Institutional Work and Power: Shareholder Activism and Dividend Distribution at the Dutch East India Company



Institutional change and its drivers remain poorly understood. Although actors in the possession of a strategic resource can alter the structures they are in, the “hyper-muscular” view of institutional agency does not correspond to the fact that institutionalization often takes place over long periods of time. The literature on institutional work seeks to explain day-to-day and distributed institutional agency, but it mostly examines relatively short time periods. Historically oriented, this paper examines the nearly 200-year struggle over dividends between a rising merchant class and the Dutch East India Company’s (1602-1795) patriarchic managerial elite. It finds that the discursive strategies that “outsider” shareholders used to obtain a better payoff were more effective in conjunction with the acquisition of shares – a development that unfolded over several decades. This gives rise to a conceptualization of the power associated with institutional work as “layered” in time: although discursive institutional work strategies may yield the “episodic” power to change others’ behavior through discrete acts of mobilization, it is the “systemic” power rooted in slowly evolving routines and structures that determines the long-term success of attempts to change institutional arrangements. 

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