Isomorphism in Academic Libraries: A Literature Review

May, 2014


Academic libraries and their parent institutions must adopt innovations to ensure their continued viability in a changed marketplace. Neo-institutional theory suggests that colleges and their libraries exist in a field of isomorphic forces that may constrain their ability to innovate responsively. This literature review assesses the role that isomorphic pressures play in the operations of academic libraries. Since studies of isomorphism in academic libraries are sparse, this review also encompasses studies from other types of libraries and from the broader field of higher education. Multiple studies, employing diverse research methods, have provided evidence that isomorphism is a reality in higher education and in libraries of various types. Within academic libraries, evidence is stronger for normative and mimetic change than for coercive change. Institutional theory does not adequately explain all organizational phenomena in academic libraries. Isomorphic influences interact with the non-institutional environment, organizational factors, and change agents. Needs for future research include exploring the role of institutional theory in effective managerial decision-making.

Within the past decade or so higher education institutions have encountered a particularly challenging set of circumstances: increased accountability from various sectors, including state and federal governments; a recession that has compromised most of their revenue sources; and a diverse array of student demands, including the expectation of support for a mobile, digital lifestyle. The academic libraries that are situated within these colleges and universities face similar challenges. They are expected to provide a broadening range of services, and to do so in a manner that compares favorably with commercial services, but they often struggle to obtain the financial and human resources needed to accomplish their missions.

In this context, it is imperative for academic libraries and their parent institutions to adopt innovations that will ensure their continued viability in a changed marketplace. However, various observers have expressed concern that the higher education industry and the academic libraries within it have not responded effectively to environmental changes, and thus are ripe for disruption (Christensen, Aaron, & Clark, 2002/2003; Lafferty & Edwards, 2004; Campbell, 2006; Callan, 2010; Godin, 2010).

The sociological theory of neo-institutionalism suggests that colleges and their libraries exist in a field of isomorphic forces—essentially, pressures to conform—that may constrain their ability to innovate responsively. This literature review assesses the role that isomorphic pressures play in the operations of academic libraries. Since studies of isomorphism in academic libraries are sparse, this review encompasses studies from other types of libraries and from the broader field of higher education, ultimately suggesting inferences that apply to the narrower realm of academic libraries.

The Concept of Isomorphism

Neo-institutionalism is an approach to organization studies that postulates relationships between an organization (such as a firm or nonprofit), an institution, and a field. According to Gray (2008), “Neoinstitutional theory argues that institutions are formed and changed by interactions between field and firm.” In other words, an organization and its field are interdependent. Action in one sphere influences the other, and institutionalization is the result.

In 1983 DiMaggio and Powell authored a seminal article that has been cited in organization studies ever since. There they developed the concept of institutional isomorphism, which essentially denotes the homogenization of structure and behavior that tends to be found among organizations in an established field. According to DiMaggio and Powell, institutionalized environments prompt organizations to seek legitimacy; that is, to make choices that are oriented toward meeting external expectations rather than merely pursuing rational business interests. The authors distinguished three mechanisms—coercive, mimetic, and normative—that lead to similarities between organizations. Government regulation is a key form of coercive pressure; another example is the influence that large conglomerates exert on subsidiaries. Mimetic isomorphism occurs when organizations respond to environmental uncertainty by imitating other organizations in their field. Normative mechanisms that contribute to isomorphism are associated with professionalization—notably, when members of an organization behave in ways that are consistent with their formal educational experiences and professional networking.

In the latter half of their article, DiMaggio and Powell (1983) set forth a dozen hypotheses regarding the organizational and field conditions that would foster isomorphism. One can infer from several of these that higher education institutions are particularly susceptible to isomorphic pressures. For example, similarity is considered likely to occur when organizations (a) are dependent on other organizations for resources (e.g., financial aid funding); (b) cannot easily identify the means to desired ends, and thus settle for imitating organizations perceived to be more successful (e.g., benchmarking against aspirational peers); (c) have ambiguous goals (e.g., striving for academic excellence); and (d) rely on the services of personnel with high academic credentials (e.g., faculty members with terminal degrees). These same conditions arguably apply to academic libraries, making it plausible to propose that isomorphic change occurs in this context as well.

