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Social Heuristics: The Pragmatics of Convention in Decision-Making

Institutions and Ideals: Philip Selznick’s Legacy for Organizational Studies

ISBN: 978-1-78441-726-0, eISBN: 978-1-78441-725-3

ISSN: 0733-558X

Publication date: 28 March 2015


Following Philip Selznick’s lead in using pragmatist social science to understand issues of public concern we conducted a study of failed innovation in the commercial construction industry (CCI). We find that social heuristics – collectively constructed and maintained interpretive decision-making frames – significantly shape economic and non-economic decision-making practices. Social heuristics are the outcome of industry-based “institutionalization processes” and are widely held and commonly relied on in CCI to reduce uncertainty endemic to decision-making; they provide actors with both a priori and ex post facto justifications for economic decisions that appear socially rational to industry co-participants. In the CCI – a project-centered production network – social heuristics as shared institutions sustain network-based social order but in so doing discourage novel technologies and impede innovation. Social heuristics are actor-level constructs that reflect macro-level institutional arrangements and networked production relations. The concept of social heuristics offers the promise of developing a genuinely social theory of individual economic choice and action that is historically informed, contextually situated, and neither psychologically nor structurally reductionist.




The authors are grateful for support from the California Institute for Energy Efficiency (CIEE), a research unit of the University of California, the Jerome J. and Elsie Suran Chair endowment, and the Institute for Governmental Affairs, University of California, Davis. Drafts of this paper have benefited from the generous critiques and comments of Fred Block; Vicki Smith; Lyn Lofland; Ryken Grattet; Dina Biscotti, Nathaniel Freiburger; Steve Vallas; Marc Ventresca; David Smilde; the Georgia Workshop on Culture and Institutions, Department of Sociology, University of Georgia; the Penn-Wharton Economic Sociology Conference; and Research Workshop on Institutions, Conflict, and Change, Kellogg Graduate School of Management, Northwestern University, and European Group on Organizations, Summer Workshop, Santorini, Greece.


Beamish, T.D. and Biggart, N.W. (2015), "Social Heuristics: The Pragmatics of Convention in Decision-Making", Institutions and Ideals: Philip Selznick’s Legacy for Organizational Studies (Research in the Sociology of Organizations, Vol. 44), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 235-282.



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