Institutional sources of change in the formal structure of organizations: The diffusion of civil service reform, 1880-1935

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Citation: Pamela S. Tolbert, Lynne G. Zucker (1983) Institutional sources of change in the formal structure of organizations: The diffusion of civil service reform, 1880-1935. Administrative Science Quarterly (RSS)
DOI (original publisher): 10.2307/2392383
Semantic Scholar (metadata): 10.2307/2392383
Sci-Hub (fulltext): 10.2307/2392383
Internet Archive Scholar (fulltext): Institutional sources of change in the formal structure of organizations: The diffusion of civil service reform, 1880-1935
Tagged: Sociology (RSS) organization theory (RSS), institutionalism (RSS), civil service (RSS)

Summary (Abstract)

Tolbert and Zucker set out to answer the question, "why did cities adopt civil service reform?" The authors argue that a number of different answers had been provided by authors. The authors point out that the reforms in question, while almost nowhere in the late 19th century were extremely widespread by the 1930s and are essentially everywhere today. That said, the real subject of the paper is less than the phenomena than the question of diffusion of institutional forms.

Tolbert and Zucker present an empirical, longitudinal account of the diffusion of civil service reforms in American cities as a way of charting the process of institutionalization of a particular practice. The reform was change in organizational structure for city governments that was largely used as a way of addressing corruption widely present in larger American cities.

Essentially, the authors explore the impact of two types of institutionalization: (1) requirement by law (i.e., a state could pass a law requiring cities to adopt some sort of form) or (2) through legitimation that occurs over time and that, eventually, drives people to adopt the structure. This second argument is particular important in that it builds on Meyer and Rowan's (1977) Institutionalized organizations: Formal structure as myth and ceremony and explains, and shows empirically, that myths don't come from nowhere. They build on what is almost a side comment in that paper about the "logic of good faith" and suggest that initial organizations adopted reform because they needed it but that, with time, others saw this and conformed only as a way of gaining legitimacy.

Empirically, the authors used data on 74 cities from 3 states who mandated civil service to 93 cities randomly picked from US cities that did not do so. As expected, they found that initial adoption in the hierarchically mandated setting was extremely widespread but that it quickly "settled down". They found support for their second process as well. Factors they predicted would be associated with the need for reform (larger cities, numbers of immigrants, illiterates, and other demographic cities) were, indeed, the first to adopt. Over time, however, these factors become unimportant in influencing states rate of adoption.

Theoretical and Practical Relevance

Tolbert and Zucker is one of the key early citations in the literature on institutionalization, neo-institutionalism, and organizations form. Their key contribution, perhaps, is showing that forms that are seen to be legitimate early can change their character over time and become myths (in both Meyer and Rowan's sense and in the literal sense) for some actors.

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