Institutional Work and the Transformation of an Organizational Field: Exploring the Interplay of Boundary Work and Practice Work



The role of agency in the transformation of fields has emerged as an important and exciting issue in the study of organizations. Prior research has highlighted the work of actors to create, maintain and disrupt the practices that are considered legitimate within a field (practice work) and the boundaries between sets of individuals and groups (boundary work), but has largely overlooked the interplay of these two forms of institutional work. To address this gap, we draw on an in-depth longitudinal analysis of conflict over harvesting practices and decision authority in the BC coastal forest industry. We find that actors’ boundary work and practice work operate in recursive configurations that underpin cycles of institutional innovation, conflict, stability and estabilization. We also find that transitions between these cycles are triggered by combinations of three conditions: 1) the state of boundaries, 2) the state of practices, and 3) the existence of actors with the capacity to undertake the boundary and practice work of a different institutional process. We argue that these findings contribute to untangling the paradox of embedded agency by identifying the means by, and conditions under which actors become disembedded and reembedded in organizational fields. We also contribute to an understanding of the processes and mechanisms which drive changes in the institutional lifecycle.

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Carolien Heintjes