The relationship between individuals and institutions is a core feature of the microfoundations of institutional theory. This chapter analyzes the role of conceptual metaphors, a standard ingredient of theory building, in shaping how we theorize this relationship. Using illustrations from the emergent literature on emotions in institutional theory, the author shows the significance of conceptual metaphors for theory building and argues for selecting conceptual metaphors that help craft a dynamic, recursive relationship between individuals and institutions, respecting core premises of institutional theory and offering new creative insights into this relationship.
Boxenbaum, E. (2019), "Conceptual Metaphors in MicroFoundations of Institutional Theory", Haack, P., Sieweke, J. and Wessel, L. (Ed.) Microfoundations of Institutions (Research in the Sociology of Organizations, Vol. 65B), Emerald Publishing Limited, pp. 299-315. https://doi.org/10.1108/S0733-558X2019000065B023Download as .RIS
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The quest to develop the microfoundations of institutional theory consists in identifying dynamics at lower levels of analysis that aggregate into institutional effects at the field level (Powell & Colyvas, 2008; Powell & Rerup, 2017). This development aims at multi-level theorizing and a broader analytical scope of institutional theory (Cardinale, 2018). The hope is that some field-level dynamics may be better understood if we are able to tap into dynamics that unfold across levels of analysis. Although microfoundations do not refer rigidly to individuals, institutionalists often emphasize individuals in their accounts of microfoundations (Harmon, Haack & Roulet, 2019). This tendency calls for a closer look at how individuals are being integrated into institutional theory and, in particular, how we conceptualize their relationship to institutions.
The integration of individuals into institutional theory is challenging. One concern is that scholars exaggerate the role of individual agency in institutional outcomes and neglect more powerful elements and processes that operate at the field level of analysis, which can lead to an impoverished understanding of field-level dynamics (Jepperson & Meyer, 2011). Another concern is that the inclusion of individuals may produce ontological inconsistency within institutional theory. Voronov (2014) warns that “institutional researchers should be mindful of ontological and epistemological compatibility between institutional theory and the potential sources of insights about [individuals]” (p. 168). Scholars dispute whether the benefits of including individuals into institutional theory outweigh the drawbacks of doing so. Lengthy debates of this topic has shifted attention to the question of how we integrate the individual level of analysis. (see Lok, in press, for a thoughtful analysis)
Insights into individuals are commonly borrowed from scholarly domains where individuals feature prominently, such as psychology (see e.g., Cardinale, 2018; Voronov & Vince, 2012). An interesting question is how scholars adapt these insights to the organizational realm. The interest lies in scrutinizing how imported insights about individuals are being adapted to formulate the microfoundations of institutional theory.
Language constitutes an important tool for these adaptation processes (Powell & Colyvas, 2008, p. 292). Metaphors, in particular, have been identified as “very salient in terms of generating and transmitting meaning” (Powell & Colyvas, 2008, p. 293). They stimulate new insights among organization theorists and help audiences understand new theory formulations (Boxenbaum & Rouleau, 2011). Although some metaphors are used explicitly in theory building, metaphors that operate implicitly through language are no less powerful in stimulating new insights and understanding (Boxenbaum & Rouleau, 2011). The metaphors that we use implicitly in our everyday language are known in cognitive psychology as conceptual metaphors (Lakofff & Johnson, 1980).
Conceptual metaphors shape how we construe the microfoundations of institutional theory, yet their theoretical implications are rarely recognized (see Lok, In press). In an interesting commentary, Lok and Willmott (2019) highlight the unrecognized theoretical implications of the conceptual metaphor of embeddedness, which casts the relationship between institutions (i.e., structure) and individuals (i.e., agency) as semi-independent forces that influence each other:
Merriam-Webster’s define “embeddedness” as “set firmly into a mass or material”; it implies that “agency” is “set firmly into” a surrounding “mass” called “structure.” Gidden (1984) has likened this type of conceptualization to the walls of a room from which an individual cannot escape (signifying embeddedness), but inside of which they can move around at will (signifying agency). (Lok & Willmott, 2019, p. 470)
In this chapter, I take a closer look at conceptual metaphors that position individuals relative to institutions in the theory’s microfoundations. For illustrative purposes, I use conceptual metaphors from the emergent body of literature on emotions in institutional theory. The purpose of this illustration is to stimulate debate about the theoretical implications of different conceptual metaphors that are shaping the microfoundations of institutional theory and also to guide future research and theory development. The lens of conceptual metaphors encourages us to scrutinize the emerging microfoundations of institutional theory for their compatibility with core assumptions of the theory and for their theoretical fruitfulness.
An implication of my argument is that I question whether the notion of “microfoundations” is theoretically productive for the development of institutional theory. The conceptual metaphor of foundations draws meaning from the realm of construction and casts institutions as structures that are “built upon foundations” of individuals (and other phenomena at lower levels of analysis). Such a conception of the relationship between individuals and institutions risks exaggerating the importance of individuals in generating institutional outcomes. Institutional theory would be better off, I argue, if scholars used recursive, dynamic metaphors to shape the relationship between individuals and institutions.