Over the past three decades, various scholars have engaged in discourse in response to DiMaggio and Powell’s classic piece. Scott (2008) surveyed and analyzed the diverse range of views and research within institutional thought. In one chapter of his book, he discussed the concepts of legitimacy and isomorphism, summarizing findings from several decades of scholarship. He provided the following insights that seem to inform the analysis of isomorphism in higher education and academic librarianship:

  • Organizations vary in the way that they respond to the institutional context—for example, via accommodation, resistance, and engagement.

  • Theories of legitimacy can be rooted in conformity to reason, law, societal values, or formal structures.

  • Isomorphism tends to occur most “within delimited organizational fields” (p. 152).

  • Institutional similarity may result from normative and/or regulative pressures as well as competitive processes.

  • Organizational structure and action emerge from a complex context that may include conflicting demands from institution and society.

  • Professional norms can exert strong influence on the shape of organizations.

  • Universities respond to demands from a range of institutional actors.

  • Legitimacy—whether based on competitive, normative, or regulative factors—enhances an organization’s chances of survival.

A Prima Facie Case for Isomorphism in Academic Librarianship

This section will establish a prima facie case for the claim that institutional isomorphism provides a viable explanation for many features of academic library organizations. Two lines of evidence, corresponding to sub-sections, will support this claim. First, evidence will show that isomorphism is a reality in the higher education milieu within which academic libraries are situated. Second, a review of library literature will survey findings from studies that have applied the concept of isomorphism to a library context.

A Summary Case for Isomorphism in Higher Education

DiMaggio and Powell (1983) cited university education as a source of normative isomorphism that professionals carry into all kinds of organizations. Since the people who work at universities tend to be highly educated, it stands to reason that universities themselves will also exhibit evidence of normative isomorphism. Scott (2008) went further, stating flatly that “One university tends to resemble closely another university” (p. 152). Simply looking at these theorists’ work, one begins to develop a sense that isomorphism is a reality in colleges and universities—and, presumably, in their libraries.

According to Dey, Milem, and Berger (1997), recognition of isomorphic tendencies in higher education can be traced back to Riesman’s (1956) book, Constraint and Variety in American Education. This publication essentially coincided with the emergence of institutional theory. However, systematic investigation of isomorphism in higher education has emerged within the past 25 years.

In 1989 Levinson applied DiMaggio and Powell’s theory of isomorphism to the realm of higher education. Levinson’s aim was to demonstrate how organizational changes had shifted power from the faculty to administrative elites. In order to accomplish this, he discussed examples of coercive, mimetic, and normative forces. These included accreditation standards, government regulation (financial aid, grants, etc.), private sector influences (consultants, strategic planning, marketing), academic disciplines, and communities of professional practice. While Levinson did not condemn all isomorphic change, he generally lamented the loss of faculty power, the trend toward institutional similarity, and the bureaucratization of the university.

Kezar (2013) sought to put extensive research on organizational change to the service of change agents in higher education. She devoted an entire chapter of her book to coverage of theories of change, one of which was institutional theory. According to Kezar, the virtues of this theory of change include a balance of attention to the role that internal and external forces play, and the recognition that institutions with deep traditions and linkages to societal goals are inherently conservative. A key criticism of the older variety of institutionalism is that it is too deterministic, viewing change as the product of environmental conditions rather than allowing for a strong sense of agency. Neo-institutional thinkers have attempted to acknowledge the role that change agents may play in an institution’s evolution. Institutional theory emphasizes “changes that are unplanned, mimicking, and institutional drift” (p. 37). By contrast, neo-institutional thought explores how change agents can leverage their understanding of internal cultural factors and external conditions to mobilize constituents toward desired ends.

These sources provide a summary case for the view that isomorphic pressures exert real influence on the structure and strategies of higher education institutions. A later section of this review will assess the merits of this case in substantial detail, focusing on some of the features of higher education that seem most susceptible to isomorphism: ranking and classification systems, accreditation, benchmarking, and disciplinary and professional standards. Most of these features are not merely relevant to colleges and universities as whole institutions, but also apply to their component parts, including libraries, in specific ways. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that isomorphism is a reality in academic libraries. The sub-section that follows will survey the limited amount of literature that has acknowledged isomorphism as a viable explanation of organizational phenomena in libraries of various types.

