels of analysis. The authors note how institutional logics at a higher level of
analysis become embedded in organizations “via design” at a lower level of analysis (p. 181).
Complementing this theorization is an alternative explanation: organization design can serve as a
carrier of institutional logics that enable (or constrain) organizational action. And telescoping
beyond organizational design, the authors suggest that these embedded logics can make various
organizational components connect and cohere better, because logics can pave over conflicts
about goals, strategies, and mission.
Linking logics to identities and practices leverages the natural affinity among these constructs:
Logics supply both answer and justification to the identity question of “Who are we?” and the
practice question of “What do we do?” As Thornton, Ocasio, and Lounsbury observe, “. . . from
the inception of the institutional logics perspective, the concepts of practice and identity have
been integral . . . [but] most research to date has not effectively analyzed how institutional logics
shape and are shaped by the material instantiations of logics—the practices and identities of
concrete actors" (p. 128).
The book’s greatest single accomplishment, perhaps, is laying out the logics perspective clearly,
a feat far more intricate and demanding than it may appear to the naïve. In doing so, the authors
expand our field of inquiry by touching on some thorny issues. For instance, they take up the
question of causality—of logics as independent or dependent variables—in their frequent
mentions that logics have the potential to constrain or enable. Future work on logics might
usefully elaborate the contingencies of when, how, and under what circumstances logics may
lead change or follow from it. Another question arises around the operationalization of logics.
The authors alert us to the potential of studying practices, which can serve as sites that can tap
into the modalities whereby logics are instantiated in materiality, behaviors, practices, languages,
and symbols.
With their book, Thornton, Ocasio, and Lounsbury have taken on quite a task: to articulate an
analytical, metatheoretical framework of a construct laden with meanings that cut across the
academic and the everyday—with an intuitive appeal and a confounding breadth—and that can,
in one swift sweep, move from the individual to the organizational to the institutional. Whew! It
is fortunate for us, and for the field, that they have succeeded.
Mary Ann Glynn
Department of Organization and Management
Carroll School of Management
Boston College
Chestnut Hill, MA 02467
Friedland, R., and R. Alford
1991 “Bringing society back in: Symbols, practices, and institutional contradictions.” In W. W.
Powell and P. J. DiMaggio (eds.), The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis: 232–
263. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.