Dissertation Abstracts

Origins of Institutional Change: Brazilian Alcohol Fuel Program between 1975 and 2000

Author: Ollinaho, Ossi I, ossi.ollinaho@iki.fi
Department: Industrial Engineering and Management
University: Aalto University, Finland
Supervisor: Juha-Antti Lamberg / Kalle Pajunen
Year of completion: 2012
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: institutional change , sociology of knowledge , cumulative change , materiality
Areas of Research: Environment and Society , Social Transformations and Sociology of Development , Historical and Comparative Sociology


In this dissertation, I study the origins of institutional change. In organizational institutionalism, institutional change is seen as being triggered either by exogenous shocks or by endogenous factors. I propose to see the origins of change instead through the dichotomy of cognitive versus material. One rationale for this is that, when addressing more broadly dispersed societal practices, the distinction between endogenous and exogenous loses its meaning. Another reason is that without taking materiality into account in a more comprehensive manner, institutional theory is toothless against the vast material fluxes that human activity, patterned as established practices, produces and consumes. Human activity is transforming the very basis of its foundation: raw material sources, ecosystems and even the climate of the planet. Not only does human activity have an impact on the planet, but the materiality in which we live, has its impact on our activity. I argue that changes in materiality affect our habitualized activities depending on how these changes are produced. This setting requires a more comprehensive relating of material and cognitive processes, something that I attempt to elucidate in this dissertation. I ground my conceptual framework in the German sociology of knowledge, particularly in the writings of Alfred Schütz and Thomas Luckmann.
Established practices related to fossil fuels are central with regard to the adverse impacts of human activity. I study arguably the most successful attempt to deviate from these patterns: Proálcool. This ambitious Brazilian biofuel program was launched in 1975. Although alcohol was generally argued to be the definitive Brazilian solution and alcohol cars dominated the scene in the 1980s, by the end of the 1990s the program had lost its legitimacy and was seen as baggage to be done away with. I reconstruct the evolution of the program from 1975 to 2000 as a detailed narrative based on some 4000 news articles published in a major newspaper in Brazil, Folha de São Paulo. I analyze the reasons behind the major transformations and the attempts to transform the program. As a result of the empirical analysis, I propose a new concept, a new type of disruption. This “accumulative disruption” will help us to better understand our societies. In my view, the bulk of material changes in our contemporary world is, by nature, accumulative, as it is a result of established practices consuming and producing materiality in various forms. As established practices gain legitimacy through the process of being reproduced, so too do the material fluxes that these practices beget gain legitimacy. For this, even though accumulation transforms our material environment, it is apperceived as being natural rather than disruptive. Overall, institutionalization should be seen not only as a ubiquitous process by which meanings become reified, but also as a process in which material fluxes and material accumulation are inherent.

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