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Organizational Legitimacy and Capacity Development

Remarks on the ECDPM Discussion Paper 58A


    • 1. Deficits of the analytical framework
    • 2. Wider roots of the framework
    • 3. Larger basis for a conceptual framework
    • 4. Specific framework for capacity in development assistance


1. Limitations of the analytical framework

Brinkerhoff introduces an analytical framework for organizational legitimacy.  The only reference for this framework is to the legal sociologist Mark Suchman from the University of Wisconsin and his presentation in the US Academy of Management Review in 1995. Centerpiece of this framework is the distinction between normative, pragmatic and cognitive legitimacy.  A number of limitations of this choice are obvious:

  - the legal tradition in the US brings its very own first principles and values,

  - Prof. Suchman is unknown in Europe and none of his publications is available,

  - this analytical framework has been used so far for environmental law and the

   organizational legitimacy of US institutions, again with profound US

   principles involved in environmental politics (esp. for the examples page 4).

The main problem however is that the framework has not been used in different empirical fields and therefore it is not easy to apply it to the ECDPM case studies.  Any analytical framework requires comparative methodological tests to assess its suitability for different societies and a rather isolated framework is thus difficult to apply. Furthermore a framework for legitimacy containing more than a basic typology (different forms of legitimacy), especially related objects as well as social theory, turns the „thickness” of a case study into comprehensiveness of the analysis. These comments end with such a suggestion.


2. Roots of the framework

As Brinkerhoff states on page 1, much goes back to Max Weber and his distinction of legal/rational, traditional and charismatic authority. Brinkerhoff also points pertinently to the resurgence of Weberian research in the US, where institutional sociology and institutional economics refine Weberian concepts in light of current political and economic conditions. As a short qualification, one can point to the next Global Development Network conference organized by the World Bank in St. Petersburg, Russia, in January next year, entirely focused on institutional questions. A key speaker is the intellectual father of the institutional research in the US, Douglass North.  Institutions and Weber are the flavour of the day in social science research and the institutional dimension of development is becoming dominant among donor policy makers.  It should be mentioned here that the influence of Weberian sociology is to a large extent due to the clarification of the East Asian economic successes.

Brinkerhoff also refers to the Neo-institutionalist school and to Paul DiMaggio’s work on isomorphism. DiMaggio qualified Weber’s “Iron Cage” of modernization and rationality, opening a full alternative to the transaction cost oriented research in the 1980s. Brinkerhoff uses the distinction between mimetic, coercive and normative isomorphism to describe how legitimacy can be supported by management efforts, assuming that isomorphism concerns the fit of an organization with its environment. However, his application of DiMaggio’s concepts is reductionist. Brinkerhoff’s intention, to inform organizational analysis with social theory is of course appropriate, but DiMaggio’s or Weber’s work is better used en block, not just the object (isomorphism) but method, theory and empirical context.  The social science classics are demanding.

Even in institutional sociology, it is not imperative to assume that an organization has to emulate its environment (perhaps also a leftover from contingency theory). In all sectors of society all three isomorphisms are at work and they affect those inside an organization in enabling and in restrictive ways.  That is to say, a type of isomorphism does not imply a necessary orientation for management.  What DiMaggio’s work on isomorphism has achieved is to show that an organization is interpreted as belonging to a class of organizations and that this classification is not self-evident or unavoidable, it is maintained by intended and unintended efforts. Irrespectively, any class of organization is better explained with a specific social science paradigm than with another paradigm.  DiMaggio has not reduced all organizational study to the Weberian paradigm, but he has demonstrated once again how this Weberian paradigm can analyze the same range of organizational objects as the other two, structural functionalism and actor centered research (or Durkheim and Marx for the ancestors). 

In sum, Brinkerhoff uses three concepts for a type of object and applies them as if these contain theory and paradigm. Alternatively, it is possible to refer to the wider organization and management research in the US and draw on a larger body of literature to then qualify the ECDPM cases. There is no big conceptual difference between the literature on power or on legitimacy whether in sociology, in management or in political science. When one ECDPM case study fits one social science paradigm (or behavioral change in society paradigm) then other research based on the same paradigm can be considered as well. In order to bring diverse case studies together, not only the similarity of the objects must be verified but also the overall case, the methodology, the theory and the position of the analyst. 


3. Larger basis for a conceptual framework

Brinkerhoff should have considered that the typology of three is not a magic number for social science or an intellectual strategy for Weber et al., but it reflects a basic opposition proper to a range of societal objects, from small group relations to organizational behavior in mass institutions. Any research object in this range can be described in three forms and no form is exclusively appropriate. Large parts of the management literature are generally seen as forming three paradigmatic branches, neither one with a class of organizational cause or effect:

Institutions are historic  = corporate culture, collectivism, shared values,

       traditional leadership, example Schein, Ouchi, Guillén

Sense-making = overcome all rules, re-engineering, charismatic leaders,  for

                         example Weick, Kanter, Peters/Waterman

Legal/rational = structural functionalism, Giddens, Williamson, March

It is sufficient to recall that the prominence of each type changes with new fads and waning concepts, to conclude that neither one could claim to concern a set of objects.  A class of objects is not specific to a paradigm (unlike natural sciences), and much less so regarding international comparisons. For any organization, the three types of analysis provide results. In order to inform capacity development with results from management studies in the US, it is possible to select which of the three branches is appropriate for a particular organization and use a variety of results. This selection depends also on the user of the result and the purpose of the action involved. 

