Some Thoughts about Constructing Trustworthy Historical Narratives: Criteria, Principles and Techniques by Gill et al. (2018)

9 02 2019


Gill, Michael J., David James Gill, and Thomas J. Roulet. “Constructing Trustworthy Historical Narratives: Criteria, Principles and Techniques.” British Journal of Management29, no. 1 (2018): 191-205.

I recently read an important new paper on historical organizational studies that appeared in the British Journal of Management. The overall argument advanced in it is partially congruent with that offered in the 2016 Academy of Management Review paper by Maclean et al. However, I see some important differences between these two papers and I’m more sympathetic to the approach taken Maclean et al than what Gill et al. (2018). The paper by Maclean et al identified the five hallmarks of high quality historical organizational studies: dual integrity, pluralistic understanding, representative truth, context sensitivity, and theoretical fluency. “Dual integrity” means that a paper on historical organization studies would be respected by both a good historian and a good organization studies scholar. The historian would look at it and would say “Yeah, the historical research that went into that paper was solid.”

Unfortunately, dual integrity is not an issue that is stressed in the paper by Gill et al. I regard that as a serious flaw. Another problem with the paper by Gill et al is that the authors appear to conflate “trustworthiness” and “trusted” which are actually two separate things, since the word “trusted” relates to the subjective opinion of the observer. For instance, the charming man at the front door of a house might be trusted by the people inside, but he might not be actually trustworthy if he is a really a con artist.

The paper by Gill et al. does not really grapple with the following important questions:

“Why is it important for historical narratives trusted?” “In whose eyes must historical narratives appear trustworthy?”

“Whose opinions about trustworthiness are most important here?”

“If I take steps to make my historical narrative appear trustworthy in the eyes of people in group X, will it become less trustworthy in the eyes of people in this other group?”

Each of these important questions has different possible answers.

While the authors do talk a bit about Open Data and Active Citation as mechanisms for bolstering the perceived credibility of historical research findings, the don’t cite my co-authored paper on this subject that appeared at roughly the same time as their paper. Gill et al. base their discussion of Active Citation on a pathbreaking, if now somewhat dated  2010 paper by the political scientist Andrew Moravcsik. Readers wanting a more up-to-date discussion of how the principles of Open Data and Active Citation are being applied in management research should read my paper “Prospects for a transparency revolution in the field of business history” instead.

P.S. The journal Business History is now encouraging authors to upload their data to repositories, which is another victory for the Open Data/Research Transparency movement supported in my 2018 paper.



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