Call for Papers | “Agency and Institutions in Sport”, Special Issue of European Sport Management Quarterly | Call ends November 1, 2022

Special Issue Editors
The actor and his institution – too much agency?

Since the neo-institutional approach was first articulated by Powell and DiMaggio (1991) in their ‘orange book’ and more recently further explicated by Greenwood and colleagues (Greenwood et al., 2008; 2017), organisational institutionalism has generated considerable insight into the management of sport (Washington & Patterson, 2011). The perspective has increasingly become institutionalised as a dominant approach to understand and explain the changing nature of sport via central institutional concepts such as legitimacy, change, isomorphism, fields, logics, and work (Nite & Edwards, 2021; Robertson et al., 2022). Collectively, nearly 200 studies over three decades have utilised institutional constructs to investigate institutions within sport, ranging from more macro perspectives such as the professionalisation and commercialisation of the sport industry, to more micro perspectives around the role individuals play in changing and maintaining sport organisations (Robertson et al., 2022).

A central assumption underpinning early institutional approaches was that individuals and organisations are subject to, and therefore at the mercy of, broader institutional forces (e.g., Slack & Hinings, 1994). More contemporary institutional research has begun to challenge the underlying assumption of structural determinism that positions actors as ‘cultural dopes’ subject to the ‘iron cage’ of institutional forces (Powell & DiMaggio, 1991). Arguably, this shift in thinking, or ‘agency turn’, has marked a fundamental departure from earlier institutional studies by focussing on institutional work which Lawrence and Suddaby (2006) define as ‘the purposive action of individuals or organisations aimed at creating, maintaining and disrupting institutions’ (p. 215). More recently the institutional work perspective has expanded to include scholarship on ‘how, why and when actors work to shape sets of institutions, the factors that affect their ability to do so, and the experience of these efforts for those involved’ and the ‘practices and processes associated with actors’ endeavours to build, tear down, elaborate and contain institutions, as well as amplify or suppress their effects’ (Hampel et al., 2017, p. 558). It is this latter, more contemporary use of institutional work that we wish to use as our launching pad to advance and extend institutional work scholarship in sport management within this special issue.

Contemporary uses of institutional work provide a distinctive opportunity for sport management researchers looking to leverage the sport setting to extend and develop theory. Sport consists of institutions that matter to society, encompassing a range of normative systems and cognitive understandings around issues of development, governance, health, identity, inclusion, (in)equity, integrity, media, participation, socialisation, and technology etc. Individuals and organisations collectively shape these institutions via their actions. Consequently, while sport management scholarship has an extensive history of institutional analysis, placing individuals at the heart of this analysis opens a range of interesting and exciting opportunities to advance our understanding.

For this special issue we are particularly interested in empirical research that demonstrates clear theoretical contributions to advance our understanding of contemporary institutional work scholarship. Drawing on recent reviews we feel the following themes present opportunities to leverage distinctive empirical opportunities within sport and contribute to broader theoretical discussions around agency in institutional scholarship. Possible themes and research directions include:

      • Bridging the micro-macro institutional divide
        The ‘agency turn’ has necessitated a re-evaluation of the role of individuals in institutional analysis – from passive recipients to active participants – in the creation, maintenance, and disruption of institutional dynamics and processes. As Nite and Edwards (2021) observed institutional work scholarship may be particularly beneficial when incorporated into multi-level analysis, and particularly when connected with more macro institutional constructs such as legitimacy, logics, and fields. For example, the paradox of embedded agency effectively asks can sport change itself? Particularly when individual agents are embedded within, and influenced by, the very institutions they are wishing to change. Alternatively, the connection between institutional work and the creation, maintenance, and disruption of institutional logics offers several interesting avenues for future research, such as who, and under what conditions, were the institutional logics that underpin institutions within sport created? And, what effect do these logics have on the distribution of symbolic and material resources within the contemporary sport industry?
      • Emotions and institutional work
        The role of emotions in contemporary institutional work literature has emerged from scholars dissatisfied with the lack of accounting for the lived experiences, histories, passions, and social connections of people within institutional analysis (e.g., Lok et al., 2017). Lived experiences guide how people relate to, and emotionally connect with institutions. Indicative of this approach, potential research opportunities include: how do heterogeneous groups differentially experience (in)equality with sport? Does social identification with sport influence institutional work? How have individuals and organisations mobilised emotion(s) to facilitate institutional change? Does the emotional connection fostered by sport promote institutional maintenance or inhibit institutional disruption?
      • Materiality and institutional work
        Recent work has called for more research on the influence of material objects such as technology on institutional work (Hampel et al, 2017). We believe sport has much to say on this topic. Indicative approaches to this area could include the following: What is the influence of technology on professions in sport management (e.g., officiating, coaching, athletes)? To what extent is technology disrupting the institutional arrangements and practices of sport? What are the potential institutional consequences of diverging influences from human and material elements?
      • Societal consequences of institutional work
        Armstrong, Semenya, Blatter, Rapinoe, Kaepernick – one does not need to look hard for examples of individuals working to shape societal institutions through sport. Hundreds of millions of people participate in and watch sport on a weekly basis. This visibility and reach gives sport the opportunity to dramatically amplify both the positive and negative aspects derived from the participation in, and consumption of, sport (e.g., concussion – Heinze & Lu, 2017; abuse – Nite & Nauright, 2020; inclusion – Robertson et al., 2019). Collectively, the visibility and reach of sport makes it uniquely placed to advance scholarship on the societal consequences arising from the work of a few central actors. For example, does field location influence who can do institutional work (e.g., central, middle status, and peripheral actors)? How do individuals influence the pace, sequence, and linearity of institutional change? What factors lead to successful or failed attempts at institutional work for social change?
      • Novel methodological approaches
        Advancing sport scholarship on institutional work into new areas and approaching complex issues may benefit from, and facilitate novel methodological approaches, beyond interviews and document analyses which have been identified as common approaches to investigating institutional phenomenon (Robertson et al., 2022). Recent special issues on big data and analytics (Watanabe et al, 2021) and contemporary qualitative research methods (Hoeber & Shaw, 2017) may provide inspiration for utilising a wider range of methodological tools from within our proverbial toolkit. For example, ethnographies (e.g., Lok & de Rond, 2013) and quantitative approaches from novel data sets (e.g., Zhang, 2017) may enable researchers to advance institutional work scholarship in new and exciting ways.

Submission Instructions

Please select the “Agency and Institutions in Sport” special issue title when submitting your manuscript via ScholarOne.

Manuscripts will not exceed 8000 words including tables, captions, footnotes, and endnotes, but excluding references. Manuscripts exceeding this length will not be considered.


  • December 1, 2021: Call for papers “Agency and Institutions in Sport
  • November 1, 2022: Submission deadline for full manuscripts
  • February 1, 2023: Initial manuscript decision and feedback to authors
  • April 1, 2023: Submission deadline for revised manuscripts
  • June 1, 2023: Papers prepared for final publication
  • Summer/Fall 2023: Publication in ESMQ
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