The difficulty to apply the “fuzzy boundaries” of the legitimacy types to the ECDPM case studies is also due to Brinkerhoff’s managerial orientation and the qualitative orientation of the case studies.  Instead of verifying whether a supposed object appears in a case study, one can assess it to see which account provides a more convincing (or extensive) interpretation.  An analytical framework should contain related objects so that the framework allows to test different theories.  Considering the three branches in the management literature is not an attempt of triangulation.  Privileging one branch could be a way to adapt to socio-cultural factors, or moving from one to the other can reflect that capacity development combines some effort in one direction and afterwards in another.

These branches are evidently reflected in the respective organization and management research in Europe.  Social identity is always central for Habermas-inspired work such as by d’Iribarne, post-modern writers such as Czarniawska, Kieser or Alvesson concentrate on the charismatic and discursive basis for power in organizations, and thirdly, research on legal/rational grounds in organizations derives from Giddens, Crozier or Mayntz. Using alternative results from these branches to show the scope of legitimacy as a parameter can bring more attention from European policy makers who relate them to their background in public management, human resources and business administration.


4. A conceptual framework for capacity development and legitimacy

Another gap in Brinkerhoff’s paper is the jump from Suchman’s distinction between normative, pragmatic and cognitive legitimacy to DiMaggio’s three isomorphisms. Suchman’s forms of legitimacy are functional definitions of what an organizations does, the objective truth of its operation, and this is quite far from Weber’s authority types and DiMaggio’s isomorphisms. Suchman mechanically connects internal operations to relationship with constituents, which is clearer for environmental policy and law than for other parts of public policy and certainly international development. Isomorphism is a more complex relational property among organizations. Because the categories have different levels of abstraction they can be empirically contradictory. For example, for DiMaggio educational organizations are guided by coercive isomorphism, articulated by interested parties in schools, whereas Brinkerhoff assumes normative legitimacy to be at work to give schools ethical value.  Undoubtedly, DiMaggio’s typology is more complex and thus covers diverse empirical domains, whereas Suchman’s legitimacy definitions are too descriptive to apply across society.

Isomorphism is an analytical concept.  In order to improve the empirical distinctiveness, isomorphism must be combined with an higher level typology for the overall case considered.  Parameters such as the origin of the members of an organization, or the number of similar organizations, are necessary to define the isomorphism of a specific organization and to predict its change.  Suchman describes a better observable condition.  However, combining it with a higher level typology only creates a larger number of states of that condition (more than three). To illustrate the deficit of Suchman’s typology, I propose a better suited conceptual framework.

Alan Fowler proposes three types of theorizations for society in political science.  First, a Triadic Model focusing on functional roles as state, economic and non-profit sectors, second, a Political Rights Model comprising the social functions such as citizenry, administration, markets and regime, and thirdly, an Arena Model where the mayor bodies negotiate their roles irrespective of the societal functions.  With these three types, Fowler intends to create models for development interventions where society is an open system, thereby inviting more feedback, adaptation and trial and error.

In a society where the Triadic Model allows best to describe political and social processes, isomorphism and legitimacy appear in all variations, likewise with the other two.  For a comparison of specific organizations between societies, legitimacy would be the dependent variable for Model and isomorphism. It is quite plausible, that a polity allows for an isomorphism between organizations, based on a class of constitutional relations. For example, when two societies fit the Triadic Model and the respective organizational fields show the same isomorphism, then the organizational legitimacy must be similar. ECDPM cases probably fall into Fowler’s Models as:

Triadic Model: education in Pakistan.

Political Rights Model: Christian church in PNG, SISDUK Indonesia, Ruanda

         Revenue, Lacor Hospital Uganda.

Arena Model:   COEP Brazil, ESDU Caribbean.

If the four cases in the Political Rights Model societies contain two or more cases with similar isomorphism then these cases allow to test a hypothesis for the role of legitimacy in capacity development.

Such an outside view of the polity allows to suggest capacity development orientations for the outsider, while the insider perspective is perhaps broader.  In a Triadic Model society, capacity development would focus on an organization’s functional role.  But the functional quality of that organization does not necessarily define it for its members, nor for others in its environment.  For more speculative explorations, the Triadic Model and its functional focus can be used with theoretical elements from d’Iribarne, Schein or Biggart’s historical reading of institutional forms, in order to see how legitimacy arises and renews. Different elements for capacity development can be defined and the feasibility assessed.  Likewise, the Arena Model would be more apt for post-modern research results and the Political Rights Model for structural functionalism.

Brinkerhoff’s application of Suchman’s analytical framework is too mechanic for international comparisons. To describe legitimacy for capacity development one can start by first asking which social science paradigm defines the object of analysis and who uses this object. The description should only be satisfactory for that usage, no absolute right or wrong concept can be verified. 



Selected references:

Biggart Nicole W. 2001: Readings in economic sociology, Oxford: Blackwell.
Czarniawska Barbara 2003: Narratives we organize by, Amsterdam: Benjamins.

d’Iribarne Philippe 1989: La Logique de l’honneur. Gestion des entreprises et traditions nationales, Paris: Éd. du Seuil.

Drummond Helga 1991: Power: creating it, using it, London: Kogan Page.
Fowler Alan 2000: Civil society, NGDOs and social development: changing the rules of the game, Geneva: UNRISD.

Fowler Alan 1997: Striking a Balance: a guide to enhancing the effectiveness of non-governmental organizations in international development, London: Earthscan.

Greenberg Jerald and Baron Robert A. 1993: Behaviour in Organizations 4th. ed.New York: Allyn and Bacon.

Kieser Alfred 2003: Communication in organizations: structures and practices, New York: P.Lang.

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Thomas Grammig



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