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The Looseness of Loose Coupling: The Use and Misuse of “Loose Coupling” in Higher Education Research

Institutions
Public Administration
Policy Change
Policy Implementation
Mari Elken
Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education
Mari Elken
Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education
Martina Vukasovic
Universitetet i Bergen
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Abstract

The term “loose coupling” (Weick 1976) has been a term that has over time been widely employed in higher education research. Building on the “garbage can” notion of organizing (Cohen et al 1972, March and Olsen 1976), it proposed an alternative that discarded purely rational and linear views on organizing and governing, instead emphasizing ambiguity and complexity. However, in higher education research the concept has frequently been used either as a given, a basic premise to study organizational processes in higher education; or as a diagnosis to the complexity of higher education organization that inhibits implementation of reforms. Thus, while Weick in the 1976 article proposed a range of possible operationalisations, the term has become rather taken for granted in literature about higher education, being a standard explanation for complexity and ambiguity, rather than an empirically studied phenomenon itself. Orton and Weick (1990: 203) noted that the term loose coupling was underspecified, being “widely used and diversely understood”, adopted but not studied in terms of its underlying structure, themes and implications. The consequence in higher education research is that the term is often vaguely defined and operationalized, and it is often not clear how loose coupling has actually been identified empirically. This paper critically systematizes and examines how existing literature on higher education has over 40 years employed the term “loose coupling”. The purpose of such a review is to systematize the forms of loose coupling that have been identified and how the term has been operationalized. Our aim is also to map the theoretical underpinning of such work and the methodology that has been employed to identify loose coupling. The aims of the article are thus twofold. First, we aim to provide an analysis of the use of the concept in higher education research in the last 40 years. Second, this analysis will form the basis for developing a more refined analytical framework to study various forms for loose coupling in modern knowledge organizations. Rather than take loose coupling as a given, the paper demonstrates that loose coupling needs to be studied in a systematic manner.