America’s major institutions have gone woke the same way that someone goes bankrupt: slowly, then all at once. How is it that so many of us have had the experience of being in a diversity-training session divided into racially segregated “affinity groups” or reading yet another sackcloth-and-ashes statement from management and thinking: They can’t possibly believe this, right? Any answer should begin with the dominant theory from the sociology of organizations: neo-institutionalism and isomorphism. The theory explains that organizations go beyond their core competencies to imitate market leaders and to meet the demands of their trading partners, the regulatory state, and key employees.
Based on his study of a Stone Age culture in New Guinea, Bronisław Malinowski argued that when people face uncertainty, they turn to magic to propitiate the capricious spirits responsible for their incomprehensible misfortune. Being ever-so-sophisticated people who attended business school, corporate executives don’t hire shamans to replenish fisheries or to avoid a storm. Instead, they bring in consultants to help the firm embrace best practices. But as Charles Fain Lehman explains, John Meyer and Brian Rowan’s 1977 paper in the American Journal of Sociology, “Institutionalized Organizations: Formal Structure as Myth and Ceremony,” argues that this distinction is a farce—that much behavior as practiced by modern corporations, NGOs, and government agencies is not about technical efficacy that rationally orients means to ends but ritual, vaguely intended to elicit good fortune by achieving legitimacy with the firm’s “environment.”
Following Meyer and Rowan was Paul DiMaggio and Walter Powell’s “The Iron Cage Revisited,” published in 1983 in the American Sociological Review. DiMaggio and Powell fleshed out the theory with three specific pathways for why organizations adopt similar practices—or, in their language, become isomorphic.
Consider, first, coercive isomorphism—when an organization adopts practices because the state or its trading partners demand that it do so. As Frank Dobbin and John Sutton noted in the American Journal of Sociology in 1998, affirmative action began as a response to executive orders that applied not to all firms but specifically to federal contractors. However, since most large firms sell, or aspire to sell, something to the federal government, this mandate applies to much of the economy. Similarly, most federal higher-education policy takes the form of putting strings on federal money. A college can ignore those Department of Education “Dear Colleague” letters if it is willing to forgo access to federally subsidized student loans and NIH grants, but that’s an expensive declaration of autonomy. And as Richard Hanania has argued, civil rights legislation is enforced through torts with the presumption that imbalances are malicious, giving organizations a vague but powerful mandate to err strenuously on the side of avoiding anything that might validate that presumption.
What about elite high schools, many of which have recently gone woke? The value proposition for prep schools is elite college admissions, so it is incumbent on them to be isomorphic to college admissions. If college-admissions preferences for athletes reward participation in obscure sports, prep schools will offer lacrosse and crew. And if college admissions reward essays that express anguish over social justice and privilege, prep schools will cultivate anguish over social justice and privilege in their students—every bit as enthusiastically as a century ago they’d have molded the character that makes a man a tip-top member of a private club.
A more immediate form of coercive isomorphism pushing schools toward wokeness is accreditation. As Aaron Sibarium reported for the Washington Free Beacon, the National Association of Independent Schools exercises a quasi-governmental role as the accreditation board for top prep schools. NAIS mandates ever more strenuous and belligerent diversity programs so that a school that wants to remain in the club of elite prep schools—with all the prestige and resources that implies—must ratchet wokeness ever upward.
Normative isomorphism means that skilled professionals shape the field toward their expectations. In its original formulation, normative isomorphism meant professionals shaping organizations to act how they learned an organization ought to when they were in graduate school. In this light, it’s worth noting that schools of education have been extremely woke for a generation, far before the rest of the culture, so teachers and administrators have imbibed the doctrine that social justice is inextricably a part of the mission of educational institutions.
In the era of the Great Awokening, it’s increasingly clear that employee activism is a powerful force for shaping firm behavior. For instance, Apoorva Ghosh recently demonstrated in Socio-Economic Review that employee LGBT caucuses are the most important explanation for why corporate America began covering gender transition in employee health plans. As wokeness has rapidly gained popularity with college-educated liberals, they have demanded that their workplaces reflect their values on the “antiracism” movement. Elite prep schools are no different.
Mimetic isomorphism is the tendency of organizations to model their behavior on industry leaders. A practice derives its prestige from association with prestigious organizations. For instance, the private education diversity-consulting firm Pollyanna proudly lists 77 of America’s top high schools as clients. This sends the message that any school that considers itself a peer of Harvard-Westlake or Dalton should hope that Pollyanna is willing to take them on as a client. Pollyanna also illustrates the other two isomorphisms: coercive, since NAIS demands that prep schools hire them; and normative, as consulting agencies are by nature.
Neo-institutionalism helps explain why we see organizations engage in practices that don’t serve the bottom line. Ultimately, legitimacy trumps efficacy. Suppose that you’re a manager who reads the academic literature, sees that the heavy-handed self-criticism styles of sexual-harassment or racial-diversity training are somewhere between useless and counterproductive, and proposes canceling next year’s training. Legal is going to complain that this will look bad if you face a wrongful-dismissal suit anytime soon. And some of your biggest contracts require that co-located employees from your firm have to be certified as having received the training. Many employees will complain that they expect the firm to express their values, which includes holding seminars featuring “privilege walks” to reaffirm the firm’s commitment to ending white supremacy and other forms of domination. These stakeholders will point to the fact that all your leading rivals in the industry hold such seminars; it is a “best practice.” So you go on propitiating the gods, even knowing full well that they don’t exist, because everyone around you believes in the spirits and even more so in the rituals that honor them and would consider neglect of such piety a sign of illegitimate leadership.
This is the essence of the social construction of reality: objective facts can matter less than intersubjective consensus. Since other people’s perceptions are an objective fact, you had best conform to their expectations—no matter how radical or irrational they might be.