References to Isomorphism in Library Literature

There are various kinds of libraries, each of which is distinguished somewhat by its clientele groups, authorizing entity, and aims. For example, there are public libraries, school libraries, corporate libraries, and academic libraries. Some sources within the literature address libraries of all types, while other focus on a particular kind of library. This section will proceed in an orderly fashion, seeking insights regarding the incidence of isomorphism in libraries, and especially within academic libraries.

Isomorphism in General Library Literature. Isomorphic tendencies may have been recognized in libraries for decades, but overt references in the literature generally appear to have emerged about 15 years ago. Trosow (2000) surveyed the field of organizational theory as it was taught in library and information science (LIS) degree programs. He made explicit reference to institutionalism, including the concept of isomorphism, as a theory that could usefully be taught in the LIS field. Cuban and Cuban (2007) discussed isomorphism in their analysis of the divergent paths that schools and libraries have taken vis-à-vis new technologies. Johannsen and Pors (2012) applied institutional theory to their study of the adoption of evidence-based practices in the information sector, including libraries. Various aspects of their chapter’s abstract implied isomorphic phenomena (e.g., organizational recipes, cultural traits). Finally, two recent articles by Katopol (2013a, 2013b) briefly applied institutional theory to library practice, acknowledging the (isomorphic) pressures that constrain behavior and decision-making.

Isomorphism in Public and School Library Literature. Audunson (1999) studied change processes in three European public libraries, focusing particularly on the interaction between professional field norms and environmental conditions. He employed a comparative case study research design. He found that environmental demands tend to take precedence over professional standards and that adherence to standards is highest among those who are least active in the field. By application, these findings suggest that isomorphic pressures may not prevent academic libraries from responding innovatively to changes in their environment.

Pors (2008) conducted a mixed-methods study of management tools in libraries. Data were collected via surveys and interviews over a span of several years. Participants were located in Denmark and the United Kingdom. Public libraries were the primary focus of the study, though some of the British participants worked in academic libraries. Isomorphism was one of the theoretical constructs underlying the research. Overall, the findings suggested a nuanced relationship between leadership, organizational culture, and isomorphic standards. Furthermore, management tools were found to be selected for both technical and symbolic reasons.

Fuglsang (2008a, 2008b) used a critical incident method to study change processes in Danish public libraries. The author sought to ascertain the sources of innovation in these organizations, contrasting institutional influences (isomorphism) with more open and strategic influences. Significantly, the study led to the conclusion that Danish public libraries are transitioning away from adherence to institutional norms due to Internet-based competition that has emerged in the area of information services.

The literature gives little evidence that the concept of isomorphism has been applied to school libraries. One exception to this generalization is a magazine column wherein Dickinson (2013) reflected on the future of school librarianship. Contained within her reflection was a reference to the standards of the American Association of School Librarians as an isomorphic force. Based on the context, one can infer that this isomorphism was both positive (ensuring that school librarians are systematically prepared for their roles) and negative (limiting the potential for change).

Isomorphism in Academic and Research Library Literature. In 2008 Walter reviewed a published compilation of writings by a noteworthy academic library leader, Evan Ira Farber. The review noted that Farber had observed, as early as 1974, “a pattern of attitudes which causes college faculty, administrators, and librarians to think of their libraries in terms of university libraries—and thus to imitate their practices, attitudes, and objectives” (p. 189). Walter specifically associated this pattern with the isomorphism found in higher education at large. This historical insight suggests that though the term isomorphism may not have been applied to academic libraries until fairly recently, the phenomenon has arguably been observable for several decades. Nevertheless, as the following paragraphs show, formal interpretation of academic and research library operations through the lens of isomorphic pressures has made its way into the literature recently and gradually.

