Institutional Aesthetics: Embodied Ways of Encountering, Evaluating, and Enacting Institutions

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The cognitive turn in institutional theory has led to the systematic neglect of people’s sensory capacities. In this paper we offer a cross-level theory of the role in institutional processes of sensory and evaluative forms of knowledge. Called here the aesthetic mode, this way of knowing combines humans’ innate sensory capacity to engage the world with their learned capacity to evaluate what they encounter. We argue that people evaluate the world’s natural, social, and spiritual phenomena through the lenses of a personal aesthetic, each person’s distinct internalization of the institutional aesthetic codes of the communities in which they are in embedded. A personal aesthetic informs and animates people’s internal conversations as they evaluate the social arrangements they encounter and deliberate over how they should participate in the institutional processes of maintaining, disrupting, or creating social arrangements. Attending to people’s aesthetic ways of knowing positions us to better understand when, why, and how people deliberate about institutional values and arrangements and choose to engage in purposive institutional work. It also offers a way of conceptualizing and examining the reflexivity said to be at the heart of embedded agency. We discuss the implications for understanding of institutional work, institutional biography, and of how people experience institutional disruption and re-creation.

Publication Title

Organization Studies