Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Nicholas Rowland on Cultural Economy of Legitimacy

My colleague here at Penn State, Nicholas Rowland, guest blogs on "Law at the End of the Day" form time to time.  He is an assistant professor of sociology at Penn State University, resident at our Altoona, Pennsylvania campus. He received his Ph.D. from Indiana University in Bloomington, IN, Department of Sociology focusing on the Sociology of Technology with a minor study in Cultural Studies. He is also a principal contributor to Installing (Social) Order, a blog on the sociology of infrastructure, exploring the sociotechnical nerves of contemporary society, originally formed as an informal work group of researchers at Bielefeld University's Department of Sociology.
  (Pix courtesy Nicholas Rowland)
Today, Professor Rowland blogs on the Cultural Econmy of Legitimacy.


This is a post by Nicholas Rowland, a faculty member at Penn State Altoona, who mainly writes about science and technology studies, organizational studies, and political sociology. As the forthcoming Vice-Chair of Penn State’s Intra-University Relations Committee, he’s been asked to think deeply about assessment by the Senate Chair. As a sociologist, assessment is an organizational phenomenon, merely a piece in a broader environment, and he suspects it has much ado about legitimacy.

Social processes of legitimacy – long an analytical problem for sociologists and social psychologists – has often been invoked among scholars in the new institutionalism in organizational analysis as a key explanatory factor explaining the “sameness” among organizations, organizational form, and organizational behavior. This was the “mimetic isomorphism” hypothesis in sociology that made Paul DiMaggio and Woody Powell so famous in the early 1980s. The story was always the same in new institutional theory,

that the organization’s leadership is highly sensitive to the expectations and standards of its industry; that the organization of work within the bureaucracy depends on broader ideologies and cultural scripts found in modern societies; that managers are likely to copy the practices of other organizations, especially high-status organizations; that professional groups are the arbiters of organizational legitimacy; that rational organizational myths and rules structure work practices; and that the ultimate performance of an organization’s set of tasks does not depend much on tools like assembly lines, computers, and the like (to see a paper from neo-I about museums, click here).

In this way, legitimacy is seen as a resource, a process, and an important element in organizational environments. However, there is good reason to think that legitimacy might be also reasonably studied as (1) a practical matter of governance and, thus, (2) a basic economic problem for managers, administrators, and probably politicians.

As a matter of governance, assessment is already (and will be increasingly in the future) a massive investment in higher education, and one that accreditation boards and agencies play a powerful role there within. Such agencies are gatekeepers for the legitimacy of an organization, provided one believes that being accredited by external/outside agencies is a certified form of legitimacy. From another point of view, one might say that accreditation agencies “mint” legitimacy or act as “brokers” of legitimacy in the organizational environment that, for example, universities are embedded within. Recognizing economic incentives to legitimacy-seeking behavior is a useful insight for managers and administrators' in pursuit of professional and organizational goals: what does legitimacy cost? Under what conditions are legitimacy-enhancing practices profitable? How are “good deeds” or “socially responsibility” strategically deployed and their consequences made calculable?

One could determine the economic footprint of organizational legitimacy. However, likely, these processes operate according to other forms of aggregation and other algorithms for ordering that are not yet clearly obvious, but which could be encapsulated under the terms “a cultural economy of legitimacy.”

This line of research would depart considerably from conceptions and perceptions of legitimacy common amongst organizational theorists, mainly, that once a social object achieves widespread acceptance, stabilized consensus fosters the persistence of suboptimal structural conditions and organizational forms. Inspired by recent contributions to new economic sociology, a “cultural economy of legitimacy” could describe the regulatory, normative, and cognitive dimensions of legitimacy-enhancing practices with emphasis on those accounting practices, tax codes, exchange rates, (new) organizational forms, and languages of justification associated with accruing, hoarding, and leveraging organizational legitimacy, and, of course, the granting of accreditation. More than “the degree of cultural support for an organization’ (Meyer and Scott 1983), legitimacy is likely something that could be made calculable, and conceivably, in some industries, managers and administrators “eye-ball” the cost of various legitimacy-enhancing endeavors.



Meyer, John W., and W. Richard Scott. 1983. Organizational Environments: Ritual and Rationality. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

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