Van Reenen (2001) analyzed the formula underlying the institutional ranking protocol of the Association of Research Libraries (ARL). He found that the structure of the formula prevented libraries from achieving substantial improvement in ranking over time, though this would not necessarily deter institutions from seeking such improvement. Significantly, he articulated a broadly held concern that “efforts to continuously rank the campus library as high as possible in ARL, using quantitative data, may seriously distort the allocation of resources over time, and even the quality of collections and services to users” (p. 217). Dalbello (2005) appealed to institutional theory and discussed isomorphic forces at work in the National Digital Library Program conducted at the Library of Congress between 1995 and 2000.

Hoffman’s (2008) doctoral research was a multiple case study involving cataloging units at three academic libraries. Institutional theory—particularly, the concept of normative isomorphism—was foundational to her qualitative study. Her research involved triangulation through various data collection methods: “semi-structured interviews, focus groups, observing meetings and/or analyzing meeting minutes, and observation” (p. 53).

Hoffman’s (2008) study investigated the interaction between two competing normative pressures—library standards and the needs of library users—in the practice of library cataloging. Furthermore, it examined the relationship between the pursuit of legitimacy and the drive for efficiency. Analysis of the data revealed a complex intertwining of pressures, wherein (a) standards were construed to represent users and functioned somewhat invisibly; (b) cataloging managers were substantially responsible for coordinating the library’s response to the competing pressures; and (c) the pursuit of legitimacy led to redefinition of cataloging work. Hoffman’s research is significant in that it may constitute the most substantive study of isomorphism ever conducted in relation to a specific academic library problem. Her findings were subsequently published in a more accessible form for broader consumption (Hoffman, 2010).

Mash (2010) conducted an extensive study of decision-making processes in academic libraries. Specifically, he examined decisions associated with the construction of new library buildings on five campuses. He used garbage can theory to organize findings from 20 interviews of stakeholders who had contributed to the libraries’ planning processes. Institutional theory was not central to his research, but he discussed isomorphism briefly in the context of external comparisons that the institutions in the study made during their planning. He concluded that the data provided “significant evidence of isomorphic decision making” (p. 99)—namely, in the form of “expert advice, external comparisons, and external standards” (pp. 99-100).

Bracke (2010) analyzed the technological needs of the academic library sector. One of three major themes of his analysis was the diffusion of technological innovations, and in this context he discussed the isomorphic influences of professional networks in academic librarianship. In his judgment, these networks wielded powerful influence, alternately enabling or blocking change. Though he stressed the importance of normative pressures, he also gave examples that illustrated mimetic change.

Kim (2011) investigated factors that influenced the design of academic library Web sites. Institutional forces constituted one of four clusters of influence factors. Her research, which was based on surveys of Web site designers and library users, concluded that coercive and mimetic forces contributed heavily to Web site design, whereas normative forces did not.

Jantz (2012) integrated insights from various bodies of organizational theory, including institutionalism, to produce a model for the analysis of innovation in research libraries. Toward the conclusion of his article he set forth eight propositions regarding innovation; these were based on the theoretical foundations as well as empirical studies. His references to isomorphism and concluding propositions suggested that isomorphic pressures generally deter radical innovation, except under the condition of strong leadership.

Finally, Petraitytė (2014) applied neo-institutional theory to the study of library roles at public universities in Lithuania. As described in the study’s abstract, the main method was of document analysis. The author found that the libraries in her study were becoming more responsive to market forces, but that professional networks continued to exert powerful influence.

A discussion of the findings from the library literature will appear in the Conclusion section. It is worth emphasizing here, though, that the application of the concept of institutional isomorphism to academic libraries has to date been rather limited. Many aspects of higher education have been analyzed in terms of institutional isomorphism, and given the limitations of the library literature, it is appropriate to draw relevant insights from the broader higher education literature. This will be the focus of the following section.

Isomorphism in Higher Education

This section will survey literature that sheds light on the extent to which isomorphism is a reality in the higher education industry. It is worth noting that the search for evidence of isomorphism does not preclude acknowledging the wide diversity of colleges and universities that make up the field. Berger and Calkins (2003) noted that the American higher education system exhibited four kinds of diversity: systemic, structural, constituent, and reputational. The level of diversity present on the global scale is presumably even higher than in the U.S. alone. Nevertheless, the sources reviewed in this section will provide some evidence that various institutional pressures tend to limit the range of diversity even while the environment demands innovation. The analysis of isomorphic forces in higher education that follows will include two sub-sections pertaining to institutional comparisons and environmental standards. A final sub-section will assess the extent to which neo-institutionalism and other factors provide viable explanations for higher education phenomena.

