Research Strategies for Organizational History: A Dialogue Between Historical Theory and Organization Theory

If history matters for organization theory, then we need greater reflexivity regarding the epistemological problem of representing the past; otherwise, history might be seen as merely a repository of ready-made data. To facilitate this reflexivity, we set out three epistemological dualisms derived from historical theory to explain the relationship between history and organization theory: (1) in the dualism of explanation, historians are preoccupied with narrative construction, whereas organization theorists subordinate narrative to analysis; (2) in the dualism of evidence, historians use verifiable documentary sources, whereas organization theorists prefer constructed data; and (3) in the dualism of temporality, historians construct their own periodization, whereas organization theorists treat time as constant for chronology. These three dualisms underpin our explication of four alternative research strategies for organizational history: corporate history, consisting of a holistic, objectivist narrative of a corporate entity; analytically structured history, narrating theoretically conceptualized structures and events; serial history, using replicable techniques to analyze repeatable facts; and ethnographic history, reading documentary sources “against the grain.” Ultimately, we argue that our epistemological dualisms will enable organization theorists to justify their theoretical stance in relation to a range of strategies in organizational history, including narratives constructed from documentary sources found in organizational archives.

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Academy of Management Review
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