As plants sprout and grow, so do social organizations—but only when the soil in which they grow is conducive. That’s the argument of new research based on a case study of two botanical gardens in New York City, one of which failed and the other of which, a century later, continues to thrive today.

The researchers, Victoria Johnson of the City University of New York’s Hunter College and Walter W. Powell of Stanford University, use ideas from the fields of institutional...

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