Thoughts About Yesterday’s Seminar at Alliance Manchester Business School

18 02 2016

Yesterday, I was privileged to attend an ESRC-funded seminar at Alliance Manchester Business School on the theme of historicising the theory and practice of organizational analysis. The particular focus on yesterday’s event was on ethnographic and phenomenological approaches. I gained a great deal from this event which saw the exchange of views by org studies scholars,  business historians, and people from the discipline of archival science. I was introduced to ethnographic research methods and the associated theoretical debates, which is simply something I didn’t know that much about before. I also learned a great deal from the papers that are closer to my own home research tradition of business history. I would say that I got the most from Stephanie Decker‘s excellent paper on archival ethnography.

Listening to Stephanie discuss her paper made me realize the usefulness to my own research of Stoler (2009)’s concept of “history in the subjunctive,” the use of archival sources to explore how historical actor expected the future to unfold.  Although Decker mentioned Stoler’s approach in her 2013 article in M&OH, I didn’t realise the relevance of Stoler’s ideas to my own work until yesterday. To some of my readers, especially here in the UK, the term History in the Subjunctive will bring back memories of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys. I, however, associated Stephanie’s discussion of Stoler’s historical subjunctive more closely with Professor Ged Martin’s 2004 book Past Futures: the Impossible Necessity of History.  As I wrote in a 2005 review of Martin’s book,

Martin defines history as essentially the study of decisions taken by people in the past. He conceives the historian’s task as attempting to establish the thinking of historical actors at the time of decision, because this information illuminates the questions of why, how, and when a decision was taken. For Martin, understanding how the decision-makers in a given situation perceived their futures is crucial to historical analysis, for in making a particular choice, a historical actor is opening the door to one sort of future while closing off another (pp. 111-148). Consideration of past futures is therefore an inescapable part of historical analysis, according to Martin, because it helps us to discern which decisions were significant in their consequences while emphasizing the problems with notions of historical inevitability

As a business historian, I have now been motivated to read Stoler’s book and to investigate more closely how her epistemology compares with that of Ged Martin.

I have pasted a list of the workshop programme below.


0930-1000       Arrival and Refreshments

1000-1015       Welcome and Introduction

1015-1100       Alan McKinlay (Newcastle U): “Foucault and the archive”

1100-1145       Bill Cooke (York U): “The affect of the archive”

1145-1200       Coffee/Tea

1200-1245       Andrea Whittle (Newcastle U): “History-in-action”

1245-1330       Buffet Lunch

1330-1415       Andrea Bernardi (Manchester Metropolitan U): “Auto-ethnography”

1415-1500       Stephanie Decker (Aston U) “Archival ethnography”

1500-1515       Coffee/Tea

1515-1600       Lucy Newton (Reading U): “Corporate identity”

1600-               Discussion and Closing Remarks

Stoler, A. L. 2009. Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.



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