Sense-making of Legitimacy During Institutional Radical Change

  • Linda Du Plessis

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Business (DBA)


This study fills a gap in the literature by investigating how university executives meet the demand for legitimacy from internal and external stakeholders during unplanned radical change. The exploration focuses on institutionalised practices that triggered radical change at South African public universities; the influence of legitimacy demands on universities’ ability to deal with radical change; the identification and reconsideration of rational myths during radical change; and how personal values and emotions of change agents with varying positions and levels of power within the university influence radical change. Institutional theory and the theory of sense-making are used as lenses to better understand the process of radical change. Phenomenological research within a constructivist research paradigm is used. Multiple perspectives are obtained by using mixed methods for data collection and through thematic analysis as well as metaphor analysis of the data. In this way, triangulation contributes to an information-rich study and allows for a comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon. This study contributes to filling the gap on how senior managers deal with radical change at highly institutionalised organisations. The theory of neo-institutionalism is expanded through the development of a conceptual framework of the sense-making of legitimacy during radical change at universities. The study extends the theory on sense-making by illustrating how metaphor analysis enhances the sense-making of legitimacy, and a cognitive map of emotions experienced during radical change is developed.
Date of Award16 Sept 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorHong Bui (Supervisor) & Dan Davies (Supervisor)


  • legitimacy
  • institutional theory
  • higher education
  • radical change
  • sense-making
  • phenomenology

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