Institutional Comparisons

Comparisons between higher education institutions highlight differences that can induce isomorphic pressures. The discussion that follows will survey literature pertaining to three forms of comparison: rankings, benchmarking, and classification.

Rankings. The ranking of higher education institutions has been a feature of the industry for more than a century, and the practice has become particularly intense and public in the past 30 years or so. Ranking systems can target institutions as a whole or specific variables within them, such as academic programs (Clarke, 2002; Cutright, 2002; Tobolowsky, 2003). The controversies surrounding rankings have led various researchers to study them (e.g., Martins, 2005; Wedlin, 2007; Kehm, 2014). Given the limitations of this literature review, only one such study is covered here.

Devinney, Dowling, and Perm-Ajchariyawong (2008) studied the Financial Times (hereafter FT) annual business school rankings, assessing the system’s assumptions and discussing its effects on organizations within the field. Rankings such as the FT’s have achieved considerable influence among prospective students, donors, employers, alumni, higher education administrators, and other stakeholders. Previous research studies have raised significant questions about what the rankings actually measure. Nonetheless, having been disseminated and used broadly, they have acquired a sense of legitimacy and thus influence business schools’ management decisions.

Analysis of the FT system shows that the factors that most contribute to a school’s ranking are structural (e.g., the national job recruitment market) and thus are difficult for a school to manipulate. This tends to reinforce the top schools’ position within the rankings. Rankings induce the schools to take actions that will presumably lead to improved scores, even if these run counter to the institutions’ mission or public interest. Dubious responses have been noted in the areas of student recruitment, marketing, and data manipulation. Rankings encourage institutions to aim at common targets, thus leading to isomorphism.

Benchmarking. Another form of institutional comparison that arguably facilitates isomorphism is the practice of benchmarking. There are different ways to approach benchmarking. McLaughlin, McLaughlin, and Howard (2013) advocated for and provided a case study of the “nearest neighbor” approach to the formation of a “reference group”—a group of higher education institutions against which a focus institution can be benchmarked. This article did not overtly discuss isomorphic influences associated with benchmarking. However, it provided excellent context regarding the practice of benchmarking, summarized in the propositions that follow.

  • Reference groups are developed for a wide variety of purposes, and this affects their size and composition.

  • Settling on a reference group is a process that typically involves analytics and subjective judgment.

  • Aspirational groups are developed to support emulation of better-performing institutions.

  • Numerous technical factors (e.g., reliability, timeliness, and economic availability of data) impinge on the development of a reference group.

  • Given the prevalence of ranking within contemporary society, institutions have no choice but to compare themselves with others.

Fuller (2012) discussed findings from a study of peer groups that nearly 1,600 U.S. colleges and universities submitted to the federal government via the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. Peer selections typically included an aspirational emphasis, sometimes in a manner that was too unrealistic. Ivy League schools, research universities, and other elite institutions were selected frequently.

Jones (2007) illustrated how to use an online tool from the National Center for Education Statistics to obtain benchmarking data for academic libraries. She identified this procedure as a response to the guidelines and standards of the Association of College & Research Libraries, which advised academic libraries to assess their operations through comparisons with other institutions. The vehicle for the demonstration was an analysis of library attributes (expenditures, personnel, materials circulation, etc.) for the top 46 liberal arts colleges in the nation, as ranked by U.S. News and World Report. Given that there was a general correlation between library input measures and institutional rankings, the article set forth the statistics for the top tier—a group of 15 colleges—as optimal targets to which other liberal arts institutions should aspire.

Though Jones (2007) acknowledged briefly that ratings and rankings are fallible, she ultimately claimed that “a single measure such as ranking can provide one valuable benchmark for identifying a quality library” (p. 350). The fact that Jones associated the practice of benchmarking, the standards of a professional association, and a popular ranking system is significant. Without revealing any awareness of the institutional concepts of isomorphism or legitimacy, her article endorsed organizational change based on appeals to normative and mimetic pressures.

