Lawrence & Dover (2015). Place and Institutional Work: Creating Housing for the Hard-to-house

Thomas B. Lawrence – Saïd Business School, University of Oxford
Graham Dover – Mindset Social Innovation Foundation

Tiffany D. Johnson – Penn State Smeal College of Business
Priyanka Dwivedi – Penn State Smeal College of Business

Article link:

Question 1. Your study draws upon two very compelling places –as well as a diverse and rich set of data-which help bring to life the roles of places in institutional work. Your findings shed light on the ontology and role of places in institutional work, suggesting that they contain, mediate, and complicate work done to make important changes to institutions.
How did you choose the dominant theoretical frameworks to contribute to for this paper? Did those frameworks change throughout the editing and revising process – and if so, in what way? For example, we noticed that there were several aspects of the article that made us think of the stigma literature. Did you also consider this framing?

This study is based on Graham’s dissertation, and the choice of frameworks was an iterative process that began during the development of the dissertation. There were initially a broader set of issues that it was meant to investigate, but the focus on place emerged as the one that most fascinated us and the one we thought gave us the best traction in understanding the empirical phenomena being observed. We entered the domain with an interest in social innovation as viewed through an institutional lens. The social innovation aspect of the study was critical to us in terms of our motivation for studying the Mat Program and the Dr. Peter Centre, and remains very important to us, but did not survive the process of developing the ASQ article.

The more fine-grained frameworks that ended up as attached to particular roles that places play were also initially developed in Graham’s dissertation and then evolved significantly during the process of constructing a journal article. For instance, whereas the ASQ article describes the link from places complicating institutional work to their status as practical objects, the dissertation focused on places as portals playing a similar role.

Although we can imagine a host of potentially relevant scholarly literatures, including stigma research, our interest from relatively early on in the writing process was on the notion of place and its connection to social change and innovation, and especially its connection to issues in housing for the hard-to-house.

Question 2. Your study highlights the role of places as active ingredients in organizational life. As you point out, an important direction for future research would be “to adopt a broader, cross-sectional approach, bringing in a greater diversity of places with heterogeneous relationships to institutions and institutional work, including limited or negative relationships.”
In your opinion, what other domains of organizational research do you think can theoretically benefit from examining and incorporating the importance and the role of places in organizations?

We believe that the concept of place could play a huge role in organization studies. It brings together meaning, materiality and location – each of which is emerging as an important, exciting domain of scholarly interest. In particular, any organizational research that focuses on change and agency could benefit from an explicit consideration of place, as place represents a way of situating those studies in a more sophisticated way than is often done, and especially an advance over studies that include geographical notions (such as geographical communities, clusters, regions and nations), which often overlook the socially constructed and materially mediated nature of places.

Question 3. You had access to two rich settings that, although rich, seem like they’d present difficulty to enter due to the proclivity for such organizations to protect “vulnerable” populations.
What advice could you offer to researchers that are interested in gaining entry into similar types of organizations?

One of the great things about studying social change is that there are, in our experience, usually an abundance of people willing, and evening wanting, to talk with you about their experiences and their efforts to make (or stop) change. There are, however, two important caveats to that. The first is that we often only “see” change after the dust has settled, and one side of the contest has won – effecting, stopping or redirecting change processes. At this point, talking with the “winners” is an easy task, whereas talking to the “losers” is much more difficult. Because of this, we tried to find social change processes that were still in flux (the Mat Program much more so than the Dr. Peter Centre, in our case). The second caveat concerns the set of people that the social change is intended to help – the hard-to-house in our study. These are, indeed, often vulnerable people whose participation in research needs to be carefully considered and sensitively constructed.

In our case, our focus was on the change agents, rather than on the people using the Mat Program or the Dr. Peter Centre, and so we decided, with significant discussions between us, to engage with those people on a relatively limited basis. This was a difficult decision and one about which we remain unsure. The decision was significantly an ethical one: we did not want to interview some large number of people using the programs on some kind of aesthetic basis (that it would look better if we did) and we believed (and believe) that the large amount of research that has already been done focusing on the experience of homelessness could provide us with most of what we needed in this regard.

Question 4. Related to the previous question, how did you come to study ‘housing for the hard to house’? What were the initial research questions or some other theoretical ideas that you were pursuing before you chose to make ‘place’ a focus of the analysis (second step of the first phase)?

The choice of studying housing for the “hard to house” came from two different experiences. A few years earlier, we were interested in the organizing around complex and contested problems and focused on how North America’s first legally sanctioned Supervised Injection Site had become established in Vancouver. We found a unique group of individuals who quietly collaborated to bring about this social innovation. One of those individuals was connected to the Dr. Peter Centre. Our visit to the Centre introduced us to its approach to people normally considered too hard to house. Graham had also moved to Canada from the UK to do his PhD and had chosen to live in the Tri-Cities, only 10 minutes by bus to the university campus. We had no idea that homelessness would become an issue for this community – it was fortuitous that he was there as they wrestled with the implications.

Our theoretical lens was already pretty established – we knew that we would be seeking to contribute to institutional theory – a dominant theoretical lens for organizational theorists. We had a stack of questions around institutions and institutional change and we were particularly interested in the types of institutional work deployed by different stakeholders around the social problem and the solution. We explored, for example, the topic of institutional immunity – how some actors might be able to operate in ways that would normally be off limits – thinking that it might be critical when engaging with controversial or contested topics. We also wanted to contribute to the emerging field of social innovation and we were particularly interested in “hybrid organizing” – the merging and mixing of organizational forms and cultures – and how these blends might enable and constrain solutions.

Question 5. We were very intrigued by your methodology. While qualitative and inductive on the whole, you have used different analytical techniques to study the different cases in your paper.
(a) How did you decide which analytical approach to apply across the different locations?
(b) Based on your experience with this study, can you provide some helpful data collection or analysis related tips to students who are either aspiring to dive into inductive work or are already engaged in it?

Our analytical approaches were entirely inductive in the sense that they developed as we began to see the variation in the roles that places played, and as we asked ourselves how it might be possible to get at those roles. The use of a semiotic frame, for instance, with respect to places mediating came very late in the process.

Our advice is really just the tried and true. Collect all of the data you can while in the field, and especially collect any that might be ephemeral, and for us it was important to collect any that might “document” goings-on rather than provide “opinions” on the goings-on. At some point, however, you will be overwhelmed by so much data and that is where it is absolutely critical to have a sharp theoretical focus that can slice through that data, showing what is more relevant and less relevant, and helping to impart meaning on what otherwise can be a meaningless jumble.

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