What is institutional culture?

Our definition of institutional culture blends ideas of organisational culture and the disciplinary institution. The organisation is a meso level structure, between macro (society) and micro (individual) levels.

For Swidler (1986), culture is the tool kit of habits, skills and styles with which individuals construct strategies of action. In a university context, this means people’s work/teaching/study practices, how they negotiate challenges, and how they interact and behave. Swidler also discusses beliefs: in relation to the institution, these would be about its nature and what it means to exist within it. We link these to values – for example, excellence or equality – which can be top-down or bottom-up, internal- or external-facing, and stated and/or experienced (an institution’s stated values may not be what its staff and/or students experience in practice).

Cultural values, beliefs and practices interact with social categories such as gender, race and class. This refers to both the types of bodies dominant and marginalised within an institution, and particular ideas or ways of being. Some people, usually from more privileged social groups, are better able to survive institutional cultures than others. As well as being shaped by bodies, institutional cultures shape bodies: for Foucault (1975), education is one of several disciplinary institutions. Institutional norms produce and embed ways of thinking and being. Institutional culture, then, can be deeply experienced and enacted. There may also be subcultures and issues of conflict however (Silver 2003), so it is important not to see institutional culture as static or monolithic.

Institutional cultures also exist in a social context. Some theorists have identified ‘institutional logics’ (Thornton and Ocasio 2008) such as democracy, the capitalist market, the bureaucratic state, and religion (Friedland & Alford, 1991), which have a shaping function. A key example here for universities would be the neoliberal logics which structure the higher education sector and our economy and society more broadly. Universities and other institutions are also shaped by, and shape, other social discourses such as gender, race and class (Martin, 2004). We use the term societal logics to encompass all these meanings.

We must ask a number of questions to begin understand the culture of an institution. We must also recognise that this culture will look different depending on one’s social and institutional location. Drawing from feminist standpoint theory (Hill Collins 1990), we argue that those who are marginalised in/by particular cultures can often achieve a better understanding of them, particularly of problematic aspects. Some initial questions for reflection might be:

  1. What are the stated values of the institution, both outward- and inward-facing?
  2. What are its experienced values, and do these differ?
  3. Are there any commonly held beliefs about the institution?
  4. How do people experience and feel about working/studying there?
  5. What are the characteristics of the work/study environment(s)?
  6. What challenges do people identify, and how do they deal with them?
  7. Where are the areas of conflict?

Our Grounded Action Inquiry methodology involves a simple survey instrument and focus group guide to collect data on these questions, which can then be analysed to develop themes for a cyclical Action Inquiry process which involves discussion, reflection and action.


Ahmed, S (2012) On Being Included: Racism and diversity in institutional life. Durham: Duke University Press
Foucault, M (1975) Discipline and Punish: the birth of the prison. London: Penguin (1991 edition)
Friedland, R and Alford, R (1991) ‘Bringing society back in: Symbols, practices, and institutional contradictions,’ in The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis, ed. Walter W. Powell and Paul J. DiMaggio, pp. 232–263. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Hill Collins, P (1990) Black Feminist Thought. London: Routledge (2000 edition)
Martin, PY (2004) ‘Gender as social institution.’ Social Forces 82(4), 1249-1273
Silver, H (2003) ‘Does a university have a culture?’ Studies in Higher Education 28(2), 157-169
Swidler, A (1986) ‘Culture in action: Symbols and strategies.’ American Sociological Review, 273-286
Thornton, PH and Ocasio, W (2008) ‘Institutional Logics.’ Sage Handbook of Organizational Institutionalism 840, 99-128