Some Thoughts on “Strategies for Organizational History: A Dialogue Between Historical Theory and Organization Theory”

18 01 2014

Michael Rowlinson, John Hassard and Stephanie Decker have published an important article in the Academy of Management Review, which is one of the top journals in the field of management studies. The journal has an Impact Factor of 7.895 and is ranked 1 of 172 journals in the category of “Management.”  I’m pretty certain that this particular article will be read, cited, and applied by significant numbers of business academics, including business historians, as it deals with some really fundamental theoretical issues.  The article cites important management thinkers as well as important historical theorists. The historical theorists discussed range from methodologically-conservative empiricists Richard J. Evans and Peter Novick to Ludmilla Jordanova and then all the way to the postmodernist philosopher Michel Foucault.

The article, “Strategies for Organizational History: A Dialogue Between Historical Theory and Organization Theory,” deals with the relationship between historical writing and organizational studies. People trained as historians study the history of businesses and other organizations, while people from the organizational studies are interested, indeed increasingly interested, in the past. However, these two groups of scholars approach the study of organizations in very different ways.   Rowlinson, Hassard, and Decker  (henceforth RHD) discuss three important differences between historical approaches and those grounded in organizational theory.

First, people who were trained in history departments are preoccupied with narrative construction whereas organizational scholars subordinate narrative to analysis. In other words, historians tell a story about the past that has some lessons for the present lurking in it, whereas people in departments of organization, like our friends in economics departments, go to the historical record to test particular theories.

Second, there is a major difference in the sources preferred by historical and organizational theory.  In my view, this section of the paper is the most important. (I was particularly interested in it as I was trained as PhD history but now work in a management school and am attempting to publish my research in non-historical management school journals). Historians are trained to view primary sources, particularly archival materials, as the highest-ranking or most authoritative sources of information about the past, whereas organization theorists prefer constructed data, such as interviews. To get published in a history journal, a paper needs to be based on documents created at the time, particularly those housed in archives. Organizational theory tends to regard such sources as suspect relative to, say, interviews. Historical and organizational theory have their own sets of plausible reasons for preferring these different types of sources

RHD point out that while.

The terms “sources” and “data” are often used interchangeably, but we can make a distinction between them because it is clear that organization theorists prefer what they call primary data over secondary, or historical data, whereas historians prefer primary to secondary sources. The organization theorist’s secondary, or historical data, correspond to the historian’s primary sources, and the terminological difference is not purely semantic as it reveals a deeper epistemological dualism in relation to the treatment of evidence and the notion of what constitutes a cumulative contribution to knowledge. Organization theorists appear to believe that the “validity and reliability” of documentary archival sources must be questioned more than constructed data, such as interview transcripts (Strati, 2000: 159). As a result even when they are used, archival sources are cited sparingly (e.g. Rojas, 2010), and generally relegated to providing “background information about an organization” (Strati, 2000: 158), or validating retrospective accounts (Golden, 1997), as in most case studies (Eisenhardt, 1989; e.g. Smets, Morris, & Greenwood, 2012).

The third major difference between historical and organizational theory is that historians construct their own periodization whereas organization theorists treat time as constant for chronology. In other words, historians are interested in studying organizations by situating them in specific historical contexts structured around named periods (e.g., “Victorian Britain”, “the post-war era”, “the industrial revolution”). Historians debate which periods we should use, but they all use periods.

RHD discuss four main types of organizational history: corporate histories, which would include commissioned and non-commissioned historians;  structured history, which uses history to illuminate or illustrate a particular theory; serial history, using replicable techniques to analyze repeatable facts; and ethnographic history, reading documentary sources “against the grain.”  Ethnographic history is clearly informed by the newer types of post-modernist history that emerged in the 1970s. The section of the paper in which four main types of organizational history are identified appears to be inspired by Coleman’s famous 1987 article on the “Uses and Abuses of Business History”.  However, the representative examples of the different types of business history used by RHD are much newer and give a sense of recent work in these four varieties of business history.

RHD have published an excellent paper.  However, it has some limitations that need to be pointed out.

First, the historical theorists and organizational theorists discussed in the paper are all Western, as are all of the examples of business-historical research discussed in this paper. The historical theorists discussed, Evans, Foucault, etc., are all scholars who live in the “North Atlantic Space” and who are products of the Western tradition of historical research. This tradition is a cultural construct that emerged  in Western Europe in the early modern period. It was in Europe that historiographical practices such as the citation of sources by footnote were invented. The business historians discussed by RHD include Geoffrey Jones, Alfred Chandler, and Matt D. Childs.

It should be pointed out that other civilizations have produced other historical traditions that inform sizeable volumes of business historical research, particularly research conducted in those non-Western countries that have large communities of business historians. For various reasons, Japan has a massive community of business historians. There are more than 800 members of the Business History Association of Japan, which is, in per capita terms, much more than the membership of equivalent organizations in the United Kingdom and the United States.  Moreover, commissioned business histories are extremely popular in Japan. A large proportion of public companies have published at least one corporate history. In many cases, these corporate histories are updated and re-issued with each important anniversary.


I was recently in a Japanese university library and was shown a massive shelving unit, approximately thirty feet in length, that was filled with such commissioned histories. Many Japanese business historians, including some of those who publish in English-language journals published in Japan, rarely or never use footnotes or other forms of citation. This is not to say that these scholars have failed to do their research. It is simply that readers are expected to trust authors when they say they have data to back up their claims. In the West, of course, footnotes or some other form of citation are obligatory. The absence of citations in Japanese business historiography is clearly a function of history—the footnote was invented in the West, mostly likely by Roman Catholic clerics. The footnote as a literary form was popularized by the historian Edward Gibbon in his work on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

Moreover, Japan is a high trust society, as the many unlocked bicycles parked outside of stores and restaurants demonstrate.  Given the marked differences between the approaches to business history in different countries, it would be very helpful if a scholar with the appropriate linguistic skills expanded the analysis in RHD’s article to include works of business history produced in non-Western countries. Given that Japan has been affluent and able to support business historiography for some time, Japan would be a good place to start this research.