MicroFoundations of Institutional Theory
The development of microfoundations is stimulating a debate on benefits and drawbacks (Felin, Foss, & Ployhart, 2015; Jepperson & Meyer, 2011). The potential benefit consists in “linking key micro-concepts, e.g. identity, sense making, typifications, frames, and categories with macro-processes of institutionalization, and show how these processes ratchet upwards” (Powell & Colyvas, 2008, p. 278). The development of microfoundations offers more complete explanations of macro-level phenomena that promise to enhance the robustness of institutional theory (Eckardt et al., 2018; Felin et al., 2015; Powell & Colyvas, 2008). However, this benefit applies only to microfoundations that are theoretically coherent with core features of the theory. Otherwise, microfoundations may inadvertently fragment institutional theory and produce incoherence. Such fragmentation can occur if all theorizing is “pulled down” to lower levels of analysis. As Jepperson and Meyer (2011) point out, attraction to lower-level explanations can divert attention from the fact that macro-level dynamics often provide more powerful explanations for institutional phenomena than do micro-level ones. They call for scholars to demonstrate, not presume, that causal explanations for macro-level phenomena exist at lower levels of analysis.
Scholars have made several attempts to articulate a recursive relationship between individuals and institutions, all of which draw on conceptual metaphors. In one such attempt, actors “pull down” institutions from the macro-level and “translate” them into organizational contexts; in parallel, organizational interaction patterns “bubble up” to the macro level, where they generate institutional effects (Powell & Colyvas, 2008). This conception calls for research on emergent phenomena and process dynamics (Eckardt et al., 2018, p. 3). In contrast, the embeddedness metaphor that Lok and Willmott (2019) criticize offers a more static conception of the recursive relationship between individuals and institutions.
The inclusion of individuals into the microfoundations of institutional theory presents a potential risk of contradicting core assumptions of the theory. One such assumption is that institutions operate as “social facts,” that is, as existing quasi-independently of the individuals whose thoughts and actions they guide. The introduction of individuals into theoretical formulations risks contradicting this core assumption by inflating individual agency in explanations of field-level dynamics. Another related assumption is that individuals derive power and interests from their social position in a field rather than from within themselves. This assumption risks being pushed aside, and potentially contradicted, if institutional theory exaggerates individual agency. The development of microfoundations adds value to institutional theory only if the theory becomes more coherent and robust as a result. For this reason, it is important to pay careful attention to how individuals are being introduced into the theory.
The Role of Metaphors in Theory Development
Most organizational theories have their roots in other scholarly domains (Oswick, Fleming & Hanlon, 2011). Oswick and colleagues argue that fully formed theories travel across disciplines through a process of borrowing and domestication, which is particularly pronounced in organization theory. The process consists in selecting theories from other scholarly domains and adapting them to an organizational context (Oswick et al., 2011, p. 318). Organizational scholars have borrowed theories from psychology and sociology and adapted them to institutional theory to develop its microfoundations (e.g., Cardinale, 2018; Creed, Hudson, Okhuysen, & Smith-Crowe, 2014; Voronov & Vince, 2012).
The process of domestication is where the creative potential lies. Inspired by Fauconnier and Turner (2002), Oswick and colleagues (2011) propose to use conceptual blending as a theory building tool: concepts from the borrowed theory are juxtaposed with concepts from organization theory, which are then blended in creative ways. A core ingredient in conceptual blending is that of metaphors: they help establish correspondence between disparate concepts, which enables scholars to creatively blend them (Cornelissen, 2005, 2006; Fauconnier & Turner, 2002; Oswick et al., 2011).
Conceptual metaphors refer to the metaphors that we use in everyday language. In Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson (1980) argue that conceptual metaphors shape our understanding of the world even when we do not pay explicit attention to them. In one example, they point to the conceptual metaphor of “argument is war,” which makes us implicitly conceive of war as a battle to be won when using phrases such as “she won that argument” or “I attacked every weak point in his argument” (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). In another example, they show how the conceptual metaphor of “time flies” shapes our understanding and behavior related to time in implicit, yet very powerful ways (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). They further argue that the conceptual metaphors in our everyday language shape not only how we understand the world but also how we communicate, think, and act (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). Conceptual metaphors are powerful when they come to constitute and define our world in a taken-for-granted manner.
