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Organizations in Time: History, Theory, Methods

Editor(s):Bucheli, Marcelo
Wadhwani, R. Daniel
Reviewer(s):Smith, Andrew

Published by EH.Net (July 2014)

Marcelo Bucheli and R. Daniel Wadhwani, editors. Organizations in Time: History, Theory, Methods. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. xii + 338 pp. $83 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-19-964689-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Andrew Smith, Management School, University of Liverpool.

How should history be incorporated into the curriculum of business schools? What type of historical research should be published in top-tier management school journals?  What can mainstream organization studies scholars learn from the research methodologies of historians? These are some of the fundamental questions that this edited collection raises.

The appearance of this volume is timely, as the last five years have witnessed a “historic turn” in business schools. Until the 1960s, economic history and business history had an important place in business school teaching and research.  Many management scholars then decided to emulate research models developed in the hard sciences, which led to history becoming marginal in most business schools. History lost respect among positivistic management academics because historians made few broad theoretical claims, rarely discussed their research methodologies, and did not explicitly identify their independent and dependent variables. Historians in management schools became, effectively, disciplinary guests in their institutions.

The period from 2008 to the present has witnessed a revival of interest in history on the part of consumers of economic knowledge in a variety of academic disciplines, not to mention society as a whole. After the “Minksy moment” of the Global Financial Crisis, many readers turned to history to make sense of a chaotic present.  Classic works on financial history such as Kindleberger’s Manias, Panics and Crashes climbed on the Amazon popularity rankings, whole new books such as Reinhart and Rogoff’s controversial study began to influence policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic (Baker, 2013). Management schools were influenced by the zeitgeist, which meant that the historic turn called for by Peter Clark and Michael Rowlinson back in 2004 started to be realized (Rowlinson, 2013). Historical research began to appear in top-tier management journals.

It is now widely recognized that there needs to be more history in business school research and teaching. However, as Marcelo Bucheli and Dan Wadhwani note in the introductory essay, this apparent consensus obscures a lack of clarity about what a “historic turn” would, in practice, involve (p. 5).

This volume argues that the historic turn cannot simply be about going to the historical record to gather data points for the testing of various social-scientific theories, which is what scholars such as Reinhart and Rogoff do. Rather than being yet another device for allowing the quantitative social sciences to colonize the past, the historic turn should involve the adoption of historical methods by other management school academics. At the very least, people in the field of organization studies should borrow more tools from the historian’s toolkit.

Many of the contributors to this volume were trained in history departments and now teach in business schools. Indeed, only one of the contributors (Ken Lipartito) works exclusively in a history department. Two of the contributors (Howard Aldrich and Stephen Lippmann) are sociologists. Eleven of the contributors work in the United States, three are based at British universities, four are in Canada, and one works at a university in Turkey. The contributors range from a Ph.D. student to the holders of prestigious endowed chairs at Harvard (Geoffrey Jones) and MIT (JoAnne Yates).

Part I of the book, “History and Theory,” identifies the major philosophical differences between historical research and the forms of intellectual inquiry that have dominated management schools for the last five decades.  Repeating philosophical debates that economic historians had in the 1960s, qualitative scholars often argue that the aprioristic approaches taken in management schools are ahistorical and thus illegitimate, while other management academics complain that narrative historical research lacks the scholarly rigor associated with quantification.

The essays in Part II, “Actors and Markets,” suggest various ways in which historical research methods could be usefully applied in understanding business. In the opinion of the reviewer, this section of the book is the most important as it provides us with concrete proposals for future avenues of research.  Jeff Fear’s paper outlines five possible research methods for applying historical methods to understanding corporate change.  Fear stresses that researchers much take the social and historical embeddedness of organizations into account. Perhaps the most important of Fear’s comments relates to the need to understand the self-perceptions of economic-historical actors (p.178-79). The importance of studying individuals’ self-perceptions is also emphasized in the paper by Dan Wadhwani and Geoff Jones on historical reasoning in entrepreneurship research.  In a key passage that may be overlooked by some readers, Wadhwani and Jones outline a research agenda of “constitutive historicism” for scholars of business and management.  Constitutive historicism involves investigation of how economic actors’ perceptions of their own place in historical time shape their strategies (p. 208-210). The paper on industry emergence and industry life-cycles by David Kirsch, Mahka Moeen, and Dan Wadhwani focuses on the industry as the main unit of analysis. It argues that historical methods, particularly the use of analytical narratives, can complement more traditional positivist social-scientific explanations for studying the origins of industries and, crucially, the decisions that result in the non-creation of industries. The paper by Marcelo Bucheli and Jin Uk Kim calls on researchers to pay more attention to the antecedents of the organizations they study. This paper focuses on “the State” as a particular type of organization whose meaning is, in their view, dependent on historical context. Bucheli and Kim question whether it is appropriate to apply concepts of the State that were developed in modern Western environments to radically different cultures and historical periods.

