Sociologica (Mar 2024)

The Resource Bind: System Failure and Legitimacy Threats in Sociotechnical Organizations

  • Janet A. Vertesi,
  • danah boyd

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 17, no. 3
pp. 25 – 49


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This paper decouples legitimacy crises from technical failure, observing what happens when sociotechnical organizations confront a legitimacy crisis that does not stem from a technical failure. We draw on two parallel ethnographic studies within U.S. governmental agencies which administer complex sociotechnical systems: NASA and the Census Bureau. We show how time and money have dual, contested symbolic meanings that effect both the organizations’ legitimacy and the technical viability of their missions. This duality places public-sector technical organizations in a bind, and enables hostile actors to push these organizations to the brink, triggering legitimacy crises by pressuring their systems toward technical failure. Efforts on the ground may enable these projects to survive technically, but at the loss of individual and institutional reputations that reconfigure institutional fields along politically expedient lines. We demonstrate the advantage of bringing an institutional perspective to technical system threat and failure by addressing broader questions of legitimacy in high-risk organizations and sociotechnical systems.