Quiet unintended transitions? Neo-Durkheimian explanation of institutional change

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Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to resolve a puzzle in the explanation of organisational change, where change appears to be within-form but results unintendedly in a transition between forms, yet first appearances suggest the absence of “noise” of the kind expected during shifts between forms. Design/methodology/approach – The paper uses qualitative analysis of primary archival and secondary sources on an historical case, analysing the data by coding using categories derived from neo-Durkheimian institutional theory. It examines the case of the cabinet, treated as an organisation, in the British government led by premier Harold Macmillan between 1959 and 1963, when a strategy for increasing hierarchy resulted unintendedly in an isolation dynamic. Findings – It demonstrates that the neo-Durkheimian institutional approach can explain such puzzling cases. Appropriately for a special issue in honour of Mars’ work, it shows that his method of following rule violation and an adapted version of his concept of capture can provide a method of causal process tracing and a causal mechanism for resolving the puzzle. Research limitations/implications – The argument is presented for purposes of theory development, not testing. It examines a single case study in depth. Social implications – The findings demonstrate some of the risks which arise in changing informal institutional ordering, especially within decision-making executives, from the process by which informal institutions shape styles of judgement and decisions driven by those styles then feed back upon those executive bodies. Originality/value – This is the first examination of puzzling unintended between-form transitions, the first to propose an adaptation of Mars’ concept of capture to resolve such puzzles and the first detailed causal process tracing analysis of such a case using neo-Durkheimian institutional theoretic tools. It therefore offers a significant advance in institutional explanation of organisational change.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)770-790
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of Organizational Change Management
Issue number5
StatePublished - 10 Aug 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • Cultural theory
  • Harold Macmillan
  • Institutional change
  • Neo-Durkheimian


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