Classifications. Higher education institutions can be classified in various ways. Perhaps the best known classification system used in the United States is the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education™. The basic system consists of six categories: Associate’s Colleges, Baccalaureate Colleges, Master’s Colleges and Universities, Doctorate-granting Universities, Special Focus Institutions, and Tribal Colleges. Additionally, institutions are categorized by facets such as enrollment profile, undergraduate and graduate instructional programs, and size and setting.

Morphew (2002) provided an introduction to the reality of institutional diversity in American higher education. American higher education comprises a wide array of institutions, a fact that is traceable to the involvement of 50 states and numerous private interests in their creation and maintenance. However, it is significant to note that within the context of this diversity, “since World War II, postsecondary institutions have demonstrated a tendency to become more alike over time—a process referred to as academic drift” (p. 345). Morphew explained this drift in terms of institutions seeking to migrate from one classification to another (e.g., from normal schools and regional colleges to comprehensive universities, and from there to research institutions). Even as states take steps to mitigate institutional drift, isomorphic pressures can tend to induce it.

Environmental Standards

The previous sub-section illustrated how efforts to compare colleges and universities—initially, perhaps, a simple effort to understand the field—can ultimately induce isomorphic change. This sub-section will give attention to the normative influence that various types of standards exert within the field of higher education.

Disciplinary and Professional Standards. According to Empson (2008),

Neoinstitutionalists . . . view professionals as key institutional agents in society, promulgating rules and principles of apparently universal applicability and, therefore, encouraging isomorphism within institutional fields. The professions are themselves portrayed as particularly clearly defined institutional fields, with their own acutely isomorphic tendencies. (Neoinstitutionalist Focus section, para. 2)

The propensity to isomorphism probably extends to all discourse communities, whether they are defined by occupation or academic field. The field of librarianship does not meet every criterion for acceptance as a profession; nevertheless, its standards encourage isomorphism, as the following paragraphs will illustrate.

Nelson (2010) summarized the historical development of academic library standards in the United States. The scope of his survey included standards developed by the six regional accrediting bodies as well as those promulgated by the Association of Colleges & Research Libraries (ACRL). He gave specific attention to ACRL standards targeting four-year colleges, two-year colleges, and universities. However, by the time of his writing, ACRL was seeking to develop a single standards document for use in all kinds of higher education institutions. Standards for judging academic libraries have been the subject of much debate at least since the late 1950s, when the ACRL prepared its first standards document. Matters of disagreement have included the following:

  • whether to emphasize quantitative or qualitative criteria

  • whether statistical data provide a reasonable foundation for quantitative criteria

  • how the parent institution’s mission and curriculum should influence the standards by which libraries are judged

  • how to achieve the proper balance of focus on inputs, outputs and outcomes

Not surprisingly, Nelson (2010) made no overt reference to isomorphism. Nevertheless, his descriptions of the influence that library standards have wielded in the academic community gave evidence of isomorphic pressures. Specifically, he explained that academic library standards typically compare one library’s measures to an average or idealized norm. Thus the desire to mimic other libraries (mimetic pressure) leads to the formalization of a standard for library quality or performance (normative pressure). Once the standards achieve the imprimatur of a professional association, librarians appeal to them when addressing institutional administrators and accrediting bodies. Over time, if accrediting bodies adopt the standards as their own, the normative force transforms into a coercive one.

Accreditation Standards. Over time, accreditation has come, at least in the United States, to provide a powerful symbol of quality as well as a gateway for higher education institutions to access federal student aid. Not surprisingly, the standards enforced by accrediting bodies have significant coercive power, and thus play a role in isomorphic change.

Donahoo and Lee (2008) analyzed 284 accreditation decisions and status changes pronounced by a regional accrediting body in the United States and reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education between 1996 and 2005. They found that The Chronicle was much more likely to report accreditation issues pertaining to religious colleges than those pertaining to non-religious institutions, and that these rulings were, more often than not, negative. Financial woes were most frequently cited as the cause for the reported rulings.

