Mechanisms of isomorphism

Why Myanmar's military government strives for a constitution

Term Paper, 2008
19 Pages, Grade: 2,3

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Table of contents


1. Introduction

2. New institutionalist theory
Concept and terms
The “world polity” approach

3. Isomorphism and de-coupling in Myanmar
Historical and present overview
Mechanisms of isomorphism in Myanmar

4. Conclusion

5. References


This essay analyzes the question why the military regime of Myanmar recently makes efforts to give the country a constitution, although it used especially the missing of a constitution for a stabilization of its power and would limit it through an installation of a constitution and the included basic rights. For a reply to this question I raise the new institutionalist “world polity” approach of John W. Meyer, which is suitable to explain this apparently contradictory proceeding and also makes the political proceedings of the country in the past more distinct.

1. Introduction

For the first time after many years the Southeast-Asian country Myanmar, which was called Birma before its official renaming, got back into the Western public gaze in the autumn of 2007. The country that is ruled by a military regime and without a constitution, was shook by insurrections which were mainly lead by buddhist priests and monks and which were aimed against the repressive policy of the government.

The regime, which presented a constitution bill on September 3rd in 2007, then again reacted with even more repressive policy, imprisonments and violent dismissals, but stated in the February of 2008 that there will be a referendum on the constitution bill in May of 2008 and free elections in 2010.

It is known that since the early 90’s the junta of the country has forbidden democratization, free elections und the implementation of human rights with the explanatory statement that a constitution as a legal basis is missing. From the political scientist and the sociological view now raises the question for the motive which brought the generals to the decision to introduce at least an apparent democratization through presenting a constitution bill, initiating a referendum and fixing a date for free elections. The regime probably knows that though it has a national propaganda machine it can’t count on a high popularity when it comes to really free elections after the pictures of its brutality reached the rest of the world and surely couldn’t been concealed from the own population.

The new institutionalist “world polity” approach by John W. Meyer shows a solution suggestion that is suitable to explain the apparently contradictory policy-making of the regime from a sociological point of view through its conceptions of mechanisms of isomorphism and de-coupling. For that reason this work will pick up this approach and apply it to the constitutional, legal and political development of Myanmar.

The first part of this work consists of the description of the new institutionalist “world polity” approach and its organizational sociological roots. The second part gives a historical and present overview of the political situation of the country and finally applies the approach to it. In the third and last part I draw a conclusion.

2. New institutionalist theory

2.1 Concept and terms

The “world polity” approach by John W. Meyer which is a part of the global governance discipline has originally organizational sociological roots. In the 70’s Meyer and his team in Stanford – based not at least on empirical studies – began to frame a theory which applied the rationality term of Max Weber and corrected it. Weber had seen the role of bureaucracy in the task, “rational geordnetes Gesellschaftshandeln ins Leben zu rufen und planvoll zu leiten” (Weber 1972: 548). So according to Weber organizations tend to produce efficiency with the help of bureaucracy that develops rationality and expertise. The produced efficiency then again ensures the legitimacy of the organization outward.

New institutionalists blind out the point of efficiency as a relevant factor and advance the thesis that it is the appearance of efficiency that should ensure legitimacy, whereas the material real status does not play any significant role. Admittedly here and there bureaucratic and rational structures are in fact designed to produce efficiency, but all together the main goal is to legitimate as an organization towards the environment through the pure showing of rational structures – no matter how efficient they really are. Meyer et al. defined some terms to describe this process which is seen as central in new institutionalist theory. In the following passages they will be delineated more closely and explained with some practical examples.

It seems to be important particularly with regard to the name of the theory to define the term of institution more closely and in the sense which is meant here. It is not understood as a meaning of a formal state-run organization which would be described as “polity” by classical political science. Instead of that, in the new institutionalist meaning the term has to be seen with a sociological point of view, and that happens to define it as “kulturelle Regeln, die bestimmten Einheiten und Handlungen kollektiven Sinn und Wert verleihen“ (Meyer / Boli / Thomas 2005: 18). Following this definition by Meyer et al., the term institutionalization means an establishment of those cultural rules: Patterns of action become accepted as implicitnesses or regularities.

In the new institutionalist vocabulary institutions like the pressure to build up rational structures described above are termed as myths. If for example a new established federal administrative body builds up a broad bureaucracy system, it follows a myth that says that administrative bodies have to legitimate themselves by showing that their work gets done in an efficient and a rational way. In other words: Max Weber’s thesis about administration and rationality is the myth that has to be proved at least outwardly.

Of course this still does not ensure that the efficiency of the administration body is really warranted. That takes us to the term de-coupling which means a drifting apart between formal status on the one hand and material reality on the other hand (cp. Meyer / Boli / Thomas / Ramirez 2005: 99 ff.). Applied to our example that would mean: The federal administration body stages as a modern organization with efficient work processes, smooth procedures and solid expertise. But if in reality nothing of that was available and the administration body turned out to be an uneffective, turbid, money-eating bureacracy-cliché, it would be a clear case of de-coupling. Against the negativity of this example de-coupling does not always need to be negative and can sometimes even be necessary, like an example shows that tells of a university that hires a Nobel Prize winner: That “brings great ceremonial benefits to a university. The celebrated name can lead to research grants, brighter students, or reputational gains. But from the point of view of immediate outcomes, the expenditure lowers the instructional return per dollar expended and lowers the university’s ability to solve immediate logistical problems” (Meyer / Rowan 1991: 56).

Legitimacy is strived by an organization towards its institutional environment. The term of “environment” has a specific meaning also in other well-known sociological theories, so it seems to be necessary to introduce the new institutionalist definition. The environment term in new institutionalism is also paraphrased with the term of organizational fields, which means every reality the concerned organization acts in and which forms the framework for its actions (cp. Hasse / Krücken 2005: 25). Raimund Hasse and Georg Krücken bring on an example from economy: “Für Wirtschaftsorganisationen wären dies beispielsweise konkurrierende Firmen, Zuliefer- oder Abnehmerbetriebe sowie politisch-regulative Instanzen“ (ibd.: 25). After all the example of the federal administration body would be reversable, so that it itself becomes an organizational field, maybe for a company. Finally, it is to say that the new institutionalist environment term should not be confused with the systems theoretic variation of it: Mechanisms like coercive isomorphism allow operative interventions on the institutional environment which shows the biggest difference between the two conceptions.

This brings us to the next term: Isomorphism is the central process for the whole approach. If the myths described above were picked up by an organization and the process continues on and on so that the myths spread, it would be a case of isomorphism, of structural similarity. It is today, for example, an international consensus that administrations legitimate their existence and their actions with expertise and rational proceedings, so that as well in Germany as in Japan or Australia we could find basically similar forms of administrational organizations. Finally, this is a practical case of isomorphism: “Indem Organisationen diese Mythen aufgreifen, kopieren und zeremoniell zur Geltung bringen, wird eine Strukturähnlichkeit („Isomorphie“) zwischen Organisation und Gesellschaft hergestellt“ (ibd.: 23).

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Mechanisms of isomorphism
Why Myanmar's military government strives for a constitution
Bielefeld University  (Fakultät für Soziologie)
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Mechanisms, Grundrechte
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Florian Sander (Author), 2008, Mechanisms of isomorphism, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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