Conceptual metaphors are integral to theorizing. According to Ashley (1985), images capture our scientific imagination much better than the bare reporting of empirical facts. Even if theories need empirical reference points to establish their plausibility, “theorists often self-consciously move beyond the data as they generate fictional constructs, products of imagination for which no empirical counterpart exists” (Ashley, 1985, p. 502). A key point here is that conceptual metaphors are not distilled from empirical data but rather superimposed on the object of study through a creative act of establishing correspondence between concepts (Cornelissen, 2005). Conceptual metaphors stimulate new insights and help readers understand new theories (Boxenbaum & Rouleau, 2011). In fact, as Ashley (1985) argued: “crystallizing theory in attractive images is an important part of scientific writing” (p. 503). Images imbue theories with meaningful coherence and poetic qualities, which stimulate our aesthetic sensibilities and attract us to theories characterized by internal coherence and parsimony (Ashley, 1985).
Conceptual metaphors are widely used in organization theory. Organizational scholars have developed compelling theoretical accounts of organizations that include organizations as “machines” (Ward, 1964), “garbage cans” (Cohen, March, & Olsen, 1972), “iron cages” (Weber, 1946), “theaters” (Mangham & Overington, 1983), and “psychic prisons” (Morgan, Frost, & Pondy, 1983), among others. Gareth Morgan’s (1980) work on metaphors is arguably the most well-known account of metaphors in organization theory.
Prior literature has established that metaphors carry a creative potential for theory building and detailed the creative processes involved in bringing this potential to fruition. However, inadequate attention has been devoted to the theoretical implications of different metaphors. Metaphors are not only catalysts for creative theory building but also lasting ingredients of organizational theories (Boxenbaum & Rouleau, 2011). They position theoretical concepts in relation to one another and stimulate further theory building along these lines (see Lok & Wilmott, 2019). While many metaphors carry a creative potential, only some of them correspond to the purpose of theory development. For instance, if the goal is to better articulate multi-level processes, which is the case for microfoundations of institutional theory, then it may be counter-productive to draw on static metaphors in conceptual blending; dynamic metaphors may fit this particularly goal much better. The implicit choice of metaphors in theory development matters because it carries potentially significant implications for which theory development becomes possible.
Conceptual Metaphors in the Microfoundations of Institutional Theory
Linguistic elements, which include conceptual metaphors, are widely employed to develop the microfoundations of institutional theory (Powell & Colyvas, 2008). They enable scholars to articulate how lower-level phenomena, including individuals, produce higher-level outcomes, such as institutional effects. Individuals represent a commonly discussed component of the theory’s microfoundations (Harmon et al., 2019), one that stimulates intense debate among theorists.
In that light, it is interesting to reflect on the conceptual metaphors that scholars evoke to articulate the relationship between individuals and institutions as they develop the microfoundations of institutional theory. The conceptual metaphor of “embeddedness” is frequently used to articulate the relationship between individuals and institutions. For instance, Cardinale (2018) borrows insights from Bourdieu, Giddens and Husserl to theorize individuals as embedded actors. In so doing, he elaborates theoretically on embeddedness as a conceptual metaphor. Reflecting critically on this choice, Lok and Willmott (2019) contest the appropriateness of using the embeddedness metaphor to develop the microfoundations of institutional theory. They argue that this metaphor conveys a flawed account of individual agency by conceptualizing them as free to roam within the structural constraints of institutions. From their viewpoint, “failure to reflect critically on the effects of the widespread, naturalized use of the embeddedness metaphor in institutional theory impedes future theory development” (Lok & Willmott, 2019, p. 471). They encourage scholars to reflect on what different metaphors make invisible.
A similar issue can be raised in relation to “microfoundations.” The notion of microfoundations, borrowed from the field of economics, originally signified that “no macroeconomic model was to be deemed acceptable if it could not be derived from underlying individual choice behavior” (encyclopedia.com; entry on microfoundations). In the strategy literature, microfoundations came to signify an endorsement of methodological individualism, that is, explications of macro-level phenomena through an analytical focus on individuals (Felin et al., 2015). In the field of organization theory, microfoundations have taken on a recursive meaning: “Microfoundational work emphasizes how macro-level structures are constituted and changed by people’s actions and interactions, which are at the same time affected by these macro-level structures” (Zietsma & Toubiana, 2018, p. 428). Institutionalists have further developed this recursive nature of microfoundations (see e.g. Powell & Colyvas, 2008; Powell & Rerup, 2017). In so doing, they have changed the theoretical meaning of microfoundations but not the conceptual metaphor.
The construct of microfoundations draws metaphorical meaning from the word “foundations,” which “seems to be a rather misleading metaphor” (Höllerer, Schneiberg, Thornton, Zietsma & Wang, forthcoming). The source of this metaphor comes from the construction industry: “The foundations of a building or other structure are the layer of bricks and concrete below the ground that it is built on” (Collins online dictionary). This metaphorical meaning lends itself poorly to a mutually constituted relationship between individuals and institutions. When we claim that individuals (and other constructs at lower levels of analysis) are microfoundations of institutions (i.e., macro-level structures), then we implicitly give more weight to individuals in the recursive relationship. This imbalance is metaphorically induced: physical structures easily collapse if they are built without foundations. In contrast, foundations can exist forever without any structure built on top of them. In casting individuals as “microfoundations” for institutions, we implicitly suggest that individuals “carry” institutions, and that institutions would collapse as soon as individuals stopped supporting them. That is not quite compatible with theoretical formulations, which suggest that individuals depend as much on institutions as the other way around. In fact, the conceptual metaphor of foundations contradicts the premise that institutions are social facts that operate quasi-independently from the individuals whose behavior and thoughts they shape. The notion of microfoundations has in this case been imported into organization theory without reflecting sufficiently on the conceptual metaphor that underpins the construct.