Donahoo and Lee (2008) advised that religious institutions and their sectarian sponsors should take special care to understand accreditation policies, communicate proactively, and manage debt wisely. Furthermore, they concluded that faith-based colleges face formidable challenges as they seek to combat the perception that their educational offerings are of inferior quality. Significantly, their description of religious colleges’ position implied that isomorphic pressures were at work: “The need and desire for institutional accreditation jeopardizes institutional function by causing conflict between the internal and external perceptions of religious colleges, their missions, and the educational quality offered to their students” (pp. 321-322). In other words, the imperative of establishing and maintaining legitimacy through accreditation tends to divert religious institutions’ resources and attention away from the performance of their mission.

Government and Cultural Standards. DiMaggio and Powell (1983) specifically identified government regulation as a source of coercive isomorphism. González and Hassall (2009) applied this theme in a longitudinal case study of accounting education and accounting educators within a single university in Spain. Their study examined changes within the context of the Spanish university system and its participation in the European Higher Education Area. The authors employed neo-institutional theory, seeking to ascertain whether this framework provided a rational explanation for the data that they had gathered through interviews, participant observation, document analysis, and other sources. They found that coercive pressures, exerted by regulatory bodies at the European, national, and regional levels, contributed to institutional isomorphism. Mimetic pressures were also at work—for example, in the national accreditation body’s adoption of “aims, structure and functions” (p. 22) that resembled those implemented elsewhere in Europe.

González and Hassall (2009) did not find evidence that professional or cultural norms had wielded significant influence on the teaching of accounting in Spain. They attributed this to the relative isolation of Spanish universities from professional organizations as well as national sociocultural norms. Ultimately, their study affirmed that isomorphic forces had led to increased homogeneity via compliance with standards. Though these changes had enhanced the sense of legitimacy for institutions and individual educators, they had not necessarily produced desirable organizational outcomes such as quality, efficiency, or effectiveness.

Isomorphism and Other Explanations of Change in Higher Education

The previous sub-sections reviewed sources dealing with specific aspects of higher education that appear to induce isomorphism. Not all of these sources exhibited awareness of institutional theory. This final sub-section will examine three studies that consciously sought to assess whether isomorphic change had occurred in specific academic settings.

Dey, Milem, and Berger (1997) analyzed data collected in three major surveys of college faculty in the United States conducted between 1972 and 1992. Their concern was to examine patterns of publication productivity and to determine if they supported either of two sociological theories: accumulative advantage (“the rich get richer”) and institutional isomorphism. Specifically, they examined the statistical relationship between productivity (using three distinct measures) and institutional type (based on the Carnegie classification scheme).

Dey, Milem, and Berger (1997) found evidence to support both accumulative advantage and institutional isomorphism. Accumulative advantage was evident in that when control variables were considered, “publication productivity increased . . . at institutions toward the top of the hierarchy but did not increase in those that were lower in the hierarchy” (p. 319). However, isomorphic pressures were evident in that faculty members at all institution types reported increases in publication productivity over time. The three authors concluded by articulating the need for further inquiry into “the causes and results of isomorphic tendencies in the higher education system” (p. 320), citing other researchers’ concerns that such tendencies could compromise the diversity and effectiveness of American higher education.

Rusch and Wilbur (2007) developed a case study of a college of business (COB) that successfully navigated the pursuit of accreditation with the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. The COB was located within a public institution that had received a philanthropic gift of unprecedented size and had been granted university status. Using data from interviews, questionnaires, and written documents, the authors examined the evolution of the COB, seeking to understand how institutional environment and human agency had combined to produce organizational change.

Rusch and Wilbur (2007) found significant evidence of isomorphic pressures—mimetic, normative, and coercive—that contributed to the change process. They also reported finding “active human agency that interacted with and modified both the organization and the institutional environment” (p. 317). The researchers observed that institutional theory tends to focus on institutional stability or conformity rather than deliberate change, whereas their dialectical theoretical foundations allowed them to take a different approach. Nevertheless, the authors acknowledged the cryptic nature of organizational change, as reflected in their conclusion: “We wonder how the normative culture of accreditation and the ‘next level’ reproduced an ideology of prestige and privilege that actually negated human agency. And is that normative culture so seductive and perhaps coercive, that human agency is only an illusion in the pursuit of legitimacy?” (p. 317).

