McPherson & Sauder (2013). Logics in Action: Managing Institutional Complexity in a Drug Court

Chad McPherson (
Michael Sauder (

Johan Chu (
Curtis Chan (

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Question 1. You build a compelling argument for discretionary use of institutional logics by individuals in your study of drug court deliberations . How did you end up with your final framing? Did you strongly consider other framings? Why did you choose your final framing over these alternatives?

Well, we definitely did not enter into the research with institutional logics in mind. We were drawn to the case because it was a site at which people of various professional and organizational backgrounds were required to discuss cases, negotiate interpretations, and reach an agreement about how to proceed. We knew we were interested in this as a nexus of several institutional backgrounds and the micro-processes by which these backgrounds were negotiated.

About halfway through the data collection, however, it became clear in our discussions that institutional logics played an important role in drug court activities. We noticed that there were clearly different logics that were being employed in interactions and we became interested in how these were being used, by whom, and to what effect. It is important to admit, though, that other theoretical frames were floating around at the same time—to us this case seemed to be a clear example of inhabited institutionalism, hybrid organizations, institutional complexity, and micro-institutionalism as well. We stuck with the logics frame because it fit the data so well (this was truly an exercise in grounded theory) and because we thought our ethnographic data could make a real theoretical contribution to the logics literature.

Of course, this type of retrospective description hides a lot of the messiness and doubt that accompanied the framing process. For example, because we saw connections with so many theoretical approaches, early versions of the paper tried to speak to as many of these as possible. So the paper attempted to “make contributions to” institutional logics AND inhabited institutionalism AND hybrid organizations AND . . . you get the picture. Two rounds of very incisive reviews at ASQ helped us (forced us) to address this issue. The framing of the paper was much more focused and the contributions to the logics literature were made much more clear in the final version of the paper than they were in any of the previous iterations.

Question 2. You use some innovative techniques not often seen in qualitative papers: using count data to support your arguments and classifying outcomes by comparing “actual decisions of the judge” to “estimates of the ‘default decision’ that would typically be handed down, given the circumstances” (p. 171). What compelled you to take these novel approaches, especially the latter approach, which is more uncommon than the former? More generally, when might such approaches be appropriate and desirable in qualitative work? Also, could you provide a concrete example of how you estimated a “default decision”?

Like the framing of the paper, these techniques emerged from the study itself rather than being pre-planned. One of the reasons we started to play with “counts” was to try to manage the huge pile of data that had been collected. Early on in the data analysis (which, for qualitative researchers, is just a fancy way of saying that we were re-reading notes), we realized that we could accurately identify the invocations of logics in drug court proceedings. Thanks to McPherson’s meticulous notes, we could examine how each case unfolded in terms of the employment of logics as well as draw a more general picture of logic use in the courtroom.

In terms of the estimates, we made an early decision to track each case proceeding as a discrete event. We noticed that people who invoked logics seemed to be able to influence the decisions adopted by the drug court team and the judge, and our quantitative tracking and counts showed that case outcomes very frequently matched the proposed solution of persons who had invoked logics. This was exciting because it offered us the chance to show that logics—at least here—were consequential, and not just vacuous frames used in conversation. Because most drug court actions are very formulaic, it quickly became apparent to us (and our data supported the idea) that the use of logics often created variation from these normal outcomes.

We definitely do not believe that this type of quantification of qualitative data is necessary or even preferable for most studies. The nature of our site and our data collection methods allowed us to do it, and in this case counting and quantifying was an effective way of summarizing the processes at work and demonstrating our findings in a convincing way. It is important to note as well, however, what was lost in this process: much of the depth, fluidity, and character of the interactions as they are represented in the qualitative data. We are working on a second paper that focuses on these aspects of decision making in the drug court.

Question 3. You focus on deliberations in the “team-members-only meeting” (p. 169) rather than in the official court proceedings. A cynic might say that this is “backroom justice” which subverts due process, and that the “team members” were colluding to build legitimacy for this process, their decisions, and their group by practicing a discourse for later public consumption. This suggests another motive for bringing in different logics: making sure the team would be perceived as legitimate by others. Did you see evidence of anything like this either in the team meetings or in differences from the team meeting and subsequent official court proceedings?

