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A Semiotic Theory of Institutionalization

In management theory scholars emphasize that what actors do is often not what they say, but they tend to assume that what actors do is what they mean or that what they mean is what they say. These assumptions are problematic when studying the institutionalization process, where doing, saying, and meaning move from the micro level to the macro level. I argue that the three are distinct correlates of social reality corresponding to the semiotic triangle composed of referent, signifier, and signified, which is key to understanding institutionalization. I combine the semiotic triangle and the chain of signification to conceptualize the process of institutionalization as the coevolution of the three correlates of the sign. Specifically, I identify two kinds of institutionalization: denotational and connotational. Whereas denotational institutionalization entails the coupling of the referent, signifier, and signified, connotational institutionalization involves decoupling among the three. Furthermore, decoupling occurs not only between doing and saying, as shown in existing management studies, but also between doing and meaning, as well as between meaning and saying. Based on this conceptualization, both kinds of institutionalization processes increase the taken-for-grantedness of the sign, but what is taken for granted differs drastically, which explains the heterogeneity in the institutionalization process.

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