Constitutive Historicism versus Corporate Social Memory Studies

15 07 2014

Wadhwani and Jones (2014) have recently outlined a research agenda of ‘constitutive historicism’ for scholars of business and management.  ‘Constitutive historicism’ involves investigation how economic actors’ perceptions of their own place in historical time shape their strategies. As Wadhwani and Jones note that ‘two entrepreneurs presented with a similar objective situation may interpret them in very different ways based on their historical understanding of the ways events have unfolded and the possible directions they may take in the future.’

Constitutive historicism includes, but is distinct from, the study of corporate social memory. Corporate social memory, which is an emerging area of research, involve the investigation of how social and organizational memory influences how (large) companies operate. Scholars have begun to look at how firms use their histories to defuse potential political threats (Kroeze, 2013), market their products (Foster et al., 2011), and motivate workers (Anteby and Molnár, 2012). 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 (Linde, 2009). Corporate social memory scholars have recognized that history is a key strategic asset for firms.

This paper abstract describes a recent example of some excellent research on corporate social memory (Kroeze and Keulen, 2013)

 This article states that the distinctiveness of business history and its convincingness can be improved by the concept of invented tradition and narrative. After a theoretical overview it suggests that the narrative approach explains the way leaders operate in practice. It argues that with a narrative approach one sees that history is used by business leaders in four different ways: as a source to create traditions and symbols as means of communication, as a way to understand and strengthen the identity of the organisation, as means to create corporate memory and as a tool to connect past, present and future. The examples are taken from a Dutch oral history project on management behaviour at multinationals.


In corporate social memory studies, the firm is the basic unit of analysis.  Scholars of corporate social memory rely on primary sources created by firms such as websites, commissioned corporate historians, employee magazines, company art collections, company archives, interviews, and internal correspondence. The researchers’ reliance on such sources tends to bias corporate social memory studies towards the investigation of firms that are relatively large and well established, since small and new firms typically lack the institutions needed to manage their social memories. 

Unfortunately, a considerable volume of economic activity takes place outside of large firms and historical consciousness influences economic actors that do not happen to be employees of large companies. The corporate social memory approach cannot, therefore, help us to understand the thinking of the owners of small businesses, self-employed individuals, or members of loose networks. However, by changing the unit of analysis from the firm to the industrial cluster, the industry, or the professional community, we can investigate how ideas about history influence the thinking of participants in the economy.    

Constitutive historicism can involve the use of a wide range of primary sources, including published documents (such as books and newspaper articles), unpublished texts (e.g., email exchanges), and interviews.

Anteby, M., & Molnár, V. (2012). Collective memory meets organizational identity: remembering to forget in a firm’s rhetorical history. Academy of Management Journal55(3), 515-540.

Foster, W. M., Suddaby, R., Minkus, A., & Wiebe, E. (2011). History as social memory assets: The example of Tim Hortons. Management & Organizational History6(1), 101-120.

Kroeze, R. “The sources and narrative structure of organizational history. The corporate historical narrative of HSBC and Deutsche Bank on their websites” Paper Presented at EGOS, Montreal, 2013.

Kroeze, R., & Keulen, S. (2013). Leading a multinational is history in practice: The use of invented traditions and narratives at AkzoNobel, Shell, Philips and ABN AMRO. Business history55(8), 1265-1287.

Linde, C. (2009). Working the past: Narrative and institutional memory. Oxford University Press.






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