Santi Furnari

Associate Professor (Reader) in Strategy

Cass Business School, University of London

Unpacking Institutional Politics on the Ground: Power and Institutional Logics in the Creation of Chicago’s Millennium Park


Where do new institutions come from? Previous research has demonstrated that institutional logics shape the genesis of new institutions and that change agents’ political activities mediate the relationship between logics and institutional genesis. However, such political activities are often studied ‘at a distance’ rather than ‘close up’: the concrete micro-interaction processes by which people use power on the ground are often left unexamined. To address this gap, in this paper I examine how initially peripheral individuals in a centralized institutional field use power to create a new institution that diverges from the field’s dominant institutional logic. I draw on a historical case study of the creation of Chicago’s Millennium Park, a new cultural institution in the field of public construction, historically dominated by the logic of machine politics and its powerful representative, Mayor Richard M. Daley. I show how, despite the field centralization and the Mayor’s power, a group of field outsiders gradually infiltrated the field and successfully changed the Mayor’s initial proposal for the park, advancing their alternative vision instantiating the logic of elite philanthropy. Drawing on detailed micro-interaction data from a primary archive, triangulated with interviews and secondary historical data, I develop a process model that makes three theoretical contributions. First, I show that powerful individuals embedded in the dominant logic of the field can become blinded by such logic and not notice change agents’ attempts to challenge their power. Second, I show that this lack of attention can be capitalized politically by change agents who can covertly mobilize an alternative coalition supporting a new logic. Third, I show that covert mobilization, due to its covert nature, is ridden with unanticipated consequences potentially amplifying the new logic beyond the expectations of the very same change agents who initiated the mobilization.

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