In a sense, drug courts are designed to promote “backroom justice.” Drug courts attempt to eliminate a “one size fits all” system for addressing substance abusing criminal offenders by incorporating strategies and input from medicine, psychology, and the social sciences. Offenders (clients) agree to waive their rights to typical legal processes so that their case will be considered with all of these perspectives in mind, their sanctions will be tailored to their specific circumstances, and their jail time will be significantly reduced. In this way, drug courts—and Stone City exemplifies this—offer a productive alternative to traditional courtroom proceedings (an alternative, we might add, that also offers an ideal setting for data collection on legal issues since discussions are less formal, various institutional perspectives must be considered, and outcomes are based on individual circumstances).

Given the atypical features of the drug court model, however, legitimacy was indeed a persistent concern among drug court members. They consistently expressed concern that their decisions and processes would be seen as legitimate to others in the legal community. This concern often led to arguments for harsher sanctions for fear that the drug court would otherwise be seen as too “soft” or too removed from normal legal responses. In addition, drug court members worried about their legitimacy in the community more generally. We frequently observed the team reflecting on and making subjective assessments of the drug court’s worth and value to the community and how they could enhance the perceived and actual contributions being made.

Question 4. You mention three types of structural constraints on the use of logics—procedural, definitional, and positional (p. 183-185). You also suggest that “a varied use of the available tools perpetually reinforces the validity and relevance of these multiple logics and, more generally, the drug court itself” (p. 183). Do you think procedural, definitional, and positional constraints generally evolve to strengthen the functioning and legitimacy of the team? If so, how so? If not, what actors or factors can influence these constraints? It seems that changing structure should change outcome. In your setting, making the clinicians initiate conversations and manage case information should increase their flexibility in using different institutional logics and lead to more “rehabilitative” outcomes, for example. Who decides procedure, logics, and positions?

Yes, on some levels, these constraints likely do strengthen the functioning of the team. These constraints seem to provide various levels of informal and formal limitation on actors’ appeals to institutional logics and on the relevance of these external systems of rules and practices. They also set limits on the amount of interpretation and negotiation that is acceptable as well as on how flexibly given logics can be used to interpret situations. Of course, the structural constraints discussed in our paper also create inequalities in access and influence among drug court professionals. In particular, the positional constraint seems to subvert a level playing field at times in that it provides some actors with more exposure to, knowledge of, practice using, and liberty drawing upon external logics—all resources that they can then use to shape and influence case outcomes.

As such, our findings do imply that changes in the structure would likely affect the outcomes of some of the deliberations. In most circumstances—the cases in which discussion does not take place and logics are not invoked—outcomes would likely be very similar. However, if different professionals acted as the gatekeepers of information or if the flow of communication and interaction were structured differently, other professionals—say, clinicians—might be in a better position to enhance the relative influence of different logics. We believe that the structure of relationships within these multi-institutional environments matter a great deal and that future work using formal network analyses or other methods could specify more clearly how these structures matter and under what circumstances.

Question 5. What question did we miss? Please ask yourselves a good question, and answer it.

[Chad & Michael’s question:] Do you intend to continue work in this area? If so, what theoretical questions might you explore? Would this work use the data you’ve collected in a different way?

We are currently working on a follow-up paper in which we focus more directly on the ethnographic data, a paper that will look like a more traditional qualitative article. Drawing on insights from social psychology, we drill deeper into the micro-level negotiations among professionals in drug court cases. In particular, we dissect the elements of the institutional appeals discussed in our ASQ paper, examine why drug court actors use elements of extra-local culture to shape interactions, and how these cultural resources define the identity of the drug court.

To do this, we use our data to look closely at the decision-making in the court as it unfolds in real time, and the identity conflicts that arise when a team composed of professionals from diverse institutional backgrounds negotiates solutions without shared bases of understanding, interpretation, and worldviews. This approach allows us to highlight the professional creativity used by these actors in collaborations, show how they draw upon cultural resources to reach a sometimes difficult consensus, and provide insight into how actors—both individually and as a group—reconcile their various professional identities with the organizational identity of the drug court.

One comment

  1. […] the author(s) of a recent article published in the journal. For example, there are interviews with Chad McPherson and Mike Sauder about their article on drug court deliberations, with Michael Dahl, Cristian Dezső, and David Ross […]

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