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Cracking the box or stretching its walls? Exploiting institutional plasticity in Iranian creative advertising

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Through a nine-month ethnography in an advertising agency in Iran, a deeply conservative society, we explore the microprocesses through which actors search for and exploit areas of institutional plasticity toward incremental change. Given the infeasibility of more significant change in a highly institutionalized arrangement, actors in these settings are likely to seek out institutions characterized by the highest degree of plasticity. Yet, extant institutional research has not yet addressed the question of how they may go about doing so, which is what we seek to do in this paper. By studying how celebrity endorsement became more normative in the field of advertising despite initial resistance from Iranian government regulators, we make four contributions to institutional literature. First, we demonstrate how institutional plasticity can serve as an antecedent to incremental institutional change in highly institutionalized contexts. Second, we trace the source of institutional plasticity to a misalignment between institutional pillars. Third, we identify the tactics and strategies that challengers use in the process of sensing institutional plasticity and stretching institutional boundaries. Finally, we shed light on the use of material and discursive resources across different stages of negotiations over incremental movements in the boundaries of normativity within a highly institutionalized setting.
Original languageEnglish
JournalHuman Relations
Early online date21 Apr 2021
Publication statusEarly online - 21 Apr 2021


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