In this study I have analysed the institutional trajectory of Dutch sustainability reporting using the lexicon of the garbage can model and its emphasis on the independent existence, and occasional simultaneity, of a multiplicity of participants, problems, and solutions around choices. Exploring this model within an institutional perspective suggests the importance of so-called historical contingencies and collective institutional entrepreneurship. To be sure, I do not claim that institutionalisation and change necessarily resemble a garbage can. Rather, this lens makes it possible to analyse a phenomenon from a different angle and thus functions as a sensitizing tool that allows us to see things differently and stresses often neglected aspects. It highlights historical contingencies, collectivity and the importance of serendipity, timing and context rather than the relatively neat and teleological assumptions of institutionalisation and change prevalent in many studies. This enabling role of chancelike contingencies opens up space for institutional work of a plurality of actors. Whereas I do not deny the importance of strategic and intentional actors, I reduce their importance and add to the mix the influence of the oftentimes uncoordinated activities of a wide range of actors.
Taken together, a first contribution of this study is that it has challenged the assumption of intentionality and purpose present in many institution entrepreneurship studies (Czarniawska, 2009). This has made them look overly linear and mechanistic (Blackler & Regan, 2006). By drawing on the garbage can model I have highlighted the importance of historical contingencies for processes of institutionalisation and change (see e.g. Aldrich, 2011; Czarniawska, 2009) arguing they are not teleological deterministic processes. As we are hard wired to connect means and ends and assign purpose to events, sometimes justly so, integrating the assumptions of the garbage can more explicitly in institutional accounts asks us “to give up a tidy world in which problems imply solutions over which participants exercise choice, and to replace it with a world in which participants, problems, choices, and solutions each have the capacity to connect to any of the others” (Cohen et al., 2012: 22). This study has made a start with that by stipulating the importance of historical contingencies and suggesting their role as a possible enabling factor of institutional change. This may enhance our understanding of institutionalisation and change, in particular in the case of pluralistic practices linked to complex social problems in relatively emerging, uncertain and heterogeneous fields where cause-effect relations remain unclear.
A second, related, contribution is that I offer an empirical account of more collective distributed agency (e.g. Delbridge & Edwards, 2008; Dorado, 2005; Wijen & Ansari, 2007) that challenges the individualised portrayal of agentic institutional actors. The garbage can lexicon provides an insightful framework for analysis as it highlights the collective aspects and how boundedly rational as well as temporally and contextually constrained actors muddle through the institutional trajectory. I have specified the considerable complexities of an institutional process over the course of more than two decades and shown the multiplicity of actors involved and the related changes in choice moments involving various problems and solutions. The garbage can thus provides a potentially insightful instrument in unpacking the various aspects that can help to explain the collective action involved in many complex institutional processes over time and how this process combines unintended actions with more strategic work in the wake of changes in the constellation of the field.
This research provides several opportunities for future research. First studies could usefully investigate the relation between institutional theory and the potential of integrating garbage can thinking into existing models in more detail. Studies could look at enabling factors. For instance, it could be helpful to compare the potential of the garbage can in various fields. For example, mature vs. emerging fields, heterogeneous vs. homogenous fields or lowly institutionalised vs. highly institutionalised ones. As briefly discussed, it could be expected that depending on the nature of the field integrating garbage can thinking into institutional analyses holds more or less promise. Similarly, the nature of what gets institutionalised may also affect the appropriateness of using a garbage can inspired analysis. Practices that are more or rather less complex or differences in degrees of contestation may be interesting facets. Second, an interesting avenue for further research could be to compare the usefulness of the garbage can for different phases of institutionalisation. That is, can we expect to see differences when comparing creating new institutions, maintaining existing ones or destructing old ones. Third, both institutional studies as well as garbage can theorising are relatively silent about issues of power and politics. Institutional processes include power inequalities and political considerations though and neither do garbage can processes happen in a power vacuum. Appreciating and further unpacking the power dimensions of both processes may provide interesting research opportunities. This could in particular be helpful in peeling down the interplay between institutional actors and how problems and solutions get defined and/or chosen and thus exactly how the interplay between problems, solutions, choices and collective actors takes shape.
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Table 1 Overview of interviewees