Part III, “Sources and Methods,” examines the nature of historical research methods. The papers in this section of the book should be of interest to both academics and to the librarians and archivists who help academics to research. In fact, this part of the book should on the required reading list for all postgraduate students in archival studies and library science. Ken Lipartito’s essay will be particularly useful to librarians and archivists. The last essay in the volume, which is by Matthias Kipping, Wadhwani, and Bucheli outlines a research methodology for the integration of historical approaches into the study of organizations.  This research methodology incorporates key devices from the historian’s toolkit, namely intensive source criticism, triangulation, and hermeneutic interpretation (p. 306).

This important book ought to be on the shelves of every business historian. The essays in it are of a uniformly high caliber and will be useful to a wide range of academics and graduate students.  However, the book has several weaknesses that need to be addressed. First, while the book says a great deal about the research lives of academics, relatively few pages are given over to the question of precisely how history should be used in teaching undergraduate business students. A few chapters on curriculum design would have been welcome here, especially as many universities expect academics to deliver “research-led teaching.”

Another problem with this book is that it fails to acknowledge the fact that historical research as it is done in history departments is in the process of being transformed by new research technologies. The contributors mention that the discipline of history changed between the 1970s and the 1990s with the rise of social, cultural, and gender history (p. 149, 150, 172). However, the much more profound changes in the discipline that are currently being driven by technology go largely undiscussed here.  Digital Humanities research tools such as text mining/distant reading, GIS for historians, and social-network analysis are changing history departments. The contributors also should have paid more attention paid to the role of new technologies in driving past intellectual trends.  We know that the acquisition by universities of mainframe computers undoubtedly contributed to the so-called cliometric revolution in economic history (Whaples, 1991) by making it easier for scholars such as Fogel and Engerman to crunch numbers.  The use of the same mainframe computers likely encouraged the parallel trends towards quantification in business schools, although computerization is not mentioned in this book. It may be that the new research technologies, such as the Digital Humanities tools mentioned above, will contribute to the reversal of the trends of the 1960s and the legitimation of historical research in business schools. In fact, these tools may be crucial in maintaining the momentum of the historic turn in management studies.

The volume also says relatively little about how historical research reaches the end users of academic knowledge. These end users include the taxpayers who fund our research in the hopes of getting some sort of return. Business historians who use narratives are able to communicate with non-academics and thus have an advantage over other business-school academics, since narrative works and business biographies are accessible. Many businesspeople read business biographies and business-history books in their spare time. Ensuring the long-term viability of the historic turn in management schools will require thinking about the needs of stakeholders outside of the gates of the university.

References:

Baker, Dean. 2013. “How Much Unemployment Was Caused by Reinhart and Rogoff’s Arithmetic Mistake?”  The Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/apr/16/unemployment-reinhart-rogoff-arithmetic-cause

Clark, Peter and Michael Rowlinson. 2004. “The Treatment of History in Organisation Studies: Towards an ‘Historic Turn’?” Business History, 46(3), 331-352.

Kindleberger, Charles P. and Robert Z. Aliber. 2011. Manias, Panics and Crashes: A History of Financial Crises. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Reinhart, Carmen M. and Kenneth S. Rogoff. 2009. This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Rowlinson, Michael. 2013. “Management and Organizational History: The Continuing Historic Turn.” Management and Organizational History, 8(4), 327-328.

Whaples, Robert. 1991. “A Quantitative History of the Journal of Economic History and the Cliometric Revolution.” Journal of Economic History, 51(2), 289-301.
Andrew Smith’s publications include “A Successful British MNE in the Backyard of American Big Business: Explaining the Performance of the American and Canadian Subsidiaries of Lever Brothers, 1888-1914,” Business History (2013).

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Subject(s):Business History
Development of the Economic History Discipline: Historiography; Sources and Methods
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative