Institutional change as a labour of definition: A theoretical and analytical framework applied to “social enterprise” in the UK

2020-02-04T11:19:38Z (GMT) by Paul Conville
As market relations have expanded beyond the limits set for them within the post-war consensus, institutional theorists have sought to better understand how such change occurs. Despite important theoretical advances across the various institutional approaches, many avenues remain unexplored. One such avenue concerns the role of definition in institutional change. Although definition has attracted little scholarly attention, perhaps due to its everyday banality, this thesis argues that it plays an essential role in establishing institutions and provides a mechanism by which actors can change them. A claim of this nature is significant since contemporary theorizations of institutional change point to actors strategically manipulating the meaning structures underpinning institutional regimes. An investigation of definition illuminates how such change is achieved. Drawing on several theoretical resources, this thesis provides a detailed exploration of that process. While the thesis is primarily a contribution to the theory of institutional change, it substantiates the key arguments through an analysis of “social enterprise”, a concept which rose from complete obscurity, prior to 1980, to become of the one of the most lauded economic concepts across much of Europe in the early 2000s. By the decades end, it was the term used to describe and commend the first privately run hospital in the NHS. Concentrating on the first few years of its emergence, the analysis illustrates how diverse actors competed and cooperated in a labour of definition, a social process in which the descriptive and normative dimensions of the concept were fixed. Knowledge of this particular case, together with the theoretical framework upon which the analysis is based, provides the grounds for a dialectical understanding of definitions and institutions. Not only do actors seek to alter the conceptual basis of institutions through ‘defining work’, but those efforts are, themselves, guided by ‘logics of definition’ that, in turn, stem from ‘institutional definitions’.

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