“The State, Power, and Agency: Missing in Action in Institutional Theory?”, by Stewart Clegg of the University of Technology, Sydney, was one of the most frequently read articles in the Journal of Management Inquiry in 2010. Stewart has provided a brief reflection on the article:
The story behind the article is quite simple: I was invited to speak at a one-day conference at the University of New South Wales Australian Business School on Institutional Theory. The conference was built around a visit by Roy Suddaby to the School. The conference organisers asked me to address the introduction to the as then forthcoming Handbook of Institutional Theory of which Roy was a co-editor. The introduction was pretty hard to get into because it was discussing the chapters in the handbook – none of which, of course, I had read. Moreover, when Roy made his presentation he didn’t really stick to the introduction anyway. I had prepared a few critical remarks about institutional theory that came from my interest and work in power. To my surprise roy seemed to agree with most of the remarks that I made. The paper had a particular construction. Thinking of examples to make my points I came up with a number of examples that drew on the state and on questions of agency, hence the title of the paper. It was never intended as much more than a quick conference paper but someone, I am not sure who but it was probably Roy, suggested that i send it to the JMI because they might be interested – so I did and they were. The reviewers were broadly supportive and suggested a few changes, which I duly made. I never imagined that it would generate a great deal of interest as i am not probably thought of as a member of the institutional theory camp – although I guess I could be; however, I have always tended to try and resist labelling in the interests of nomadic theorizing.
I think that the interest in the article arose because it put the finger on some of the more mechanical aspects of institutional theory and suggested that the theory has a conservative political bias, that it is really a modern representation of functionalist theory – with all its flaws. For many younger researchers today functionalism is probably something they never leaned about in graduate school – perhaps because it was largely a sociological debate and a debate that occurred before they were born. So the idea that what appears as new theory is actually quite old might have seemed an innovative idea. The paper reported no empirical research but it did reflect my abiding interest in all forms of politics, from which I drew the cases that I used as examples.
Overall, the paper is closely related to a project that has just given birth to a new Sage book, Strategy: Theory and Practice (Clegg, Carter, Kornberger and Schweitzer 2011). This project is one of repositioning Management and Organization Theory, in this case Strategy, in a frame in which power relations are paramount, essential and central. Thus the paper forms a part of a series of works; for instance, some of the ideas in the paper were first canvassed in The Sage Handbook of Power (Clegg & Haugaard 2009). In turn, the paper was related to earlier interventions in the journal Strategic Organization, which addressed the incoherence of fashionable strategy-as-practie positions. In all these cases the analysis that i made reached back into ethnomethodological studies with a power twist. Such work has been a key element in my thinking for the past 35 years, so in some respects, there wasn’t a lot that was new for me in the paper – but to the extent that it has not been incorporated into mainstream positions the arguments might have seemed new to those who were not familiar with my work. Either that or there was a demand for my work that I never knew about! I don’t know which of these might be correct.