Defensive Institutional Work

When institutions are threatened, actors engage in ‘defensive institutional work’ (Maguire and Hardy, 2009).
(Smink et al. 2015: 89)

Smink, M., Hekkert, M. and Negro, S. 2015. Keeping sustainable innovation on a leash? Exploring incumbents’ institutional strategies. Business Strategy and the Environment, Vol. 24, pp.86-101.

citation is to this –

Maguire S, Hardy C. 2009. Discourse and deinstitutionalization: the decline of DDT. Academy of Management Journal 52(1): 148–178.

Our study also suggests that, in outsider-driven deinstitutionalization, field members seeking to maintain the status quo react to disruptive institutional work originating from outside the focal field and promoting the abandonment of existing practices. We define this reaction as “defensive institutional work”: the purposive action of individuals and organizations aimed at countering disruptive institutional work. In our case, certain actors— most notably in industry—sought to defend the institutional pillars by producing their own texts countering assertions of negative impacts, the inappropriateness of practices, and the need for regulation.

Our findings illustrate that defensive institutional work also takes the form of authoring texts but, instead of promoting problematizations, these texts dispute them in an attempt to legitimize existing practices, and with an eye toward defending the institutional pillars.

(Maguire and Hardy, 2009: 169)


Defensive institutional work is an important new concept and contribution to the literature. We distinguish it from institutional work undertaken to “maintain” institutions, which is accomplished by actors “largely unaware of the original purpose, or ultimate outcome, of their actions,” who engage “in the routines and rituals of reproduction” (Lawrence & Suddaby, 2006: 234). In contrast, our study indicates that defensive institutional work is a conscious and strategic response to disruptive work.

Defensive work is particularly relevant to outsiderdriven deinstitutionalization which, we observed, is characterized by a wholesale attack on the pillars supporting existing practices. We suggest that the concept of defensive institutional work also applies to insider-driven deinstitutionalization; a number of studies of institutional change have reported some form of resistance to the latter phenomenon (e.g., Farjoun, 2002; Maguire & Hardy, 2006; Reay & Hinings, 2005). This concept is therefore important for understanding both the adoption of new practices and the abandonment of old ones because it focuses attention on the discursive struggle likely to ensue when either insiders or outsiders seek changes in practices in which existing field members’ interests are vested, as well as on the specific ways field members respond to and resist initiatives for institutional change.

(Maguire and Hardy, 2009: 169)



see also institutional work, disruptive institutional work

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