Papadimitriou and Westerheijden (2010) conducted a mixed-methods study to ascertain whether units within Greek universities had adopted standards promulgated by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), and if so, how isomorphic pressures had contributed to the adoption decision. They found that six of 21 institutions had adopted ISO standards, mostly within laboratories and/or academic support services. Normative and coercive pressures were present in the laboratories where ISO standards were implemented, whereas normative and mimetic pressures were discernible in the academic support services. Coercive pressures in isolation were not associated with positive outcomes. Curricular units did not seem to be as susceptible to ISO standards as co-curricular units. The authors concluded that “there is a quality movement at the micro level in Greek higher education” (p. 229), even in the absence of systematic government intervention toward this end.


Summary and Analysis of Findings

Significant findings articulated in the preceding literature review are summarized in the seven paragraphs that follow.

  1. Institutional theory has been employed fruitfully in research concerning a variety of higher education phenomena and in application to multiple library contexts. Library-oriented research has lagged somewhat in its adoption of the concept of isomorphism. Geographically, library-based inquiry into isomorphism has advanced farthest in Europe, and especially in Scandinavia.

  2. A variety of research methods have been applied to the study of isomorphic phenomena. Both quantitative and qualitative studies have been conducted. Qualitative studies tend to predominate in regards to macro-level inquiry into organizational change processes. Data sources and associated methods have included case studies, critical incidents, document analyses, interviews, and surveys, among others. There has been at least some progress from the articulation of professional opinion and anecdote to the formulation of empirically informed theory.

  3. Multiple studies have provided evidence that isomorphism is a reality in higher education and in libraries of various types. Within academic libraries, evidence is stronger for normative and mimetic change than for coercive change. However, institutional theory does not adequately explain all organizational phenomena in higher education or academic libraries (e.g., Dey, Milem, & Berger, 1997).

  4. Organizations vary in the way that they respond to the institutional context. As Scott (2008) put it, “Conformity is one response to isomorphic pressures, but not the only one, because institutional processes are themselves conflicted or because they combine with other forces to shape structure and action” (p. 153).

  5. Isomorphic influences interact with the non-institutional environment, organizational factors, and change agents/leaders (e.g., Audunson, 1999; Rusch & Wilbur, 2007; Pors, 2008; Jantz, 2012).

  6. In academic libraries, isomorphic pressures are intertwined with one another, as noted previously in the analysis of publications by Jones (2007) and Nelson (2010).

  7. Both in academic libraries and in higher education more generally, there are substantial problems with ranking systems that purport to convey measures of quality in a single dimension. Furthermore, at least some evidence suggests that normative isomorphic forces tend to reduce organizational diversity in a negative manner (e.g., Donahoo & Lee, 2008).

Suggestions for Further Study

Analysis of the literature suggests a number of possible directions for further research, as stated in the following four paragraphs.

  1. Accumulating empirical evidence to demonstrate the workings of institutional forces is challenging. Gray (2008) expressed this as follows: “Neoinstitutional theory has not yet been adequately operationalized and empirically tested. It is notoriously difficult to demonstrate reflexivity, and neoinstitutionalism’s greatest credit and challenge is that it takes the reflexivity of structure and agency seriously” (Critical Commentary and Future Directions section, para. 2).

  2. Deeper insight is needed into the relationship between organizations, institutions, and the broader environment. Does the pursuit of legitimacy enhance an organization’s chances of survival in a context of disruptive innovation? On balance, do isomorphic pressures lead to positive or negative changes?

  3. Higher education leaders need not only to understand institutional theory, but how to apply their understanding in effective managerial decisions. If isomorphic pressures are a fact of life, how can academic and library leaders leverage these tendencies to positive advantage? How can institutional theory and research inform administrative practice in higher education and librarianship?

  4. The application of institutional theory to library-oriented research needs to be intensified, especially outside of northern Europe. Can the findings that have emerged from studies of Scandinavian libraries be confirmed in other parts of the world? To what extent do institutional forces interact with cultural factors?


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