Transplanting Institutional Innovation: Comparing the Success of NGOs and Missionary Protestantism in Sub-Saharan Africa

Marian Burchard (SFB 1199 & Leipzig U) & Ann Swidler ( UC Berkeley)

Publication Date

February 2021


Berlin: Springer Verlag






Theory and Society




pp. 335–364

Additional Information


Viewing missionary Protestantism and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as carriers of transnational institutional innovation, this article compares their successes and failures at creating self-sustaining institutions in distant societies. Missionary Protestantism and NGOs are similar in that they attempt to establish formal organizations outside kinship, lineage, and ethnic forms of solidarity. Focusing on institutions as ways to create collective capacities that organize social life, we trace the route whereby Protestant missionaries established congregational religion in Africa and identify social practices that made this enterprise successful but are comparatively absent in current NGO attempts to transform organizational life. Largely ignored by sociologists interested in institutional transformation, the history of congregational religion offers valuable sociological lessons about the conditions for radical institutional innovation. Its success was rooted first, in colonial missionaries’ ability to enforce new ways of life on small exemplary communities; second, in local adaptations (African prophetic movements, Pentecostalism) that deepened and widened the social reach of congregational principles; and third in the incentives Protestantism created for propagating the congregational form.

Biographical Note

Prof. Dr. Marian Burchard (SFB 1199 & Leipzig University)

Marian Burchard is Professor of Sociology at Leipzig University. As a cultural sociologist, he is interested in how diversity shapes institutions and everyday life. His research engages with the sociology of knowledge, the sociology of religion, urban sociology and theories of modernity, and draws on qualitative and ethnographic methods. He is especially interested in how notions of diversity influence social life and public space through nation state regulations, law and urban policy. He is the author of Regulatin Difference: Religious Diversity and Nationhood in theb Secular West (Rutgers UP, 2020) and Faith in the Time of AIDS: Religion, Biopolitics and Modernity in South Africa (Palgrave Macmillan 2015)

Prof. Dr. Ann Swidler ( Berkley University)

Ann Swidler (PhD UC Berkeley; BA Harvard) studies the interplay of culture and institutions. She asks how culture works–both how people use it and how it shapes social life. She is best known for her books Talk of Love, and the co-authored works Habits of the Heart and The Good Society, as well as her classic article, “Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies” (American Sociological Review, 1986).  Talk of Love: How Culture Matters (Chicago, 2001), examines how actors select among elements of their cultural repertoires and how culture gets organized “from the outside in” by Codes, Contexts, and Institutions. Her newest book (with Susan Cotts Watkins) is A Fraught Embrace: The Romance and Reality of AIDS Altruism in Africa (Princeton, 2017), which explores the intersection of global and local responses to the AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa. Her interest in institutions that can create collective goods has led to work on African chieftaincy, religious congregations, and NGOs, and to her current project on Social Ecologies of Religion in Malawi.  She is studying religious congregations and the networks they form between villages and among pastors and sheikhs, village headmen, and local government officials in order to understand the cultural and religious sources of collective capacities for social action.