‘Convention theory’: is there a French school of organizational institutionalism? AOM 2010

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Why attempt to ally convention theory (CT) and new institutional organization theory (NIOT)? Convention theory was birthed in France, parented by late-70s economics and sociology theory before being adopted into management theory in the 1990s, at the same time that neoinstitutional organization theory, buoyed by a vibrant research program and wave of publications, asserted itself as one of the dominant streams in organizational theory (Davis & Marquis 2005; Greenwood, Oliver et al. 2008). Conventionalists in France; neoinstitutionalists everywhere else. Why look further?

Nevertheless, knowledge theory does offer up an argument that prompts between-discipline dialog. The point is that geographical specificity alone could never hope to explain away the mushrooming of different schools of thought. More and more commentators are speaking out against the ‘Balkanization’ of this managerial research in search of a paradigm (Pfeffer 2007; AACSB 2007). We will not be expanding on this argument, as it takes us away from the focus of the paper. We put forward a second argument, one that we feel is critically more fundamental. Building bridges between these two streams of theory is a doubly compelling move since they already share many postulates and embrace the same core theoretical project: to offer a socially-embedded vision of organizational phenomena. Both streams are aligned to the same tributary of ‘normative’ perspectives as understood by Hans Joas. From the Weberian standpoint, they look to extend beyond a purely utilitarianist vision of society to encompass another universe that breeds values forged collectively, that fosters policy-directions shared by all the agents. Policy-directions that are not simply slaved to individual calculation but that actively shape them (Weber 1967[1905]; Joas 1996). There is also an altogether more pragmatic rationale pushing us to pursue the work started by others (Gomez & Jones 2000; Leca & Naccache 2008; Stark, 2009). Efforts led in the late 80s to concenter American and Scandinavian institutional perspectives (Brunsson & Adler 1989; Brunsson & Olsen 1993; Czarniawska-Joerges & Sevón 1996; Boxenbaum & Strandgaard Pedersen 2009) showed such potential that the invitation was clearly there to follow the same path.

The first problem that needs unraveling is to settle on a scope of comparison. NIOT, and to a lesser extent CT, are hazily-boundaried, broad-content streams of theory. We therefore set ourselves clear-cut scope selection rules. Looking at NIOT, the long time span covered and exceptional profusiveness of the research published is compensated for by major collectively-authored works identified within the discipline itself as seminal pillars. One is The new institutionalism in organizational analysis by Powell & DiMaggio (1991), the other is the Handbook of organizational institutionalism by Greenwood et al. (2008). Since both books are positioned as meta-guides, we will tap into the references they contain for our analytical material. For CT, which is broadly cross-disciplinary, we determined three condition-sets for gating-in the research to be included: first and foremost, they have to refer explicitly to ‘conventions’; they then need to have the organization as principal analytical focus; and lastly, they have to be core references shared jointly by all authors writing under the adopted banner of the CT stream (Gomez&Jones, 2000; Favereau and Lazega, 2002; Boltanski and Thevenot, 2006; Boltanski and Chiapello, 2007).

Let us refocus on our central target question. What are the features of convention theory that set it apart from new institutional organization theory? This paper asserts that contributions from CT can facilitate modern NIOT approaches, and on more than one count. First, convention theory rounds off the model of institutionalized action by turning the spotlight to the role of evaluation in the coordination effort. Assessment is built of qualification processes founded on higher-order principles of justice and grounded in material systems. The attention focused on these two components of the qualification process – principles of justice and material systems – also sheds new light on the institution dynamics issue at the heart of NIOT research since the mid-90s, since CT highlights two action structuration systems hitherto missing from neoinstitutional theory. Firstly, it underlines the role that the intrinsic quality of the convention can play. The effectiveness vectored through the worded statement of the institution and the material system supporting it can thus help shape whether it is maintained, spreads or withdraws. Second, CT leverages compromise as a concept to chart a potential pathway towards resolving competition between several different institutions operating within the same radius of action, an issue NIOT has so far neglected. This compromise, by defining a social good that meshes several orders of worth, creates the framework necessary to define stable coordination principles despite the divergent initial positions rationalized, and to eliminate some of the uncertainty intrinsic to coordination action.

This article sets out by stating the strong case for profitable dialog between these two streams, highlighting their overlap (I). We build an analysis of the theories that sparked each stream (I.1.), their relationship with mainstream economics theory (I.2.), and the postulates and research questions they share (I.3.). The next step, aimed at exploring their differences, engages a systematized investigation of their analytical mechanics (II). Institution, convention, justification, theorization, order of worth, logic, city, world, discipline, compromise, logic competition… all these concepts are clearly framed and compared pairwise to surface differences in their ability to capture research objects. It is within these differences that resides the key unlocking how CT can facilitate NIOT approaches (III).

Convention, new institutionalism, institutional logic, qualification, compromise, higher-order principles of justice, order of worth