These examples raise the question of which conceptual metaphors are theoretically appropriate for developing the microfoundations of institutional theory. Some conceptual metaphors carry implicit assumptions that may be counter-productive for developing institutional theory in the desired direction. If the purpose is to articulate recursive processes across multiple levels of analysis, then the conceptual metaphors of “foundations” and “embeddedness” are too static. We need dynamic conceptual metaphors to articulate how individuals and institutions relate to one another.
To elaborate on this topic, I now turn to an illustration of different conceptual metaphors that scholars employ in the institutionalist literature on emotions, an important frontier for developing the theory’s microfoundations (see e.g., Zietsma, Toubiana, Voronov, & Roberts, 2019).
Conceptual Metaphors: An Illustration
The institutionalist literature on emotions seeks to theoretically integrate emotions into institutional theory as part of its microfoundations. This undertaking implies that scholars articulate a relationship between individuals and institutions because emotions manifest in and between individuals. Scholars have been experimenting with different conceptual metaphors as part of this work. These conceptual experiments are worthy of a closer look because they have potential implications for theory development. The examples that I present are drawn from five recent texts within this stream of work (see Table 1). They are intended as illustrative examples and as input for reflection and debate; they are not indicative of any particular pattern within this literature or within the broader literature on microfoundations in institutional theory. My purpose is primarily to illustrate how conceptual metaphors implicitly shape theorizing, and secondarily to stimulate debate about which conceptual metaphors are most productive for further developing the microfoundations of institutional theory.
|Creed, D. W. E., Hudson, B. A., Okhuysen, G. A., & Smith-Crowe, K. (2014). Swimming in a sea of shame: Incorporating emotion into explanations of institutional reproduction and change. Academy of Management Review, 39(3), 275–301.|
|Toubiana, M., & Zietsma, C. (2017). The message is on the wall? Emotions, social media and the dynamics of institutional complexity. Academy of Management Journal, 60(3), 922–953.|
|Voronov, M. (2014). Toward a toolkit for emotionalizing institutional theory. In C. E. J. Hartel & N. M. Ashkanasy (Eds.), Emotions and the organizational fabric - Research on emotion in organizations (Vol. 10, pp. 167–196). Bingley: Emerald Group Publishing Limited.|
|Voronov, M., & Vince, R. (2012). Integrating emotions into the analysis of institutional work. Academy of Management Review, 37, 58–81.|
|Zietsma, C., & Toubiana, M. (2018). The valuable, the constitutive, and the energetic: Exploring the impact and importance of studying emotions and institutions. Organization Studies, 39(4), 427–443.|
The five texts contain a broad range of conceptual metaphors that help articulate a relationship between individuals and institutions, notably the role of emotions in this relationship. Some conceptual metaphors are mutually compatible, others are potentially contradictory. Such ambiguity is to be expected from the creative process of theory building. What matters to my illustration is not specific metaphors or specific texts but rather the patterns that they draw collectively. I have therefore grouped conceptual metaphors into clusters that imply a similar type of relationship between individuals and institutions. Each cluster offers a different conception of how individuals and institutions relate to one another, conceptions that have different theoretical implications for the development of the theory’s microfoundations.
One cluster of conceptual metaphors articulates the relationship between individuals and institutions as an “attachment,” which emotions provide. The metaphors in this cluster theorize a relationship where two distinct entities, individuals and institutions, become so tightly connected to one another that they appear as one entity. The conceptual metaphors in this cluster include performance, glue, and fantasy, which offer divergent suggestions for how such attachment comes about, each one encouraging a different path for theory development.
The following is an example of the performance metaphor:
Specific emotions stimulate and energize work and they are intimately associated with one’s tendency to faithfully perform institutions in some instances, and one’s ability to be reflexive about institutions in others. (Zietsma & Toubiana, 2018, p. 434, emphasis added)
The conceptual metaphor of performance suggests that individuals attach themselves to institutions by enacting an institutionalized script, which they internalize and help consolidate.
The glue metaphor is illustrated in this example: “Emotions energize institutional creation and disruption work … and provide glue to bond us to institutions and social groups” (Zietsma & Toubiana, 2018, p. 430, emphasis added). The glue metaphor suggests that individuals become attached to institutions through an adhesive, in this case emotions. This conceptual metaphor suggests that emotions are distinct from the two elements that are attached to one another, that is, individuals and institutions. This distinction helps construe emotions as a social entity and makes it possible to introduce yet other constructs (not individuals, not institutions) as adhesives between individuals and institutions.
