Autonomous Reform vs Global Isomorphism: Explaining Iran’s Success in Reducing Fertility
CID Faculty Working Paper No. 338
Masoomeh Khandan and Lant Pritchett
A long-standing literature in the sociology of organizations (e.g., DiMaggio and Powell 1983) suggests that, as change agents face uncertainty about actions and outcomes, they often seek legitimacy through isomorphism: adopting structures, policies and reforms similar (at least in appearance) to those deemed successful elsewhere. We examine history’s most rapid reduction of fertility—from 8.4 in 1985 to 2.4 in 2002, in rural Iran—as an example of successful autonomous reform. The Iranian state, which was self-consciously cut off from nearly all of the traditional vectors of global isomorphism, initiated a successful behavioral change in a domain (family planning) perhaps unexpected for an Islamic state. We describe and explain the Iranian approach, in particular the rural program, contrasting it with the global strategy of adopting universal "best practices."