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abstract

We build on Boltanski and Thévenot's theory of justification to account for the ways in which different stakeholder groups actively engage with discourses and objects to maintain the legitimacy of institutions that are relevant to their activity. We use this framework to analyse a controversy emerging from a nuclear accident which involved a large European energy company and sparked public debate on the legitimacy of nuclear power. Based on the findings, we elaborate a process model of institutional repair that explains the role of agents and the structural constraints they face in attempting to maintain legitimacy. The model enhances institutional understandings of legitimacy maintenance in three main respects: it proposes a view of legitimacy maintenance as a controversy-based process progressing through stakeholders' justifications vis-à-vis a public audience; it demonstrates the role of meta-level ‘orders of worth’ as multiple modalities for agreement which shape stakeholders' public justifications during controversies; and it highlights the capacities that stakeholders deploy in developing robust justifications out of a plurality of forms of agreement.