An example of the conceptual metaphor of fantasy is contained in this statement: “It is through fantasies that people come to be emotionally invested in the extant institutional arrangements” (Voronov, 2014, p. 177, emphasis added). The conceptual metaphor of fantasy alludes to pleasure, dreams and imagination as sources of attachment between individuals and institutions. Such features are not only associated with individuals but can also be shared constructs in the form of utopia and other social fantasies.
All the attachment metaphors construe emotions as an adhesive between individuals and institutions but point to different types of adhesives. The performance metaphor emphasizes behavior (i.e., the act of reproducing a script), the fantasy metaphor cognition (i.e., imagination of an idealized world), and the glue metaphor an element distinct from both the individual and the institution. These subtle differences may have theoretical implications in as much as they point scholars in different directions for theorizing how individuals and institutions become attached to one another.
Institutions as Determinant
Another cluster of conceptual metaphors construe institutions as determinants of individual phenomena. In this relatively classical conception, institutions shape individual cognition and behavior top-down. Institutions determine the emotions that individuals experience and express, and they shape how individuals interpret and respond to other people’s emotional expressions. Conceptual metaphors in this cluster include prescription, proscription, and by-product.
The conceptual metaphors of prescription and proscription are exemplified in this statement:
Although emotions are often cast as the most private aspects of human experience, they are also institutionally conditioned, with institutions prescribing and proscribing particular kinds of emotions in response to particular kinds of occurrences. (Voronov, 2014, p. 170, emphasis added)
These two conceptual metaphors suggest that institutions set the rules for which emotions are (in-)appropriate in specific social situations. These rules pertain to which emotions should be expressed (prescription) and which ones should not (proscription). Institutionalized rules can also shape the embodied experiences of emotions to the extent that individuals have internalized these rules. For instance:
The shame nexus operates across levels of analysis, from the macrolevel systems of meaning that underpin prescriptions of what constitutes shameful behavior to the microlevel internalization of those prescriptions in ways that animate persons’ intersubjective surveillance and self-regulation. (Creed et al., 2014, p. 276, emphasis added)
The conceptual metaphors of prescription and proscription exemplify institutions as determinant of individuals. Both metaphors construe institutions as powerful forces that regulate individuals through rules and norms that operate both internally and externally.
Another example from this cluster is that of by-products. This conceptual metaphor has been used as follows:
Although some institutional scholars like DiMaggio (1997) and Scott (2008) acknowledge the role of emotions in institutional processes, they parallel the similar tendency in social cognition research (e.g., Fiske & Taylor, 1991) to conceptualize emotions as by-products of cognition (e.g., as affective reactions to stimuli or as distortions of perception). (Voronov, 2014, p. 170, emphasis added)
A by-product refers to a secondary output from an industrial process, one that has low value or is a waste product. This conceptual metaphor suggests that emotions are derived from institutions and that they are either an unintended outcome or a secondary output. Accordingly, emotions – and the individuals who experience them – are institutionally determined.
All three conceptual metaphors in this cluster suggest that institutions determine individuals. Their accounts differ slightly from one another. The by-product metaphor suggests an unintentional mechanism that is not specified. In contrast, the conceptual metaphors of prescription and proscription specify that institutions determine individuals through a set of rules. These subtle differences in meaning can impact further theory development.
Individuals as Determinant
A third cluster of conceptual metaphors make individuals the most powerful force in the relationship between institutions and individuals. Individuals generate institutional effects, using emotions as a driving force. Metaphors in this cluster include trigger, echo-chamber, inhabitation, and investment.
The conceptual metaphor of a trigger suggests that individuals can stimulate institutional change via their emotions. For instance, “in examining reactions to institutional contradictions, emotions have been brought to the fore as possible triggers of change” (Voronov, 2014, p. 168, emphasis added). Similarly, “violations of expectations can not only trigger social emotions, but these emotions can drive activity designed to influence others” (Toubiana & Zietsma, 2017, p. 925, emphasis added). In this metaphorical conception, individuals breach norms that trigger emotions, which in turn can produce institutional change. In a more elaborate account, Creed and colleagues (2014) suggest that “we have shown how one social emotion, shame, animates self-regulation, directs attention, and triggers sensemaking, with the possible effects of either reinforcing or disrupting institutionalized prescriptions” (p. 297, emphasis added). This conceptual metaphor suggests a recursive mechanism that involves sudden shifts in the interaction between individuals and institutions. It specifies process but does not explicate which features of individuals and institutions are in play when they interact. As such, the trigger metaphor is compatible with the ambition of developing the microfoundations of institutional theory.
Another conceptual metaphor in this cluster is that of “investment.” For instance:
We identify emotional investment in the current institutional order as being even more important for institutional maintenance than cognitive investment, because emotional investment enables agents to “go the extra mile” in conducting maintenance work essential to reproduction. (Vince & Voronov, 2012, p. 72, emphasis added)
The investment metaphor suggests that individuals engage in institutions with an expectation that their investment will “pay off.” The nature of their pay-off is not specified, but the metaphor casts individuals as deliberate actors who see in institutions an opportunity to accomplish a valuable goal (e.g., achieve higher social status). The investment metaphor implies that individual agency is not institutionally determined; individuals are metaphorically free to select institutions.
A third conceptual metaphor in this cluster is that of an echo-chamber. For instance, Toubiana and Zietsma (2017) “argue that the echo-chamber effect can explain why a relatively small number of actors can influence organizational change and response – through the emotional amplification created on social media” (p. 946, emphasis added). The metaphor of an echo-chamber refers to an amplification process where emotions, an individual level phenomenon, produce institutional effects. This metaphor also suggests that individuals shape institutions, but perhaps in more unintentional ways than the investment metaphor suggests.
A final conceptual metaphor in this cluster is inhabitation (see also Hallett, 2010; Hallett & Ventresca, 2006). For instance, “it is only through a deeper engagement with these emotional, embodied, and socially embedded persons that we can begin to understand the inhabited processes of institutional stability or change” (Creed et al., 2014, p. 297, emphasis added). In this metaphorical conception, individuals animate institutions, bringing them to life. Otherwise, institutions are “abandoned.” This metaphor suggests that institutions have influence only if individuals animate them, which positions individuals in a relatively determinant role in the relationship between individuals and institutions.
The different metaphors in this cluster all position individuals as determinant of institutions but differ slightly in how they do so. The metaphors of trigger and echo-chamber emphasize amplification processes, whereas the metaphor of investment focuses on future opportunity, and inhabitation on enactment. These slight differences matter because they present different directions for developing the microfoundations of institutional theory.
Conceptual metaphors constitute a key ingredient in theory development because they implicitly guide how we construe the relationship between core constructs in the theory. This chapter looked at conceptual metaphors that are being used to develop the microfoundations of institutional theory in an effort to strengthen the theory’s coherence and robustness. More specifically, I addressed conceptual metaphors that scholars use to articulate a relationship between individuals and institutions, which represents a controversial component of the theory’s microfoundations. I argued that conceptual metaphors implicitly shape how we understand the relationship between individuals and institutions but that they sometimes misalign with theoretical formulations. We need to be careful, I contend, with the conceptual metaphors that accompany constructs that we borrow from other scholarly fields. Just like the meaning of borrowed constructs need to be adapted to the field of organization theory, so do the conceptual metaphors that are associated with them. If we neglect to consider conceptual metaphors, we may produce theoretical incoherence rather than strengthen the theory as we develop its microfoundations. More specifically, we need to select conceptual metaphors that are conducive for articulating a recursive relationship between individuals and institutions.
To illustrate my argument, I drew on examples of conceptual metaphors from the emergent literature on emotions in institutional theory. This emergent body of work, which is still relatively limited in scope, engages with the topic of how individuals and institutions relate to one another in the context of introducing emotions in to institutional theory. Accordingly, it offers a fertile starting point for reflecting on how conceptual metaphors are shaping the microfoundations of institutional theory. Using illustrative examples from selected journal publications, I presented three clusters of conceptual metaphors for the relationship between individuals and institutions: attachment, institution as determinant, and individual as determinant. The presented examples served purely illustrative and thought-provoking purposes. They are not exhaustive or representative of this literature, nor are they indicative of the wider literature on microfoundations of institutional theory. An important point here is that authors may not have intended to articulate the particular relationship between individuals and institutions that is conveyed in their choice of conceptual metaphor. Regardless of actors’ intention, conceptual metaphors pull theoretical claims in a specific direction, which inadvertently affect the direction of theory development.
The textual examples show that the relationship between individuals and institutions is still under development. Eventually, certain conceptual metaphors may become more prevalent than others and temporarily stabilize what we understand to be the microfoundations of institutional theory. If we pay attention to the conceptual metaphors that inform the relationship between institutions and individuals, then we are better able to develop institutional theory in a direction that is compatible with its core premises, thereby strengthening its internal coherence and robustness.
Theoretical Contributions to the Microfoundations Debate
Some scholars pursue causal explanations of institutional phenomena below the field level (Felin et al., 2015; Jepperson & Meyer, 2011). They argue that causal explanations at lower levels of analysis, meaning at the level of individuals, groups, and organizations, may enrich institutional theory and enhance its robustness (Eckardt et al., 2018; Felin et al., 2015; Powell & Colyvas, 2008). For instance, Powell and Colyvas (2008) argue that “we need … to link key micro-concepts, e.g. identity, sense making, typifications, frames, and categories with macro-processes of institutionalization, and show how these processes ratchet upwards” (p. 278). Such lower-level explanations can add value if they are theoretically coherent with defining features of institutional theory and identify novel mechanisms for institutional phenomena below the field level.
