Social Institutions and the Problem of Order: A Relational Approach to Neo-Institutionalism through Social System theory, Social Constructionism, and Critical Ideology Theory

Olli Herranen

Tutkimustuotos: VäitöskirjaMonograph


One of the most profound social scientific questions pertains to social order – the stability, change, and functioning of human societies. Two prongs to this question inform the background to operationalising any institutional theory: how a society can simultaneously maintain its integration and co-ordination (e.g., division of labour) and whether a society can be understood as more than the sum of its parts. The most influential contemporary tradition of institutionalism, known as neo-institutionalism, is no exception with regard to these interconnected questions. Celebrating a new era for institutionalism in the 1990s, some members of that school declared a ‘reconciliation agenda’ aimed at overcoming the vast gulf between ‘system’ and ‘lifeworld’ thinking in the social sciences, a chasm that separates between traditions on the basis of their perspective on the problem of order. Moreover, the neo-institutionalist pursuit, as a more nuanced exercise, was intended to offer a foundation for social studies that consider society to be structured but still changing, in all its richness and variety, without being unnecessarily formalistic. While neoinstitutionalism today shows greater variety than ever, this reconciliation has not yet come about.

In-depth study pinpoints this failure is rooted in neo-institutionalism’s theoretical premises and in the need for academic demarcation. That conclusion is based on critical reconstruction of two branches of neo-institutionalism: historical institutionalism (HI), which represents ‘system’ thinking, and so-called ideational scholarship (IS), representing the ‘lifeworld’ approach. The main problem with theoretical underpinnings is related to their background ontologies’ connection, on one hand, with dichotomies such as agent–structure and material–ideal and, on the other, with linear causal reasoning. For example, IS tends to create theoretical causal objects as tools for empirical enquiry (‘causal’ because science is based on causal reasoning and ‘objects’ since only ‘real’ things may possess causal powers). The task of explaining empirical cases entails giving these abstractions an ontological status, making them ‘things’ with inherent properties. This objectifying leads to ambiguous conceptions of how the social world operates, though. Imaginary causal objects may detach actors from their concrete conditions, or the entirety of institutional reality may be derived from individual cognitions. In general, the essence of institutions for neo-institutionalists typically involves a weird combination of mental states with unexplained ‘materialism’ or, alternatively, a mixture that includes rules, norms, cognitive frames, and other manifestations of the social relations behind institutions.

Although neo-institutionalists’ adoption of a more fine-grained and empirically based approach to institutions has addressed some shortcomings of earlier work, the ‘social’ denominator of the equation still appears to be neglected. Research into the highly debated issue of how to explain the institutional nature of society in a manner beyond the system–lifeworld dichotomy seems to suggest that the common denominator involves proceeding from social relations. A project was undertaken to revitalise the reconciliation agenda through reconstruction of further theoretical approaches. The selection used these three criteria: 1) having a direct or indirect connection with neo-institutionalism; 2) tackling the problem of order as a concrete issue as it serves as a point of reference for all the approaches; and 3) applying relevant neo-institutionalists’ development aspirations, such as Paul Pierson’s research agenda, according to which HI should address ideology theories. Among the traditions investigated were the social system theory of Talcott Parsons, Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s social constructionism, and the critical ideology theory of Projekt Ideologietheorie (PIT). Both HI and IS were considered in light of these traditions and, thereby, supplemented, complemented, and challenged by them. In addition, independent consideration of the various traditions and original readings were carried out.

The social system theory reconstructed in the project complements HI with a coherent structure to the theory. The perspective formed by a new reading of Parsons as a relational theorist offers a detailed description of institutional integration mechanisms also. The reconstruction of social constructionism, in turn, spotlights the problems of cognition-based lifeworld theories. Rather than describe institutionalisation, accounts in this tradition seem to focus on the (historical) formation of actors’ experiences. That formation is a key issue in all the traditions examined. One element of departure, in contrast, is that all the ones mentioned above assume people’s equilibrium-seeking behaviour, while PIT turns this around. It asks how modern capitalist societies have held together notwithstanding their internal contradictions (where these contradictions stem primarily from capitalist competition relations that, while beyond individuals’ control, form very real conditions for each individual acting in market relations). Accordingly, PIT presents capitalist society as a contradiction-rich whole, where various groups, with differing interests, must come together to sufficient extent to maintain or challenge the prevailing order. Ideology theory describes the contradictory nature of society and explains how social relations produce disorder as an unintended consequence of mundane, institutionalised practices. To synthesise the findings on all of these traditions and their underpinnings, the dissertation project’s outputs include a synthesis of social relations that extends beyond the system–lifeworld division in examining how a society may operate as more than the sum of its parts.
KustantajaTampere University
ISBN (elektroninen)978-952-03-1445-3
ISBN (painettu)978-952-03-1444-6
TilaJulkaistu - 2020
OKM-julkaisutyyppiG4 Monografiaväitöskirja


NimiTampere University Dissertations - Tampereen yliopiston väitöskirjat
ISSN (painettu)2489-9860
ISSN (elektroninen)2490-0028


  • critical ideology theory
  • ideologiatoeria
  • ideology theory
  • institution
  • institutional theory
  • instituutio
  • instituutioteoria
  • järjestelmäteoria
  • järjestyksen ongelma
  • kriittinen ideologiateoria
  • neo-institutionalism
  • neo-institutionalist theory
  • problem of order
  • social constructionism
  • social theory
  • sociological theory
  • sosiaalinen konstruktionismi
  • sosiologinen teoria
  • system theory
  • uusinstitutionalismi
  • uusinstitutionalistinen teoria
  • yhteiskuntateoria


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