Second, I thought that RHD have missed out an important new body of historical theory that ought to have been included in their analysis, namely postmodern theory. It seems to be that this body of theory, offers business historians several new avenues of research. RHD are very much aware that there are radically different approaches to the study of the past in history departments. They discuss how the field of history has changed dramatically since the 1970s. However, they say relatively little about postmodern approaches to history, although they do cite and discuss several postmodern theorists. The absence of a sustained discussion of postmodernism is a striking omission, in my view, as their stated goal is to encourage academic authors to move beyond naïve empiricism and to think critically about the craft of history.

Let me be upfront about my attitude towards postmodern approaches to history. Some of the claims made by the more extreme postmodernist theorists of history are clearly problematic. A case in point is Keith Jenkins, a professor of history who has made a career out of attacking the claims of historians to tell the truth about the past. Jenkins does not make arguments about the accuracy of specific claims by individual historical researchers. Instead, he says that all historical writing is equally fictive. Jenkins takes some of the insights made by Hayden White to a logical extreme and suggests that historians cherrypick empirical data to fit their pre-existing narratives and metanarratives. Academic historians dress up their research with visits to archives and lots of footnotes, but these do not mean that their interpretations are any more or less true than those of anyone else. Everyone makes up their own subjective form of history and they are all equally valid. (For a recent essay on Jenkins, see here).

Critics of Jenkins’s theory have pointed out that, if true, it would mean the interpretations of the past made by, say, Holocaust deniers, are just as valid as those made by mainstream historians. Indeed, if we applied Jenkins’s implicit theory of knowledge to institutions outside of the university, society would grind to a halt. Can one imagine a world in which a judge, faced with the competing truth claims of the prosecutor and a defendant, simply held up his or her hands and said “Each lawyer has their own theory of what happened on the night of the murder. Each believes in sincerely. Let’s just leave it at that and say that all truth claims are equally fictive.”

Clearly, then, the extreme postmodernist claims about the past are completely invalid. However, postmodernism has done us some good by forcing historians, particularly academic historians, to question the naïve empiricism and tremendous intellectual self-confidence that underpinned the claims of post-war (1950s and 1960s) American academic historians that they were studying the past in a completely “objective,” even scientific way. I suppose my position on the postmodernism question is similar that of the late Peter Novick, who grappled with this issue in a famous book on the evolution of historical theory in American university history departments.

As historians have increasingly adopted moderate postmodernist positions, they have begun to turn their attention to the investigation of the historical ideas of non-academics. There is a growing body of secondary literature on social memory. Social memory scholars are interested in how popular interpretations of the past, as revealed by documents such as articles about history in newspapers, Hollywood depictions of the past, and so forth, influence how people think about the present. They have established that different theories of the past influence decision-making.

Business historians and other scholars of organization have only just begun to investigate how social and organizational memory influences how companies operate. For instance, they have begun to look at how firms use their histories to help market their products. A case in point would be Ronald Kroeze’s recent EGOS paper, “The sources and narrative structure of organizational history. The  corporate historical narrative of HSBC and Deutsche Bank on their websites.” In this case, the research focus is on the firm’s relationship with external actors. Other organizational scholars have examined how the narratives that firms and other organizations create about their histories influence the behaviour of people within those firms and other organizations.  Charlotte Linde’s study of an unnamed insurance company in the US Midwest is an example of this.

One of the most interesting research projects inspired by this new focus on social memory involved asking ordinary Canadians to describe the important events in their country’s recent history. This innovative use of oral history was developed by historians  who were disturbed by the top-down approach to historical memory implicit in some other approaches to understanding the popular historical consciousness, particularly the annual survey of historical knowledge performed by a think-tank called the Dominion Institute. For background, I should explain that the Dominion Institute would poll Canadians to test their knowledge of the past against a standard list of important historical facts that was based, more or less, on academic historiography.

Each year the results of the latest survey would be reported in the Canadian media and the organizers would deplore they ignorance of Canadians relative to what they ought to know. “Did you know that X percent of Canadians didn’t know that the First World War began in 1914? Shocking.” The Dominion Institute would then demand action from educators and the government designed to raise the average level of historical knowledge towards that prescribed by the experts. Polls of historical ignorance similar to those of the Dominion Institute were conducted in other countries by people with similar agendas and similar top-down views of how historical knowledge is generated.  The Canadians and the Their Pasts project, which was based at the Centre for the Study of Historical Consciousness in Vancouver, involved reversing this hierarchical approach and asking ordinary people which historical events were important.  The results of the study have recently been published. The research findings have recently been published.


Canadians and Their Pasts was focused on national history (i.e., the history of a territorial unit). However, we can adapt their approach to the study of the history of firms and other organizations. Such an approach might involve conducting interviews with decision-makers in firms to assess the extent to which their ideas about history influence decision-making.

Other ways in which business historians might operationalize this approach include:

-the study of how companies use history in marketing their products. (There has been some research on this already, such as a well-known study of Tim Hortons, a Canadian chain of coffee shops). [See image below]

-the study how ideas about financial history influence decisions by bankers

-the study of how ideas about history influence worker behaviours

-the study of how ideas about economic history influence the behaviour of entrepreneurs




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: