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2021 Conference of the ECPR Standing Group on Politics and Gender

Field Theory in Higher Education and the Perils of Verticality

Higher Education
Alexander Mitterle
Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg
Alexander Mitterle
Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg

Organizational new institutionalism has for a long time been dominated by a post-Tardian approach to organizational ordering (Hedmo et al. 2005). A series of articles at the turn of the 1980s led to a large scale investigation of organizational similarity as isomorphism (Meyer/Rowan 1977; Scott/Meyer 1991; DiMaggio/Powell 1983). Isomorphism allowed to explain and trace institutional expansion and advance perspectives that predominantly emphasized competition and selection (e.g. Hannan/Freeman 1977). Isomorphism thus enabled organization theory to frame organizational interaction beyond the market terminology through the cultural lens of what DiMaggio and Powell called fields.
Higher education research profited immensely from studies that investigated the expansion of similar management techniques or specific organizational forms, such as the business school model (e.g. Sahlin-Andersson/Engwall 2002; Paradeise et al. 2010). What such approaches were less good at, was explaining the emergence of stratification in higher education, beyond an inventor-copy cat model (cf. Meyer 1994). Research that analyzed power dynamics and contestations generally shifted towards a Bourdieuian approach to field theory (e.g. Naidoo 2004; Marginson 2008). Recently that deficit has been voiced from within institutional theory aiming at bringing the two approaches (back) together (Martin 2003; Emirbayer/Johnson 2008; Dobbin 2008). Fligstein and McAdams (2015) strategic action fields have been the most prominent new approach to provide a theory of fields that aims at combining an analysis of power contestations with isomorphism (cf. Berman/Paradeise 2016).
The paper will contrast the various approaches to field theory with regard to stratification in higher education and show that while all provide useful insights, a “return” to Bourdieu or the “bridge” of strategic action fields cannot fully grasp the stratificatory processes taking place. They lack a phenomenological perspective to actorhood that is essential to understanding verticality in higher education today (cf. Krücken/Meyer 2006; Bloch/Mitterle 2017).
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