This quest may be intriguing, but it can also lead to the neglect of causal mechanisms at the macro-level. As Jepperson and Meyer (2011) point out, the notion of “microfoundations” carries a risk that all theorizing will be pulled down to lower levels of analysis, forgetting that macro-level phenomena often provide more powerful explanations for institutional phenomena than do micro-level ones. Accordingly, they argue that scholars should not presume that causal explanations for macro-level phenomena exist at lower levels of analysis; rather, they should demonstrate it. As a contribution to this debate, Powell and Colyvas (2008) propose that institutionalists articulate a recursive relationship between individuals and institutions in which: (1) actors pull down institutions from the macro-level and translate them into organizational contexts, and (2) organizational interactions produce local patterns that “bubble up” to the macro level, generating institutional change. The formulation of these two processes already contain conceptual metaphors, namely pulling down and bubbling up, the former insinuating more deliberation than the latter. When scholars elaborate theoretically on these two processes, other conceptual metaphors come into play, as the empirical illustration showed. A core question is which conceptual metaphors are best suited for articulating the recursive relationship between individuals and institutions.
Selecting Metaphors for the Microfoundations of Institutional Theory
A number of different considerations are relevant for selecting metaphors to theorize the microfoundations of institutional theory. A first element pertains to coherence, that is, how good conceptual metaphors are at capturing the recursive nature of the relationship between individuals and institutions. Static metaphors are poorly adapted to this purpose, just like “static research designs cannot examine how micro characteristics – evolving and emerging over time – beget meso or macro phenomena or how they may affect macro outcomes” (Eckardt et al., 2018, p. 3). If the goal of theory development is to theorize recursive processes across multiple levels of analysis, then the choice of conceptual metaphor needs to be adapted to this purpose. Action-oriented metaphors, including verbs, are better adapted to this purpose than are object-oriented metaphors and nouns. And some action-oriented metaphors lend themselves better than others to theorizing recursive processes. For instance, the metaphor of a trigger is unidirectional; it is not inherently recursive although it may be employed for this end. In contrast, the conceptual metaphor of social performance is recursive in as much as scripts guide actors’ behavior, just like actors may adapt scripts in their enactment of them.
Another relevant element to consider is how well the various conceptual metaphors fit with core premises of institutional theory. One core premise is that institutions are “social facts,” that is, they exist quasi-independently of the individuals who are subject to them, that is, institutionally embedded (Cardinale, 2018). The various conceptual metaphors differ in how well they reflect this core premise of institutional theory. For instance, the conceptual metaphors of investment and foundations give more primacy to individuals than this premise calls for. In contrast, the metaphor of an echo-chamber fits this premise better in as much as the institution (i.e., the echo-chamber) is not necessarily affected by individual action (i.e., the sound). The best conceptual metaphors for developing the theory’s microfoundations are those that are compatible with core premises of institutional theory.
A third consideration is whether a conceptual metaphor can add theoretical value to institutional theory. If a conceptual metaphor reflects only existing insights, then it has little to offer in terms of theory development. Used in novel ways, metaphors carry a creative potential that can be fruitful for theory development (Boxenbaum & Rouleau, 2011). For instance, prescription and fantasy probably carry more unexploited creative potential for the development of institutional theory than does the trigger metaphor, which may have little creative potential left for further theorizing. Conceptual metaphors are most valuable for developing the microfoundations of institutional theory if they stimulate new, creative ways to apprehend the relationship between individuals and institutions.
A final consideration is the scope of a conceptual metaphor. Open-ended metaphors are generic and can be applied to a broad range of claims in contrast to tighter metaphors, which fit a narrower range of phenomena. The conceptual metaphor of trigger is open-ended, whereas the conceptual metaphor of prescription is tighter. We may select open-ended metaphors for explorative theory building and tighter metaphors for fine-tuning theoretical propositions.
These different considerations are all important for ensuring that the selection of conceptual metaphors fits the task of developing the microfoundations of institutional theory. When we borrow concepts and theories from other scholarly domains to develop the theory’s microfoundations, we should attend not only to conceptual definitions but also to their metaphorical underpinnings.
Implications for Empirical Research
Conceptual metaphors influence theory building not only through theoretical work but also through empirical analysis. They shape how researchers make sense of qualitative data as they “distill” or “condense” empirical material into theoretical concepts and processes (e.g., Gioia, 2004). Conceptual metaphors shape data analysis because “what researchers see depends strongly on the ways they go about seeing” (Eckardt et al., 2018, p. 9). Since conceptual metaphors help researchers interpret empirical data, they contribute to the “conceptual leap” through which scholars creatively connect the empirical realm to the theoretical realm as they engage in qualitative data analysis (Klag & Langley, 2013; Langley, 1999). The way in which conceptual metaphors shape qualitative data analysis is worthy of further attention because it ultimately affects the kind of theory building that becomes possible.
