Back in the USSR: Introducing Recursive Contingency Into Institutional Theory

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Journal Article
Organization Studies, 2015, 36 (1), pp. 73 - 90
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© The Author(s) 2014 Institutional theory’s understanding of unplanned change in fragmented and complex environments has made the connection between institutional work at the micro level and institutional logics at the macro level a central issue. Change that is not planned is contingent on events. In practice an event, as a single occurrence of an unexpected, unanticipated or unacknowledged process, connects these levels, as the event is selected for attention, enacted in meaning, and organizationally coded. Not all events are selected, enacted and coded, of course. The recognition, attributes and potential of events depend on selections made from and meaning given to past events and those conceived as coming into being in the future perfect. The concept of recursive contingency describes how unique occurrences become connected in an evolving process over time; in doing so, it stresses the important role of the unexpected in regard to institutional change. Using a theoretical framework derived from Luhmann’s work, in which institutions are seen as relatively autonomous self-closed subsystems generating contingency, we define an event as such by the fact that what it means and what is to be done with it cannot be decided by the application of a rule: choice is demanded that requires coding it as a specific type of event. A recursive view of contingency can be connected to an institutional theory of change in which the central role of institutional codes and networks of communication is stressed, producing a new theoretical approach to the explanation of institutional change. To illustrate the argument we make reference to one of the most significant counterfactual cases for questioning the solidity of institutions: the collapse of the key organization of the Soviet Union, the Communist Party.
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