Institutional Homology: Explaining Corporate Art
This working paper uses the question “why do corporations collect art?” as the basis for building a discussion for expanding the premises and applications of neo-institutional theory. I first describe an empirical phenomenon – in the last three decades art collection has become an increasingly prominent part of corporate life. As a phenomenon, collecting art usefully illustrates several elements of what we know about institutional theory. It has diffused widely amongst Fortune 500 corporations. It represents an activity that is not overtly economic in orientation. And the process of corporate art collection has become increasingly rationalized and professionalized within organizations. Corporate art collecting, however, also usefully pushes the boundaries of our knowledge of institutional theory. First, it encourages us to explore the motivations for engaging in mimetic activity. I explore the “vocabularies of motive” or espoused justifications used by key executives within Fortune 500 corporations to explain to shareholders why their organization engages in this activity.
Second, the practice of corporations mimetically creating art collections challenges the traditional assumption within institutional theory that mimetic activity is based on the overt motive of improving technical performance.
Third, and perhaps more importantly, corporate art collecting forces us to reflect more broadly on the changing role of corporate actors in contemporary society and their relationship to other institutional forms. I introduce the concept of institutional homology to capture, theoretically, the complex relationship between traditional and emerging institutions of social control. Institutional homology refers to the process by which private organizations internalize the control mechanisms and organs of broader society and assume the role of public actors, such as the state. I derive the term in part from Bourdieu’s description of actors who occupy similar but not identical roles in two or more fields. I also derive the term from evolutionary biology, which uses the term homology to describe the emergence of structural features with similar form but different functions.
Methodologically, the paper is based on archival/historical data and in depth case studies of five Fortune 500 corporations. I interview key informants at all levels of the five target organizations including employees, key executives, corporate historians and corporate curators.