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Institutionalization Interrupted: The Evolution of the Field of Philanthropic and Nonprofit Studies

Tue, July 13, 3:15 to 4:15pm, Virtual 2021, 6


As an academic field, philanthropic and nonprofit studies (PNS) has reached a degree of maturity and acceptance in academia. At the same time, however, the field’s real level of institutionalization and the desirability of such an institutionalization is unclear (Mirabella, Hoffman, Theo, & McDonald, 2019).

An increasingly sophisticated body of literature has analyzed the field of PNS. Scholars have investigated the field’s origins (Hall, 1992), detailed paradigm shifts in knowledge production (Ma & Konrath, 2019), journal content (Bushouse & Sowa, 2012) and dissertation focus (Jackson, Guerrero, & Appe, 2014), described the growth of academic programs and their impact (Mirabella et al., 2019; Weber & Brunt, 2019; Kuenzi, Steward, & Walk, 2018), and analyzed infrastructure organizations (Ashcraft, 2015; Smith, 2013). Despite this large and growing body of knowledge, the question of institutionalization and disciplinary independence, which was at the center of concerns of an earlier generation of scholars and academic entrepreneurs (O’Neill & Young, 1988; O’Neill & Fletcher, 1998), has faded today. The withering of the best-place debate in current discussions (Mirabella & Wish, 2000), which specifically addressed the question of disciplinary autonomy, is symbolic of this change. Recently, only Mirabella et al. (2019) explicitly addressed this question, using institutional location of academic programs as a starting point.

This paper directly addresses the institutionalization question. It moves beyond Mirabella’s focus on academic programs and their institutional location by integrating cognitive characteristics, institutional structures, historical context, and access to resources in the analysis. In so doing, it highlights similarities in the development of PNS with the more general growth of scientific fields, as posited by Frickel and Gross (2005) and Hambrick and Chan (2008).

Drawing on these models, the paper develops a history that highlights the interplay of differentiation, mobilization, and legitimization in the field’s evolution and identifies institutional forces that have both supported and hindered the institutionalization process. Changes in access to funds and institutional entrepreneurship challenge the field’s full institutionalization. External funders (e.g. W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Atlantic Philanthropies, and Packard Foundation) supported and legitimized academic entrepreneurs in a phase of growing differentiation, mobilization, and legitimization; when these initiatives with a national focus ended, academic units and programs struggled in leveraging additional funds and were often re-integrated in traditional university structures. Additionally, with the increasing legitimacy and growth of the field, the spaces for academic entrepreneurship, which had driven the emergence of the field, narrowed as the reintegration of academic units within university structures came with a loss of independence and flexibility.

While the analysis focuses primarily on developments in the US, it raises broader questions that go beyond changes occurring in only one nation or region. Three broad questions emerge around the effects of this, although incomplete, process of institutionalization. First, it raises the question of a widening the gap between academia and practice; second, it may have a homogenization effect, decreasing the field’s diversity, innovativeness, and interdisciplinarity; and third it may have a hegemonic impact, as US and more broadly Anglo-Saxon theoretical approaches and interpretative models dominate the field.


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