The role of conceptual metaphors in empirical research resonates with recent developments in the use of multimodal research methods within organization theory (Boxenbaum, Jones, Meyer, & Svejenova, 2018). In institutional theory more specifically, scholars draw increasingly on both verbal and visual data to develop new theoretical insights that can help advance institutional theory (Boxenbaum, Daudigeos, Pillet, & Colombero, 2018; Jancsary, Meyer, Höllerer, & Boxenbaum, 2018). Such developments may help scholars pay adequate attention to the conceptual metaphors that implicitly shape their empirical data analysis. Ultimately, increased attention to the role of conceptual metaphors in empirical inquiry can help us become more reflexive about the way in which we build the microfoundations of institutional theory.
This chapter examined how conceptual metaphors contribute to the microfoundations of institutional theory. I argued that conceptual metaphors carry implicit assumptions about the relationship between individuals and institutions, which shape the microfoundations of institutional theory. These conceptual metaphors deserve more attention because they shape the direction of this development. Notably, we need to give more thought to which conceptual metaphors we use to articulate the theory’s microfoundations since the chosen metaphors convey meaning that may or may not fit with theoretical claims (see Lok, in press, for a discussion of this topic in relation to identity). This point is all the more relevant because we often borrow and domesticate theoretical constructs from other academic fields to develop organization theory (Oswick et al., 2011). In the domestication process, we should pay attention not only to the definition of theoretical constructs but also to the conceptual metaphors that underpin them; we may also consider replacing conceptual metaphors that align poorly with our theory building purpose.
Ultimately, I suggest that we reconsider the conceptual metaphor of foundations, which underpins the theoretical construct of “microfoundations.” Other conceptual metaphors may better capture the recursive relationship between individuals and institutions, in ways that fit the premises of institutional theory and stimulate exiting new paths for the development of institutional theory.
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I thank the editors and anonymous reviewers for constructive and developmental feedback, and I am grateful to Joep Cornelissen, Doug Creed, Dennis Jancsary, Patrick Haack, Bryant Hudson, Tammar Zilber, and many other conference participants at Third Microfoundations Workshop in Lausanne in 2018, the New Institutionalism Workshop 2018 and European Theory Development Workshop 2018 for their engaged and helpful comments on earlier drafts of this chapter.
- Section 4: Communicative Perspective on Microfoundations
- Chapter 1: Arguments and Institutions
- Chapter 2: Rituals of Critique and Institutional Maintenance at the United Nations Climate Change Summits
- Chapter 3: Framing Fairness: Microfoundations of the Moral Legitimacy of Alberta’s Oil Sands
- Chapter 4: From Cruise Director to Rabbi: Authoring the Agentic Self through Conventions of Narrative Necessity
- Chapter 5: Melting Icebergs vs. Spectacularization: Storytelling of Conflicting Institutional Demands in Wildlife Documentaries
- Chapter 6: Microfoundations and Recursive Analysis: A Mixed-Methods Framework for Language-Based Research, Computational Methods, and Theory Development
- Section 5: Behavioural Perspective on Microfoundations
- Chapter 7: Practicing Capitals Across Fields: Extending Bourdieu to Study Inter-Field Dynamics
- Chapter 8: “Navigation Techniques”: How Ordinary Participants Orient Themselves in Scrambled Institutions
- Chapter 9: Institutional Entrepreneurs’ Skills: A Multi-Dimensional Concept
- Chapter 10: Situating Frames and Institutional Logics: The Social Situation as a Key Institutional MicroFoundation
- Chapter 11: Institutionalizing Place: Materiality and Meaning in Boston’s North End
- Chapter 12: Hybridity and Power in the MicroFoundations of Professional Work
- Chapter 13: Outsourcing Public Services: A Multilevel Model of Leadership-Driven Gradual Institutional Change of Public Services Provision
- Chapter 14: Creating the British Academic Health Science Centres: Understanding the Microfoundations of the Translation of Organizational Forms
- Section 6: Reflections on Microfoundations
- Chapter 15: Conceptual Metaphors in MicroFoundations of Institutional Theory
- Chapter 16: Bringing Society Back in Again: The Importance of Social Interaction in an Inhabited Institutionalism
- Chapter 17: What Do We Talk about When We Talk about Microfoundations? Conceptualizations of Actor and Multi-Level Accounts of the Micro in Institutional Processes
- Chapter 18: Why Worry? Celebrating and Reformulating “Integrative Institutionalism”
- Chapter 19: Towards a Theory of Micro-Institutional Processes: Forgotten Roots, Links to Social-Psychological Research, and New Ideas
- Section 7: Epilogues
- Chapter 20: Microfoundations for Institutional Theory?
- Chapter 21: The Social Construction of the “Micro-Social”
- Chapter 22: Institutions on the Ground