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Archival Research Methods

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Archival research methods include a broad range of activities applied to facilitate the investigation of documents and textual materials produced by and about organizations. In its most classic sense, archival methods are those that involve the study of historical documents; that is, documents created at some point in the relatively distant past, providing us access that we might not otherwise have to the organizations, individuals, and events of that earlier time. However, archival methods are also employed by scholars engaged in non‐historical investigations of documents and texts produced by and about contemporary organizations, often as tools to supplement other research strategies (field methods, survey methods, etc.) Thus, archival methods can also be applied to the analysis of digital texts including electronic databases, emails, and web pages.
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Archival Research Methods
Marc J. Ventresca and John W. Mohr
To Appear in: Companion to Organizations.
Edited by Joel A. C. Baum.
Forthcoming from Blackwell Publishers.
— May, 2001—
The order of authors is reverse alphabetical; both are full contributors.
Acknowledgements: We thank Lisa Amoroso, Lis Clemens, Barry Cohen, Marie-Laure
Djelic, Diane Burton, Bob Freeland, Roger Friedland, Candace Jones, Peter Levin, Mike
Lounsbury, John W. Meyer, Trex Proffitt, Marc Schneiberg, Sarah Soule, and
participants in the Workshops on Organizations, Institutions, and Change at Northwestern
Univesity for early comments on this chapter, for direction to relevant exemplary sources,
and for sharing their wisdom about archival methods in organization research. Craig
Rawlings deserves special acknowledgement for superb research assistance on the
project. We owe a special debt to the editorial wisdom and collegial spirit of Joel Baum.
We also acknowledge with appreciation research support from the Department of
Sociology, and the Institute for Social and Behavioral Research at UCSB and from the
Kellogg Graduate School of Management, Northwestern University.
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Archival research methods include a broad range of activities applied to facilitate the
investigation of documents and textual materials produced by and about organizations.
In its most classic sense, archival methods are those that involve the study of historical
documents; that is, documents created at some point in the relatively distant past,
providing us access that we might not otherwise have to the organizations, individuals,
and events of that earlier time. However, archival methods are also employed by scholars
engaged in non-historical investigations of documents and texts produced by and about
contemporary organizations, often as tools to supplement other research strategies (field
methods, survey methods, etc.) Thus, archival methods can also be applied to the
analysis of digital texts including electronic databases, emails, and web pages.
As such, the methods we discuss in this chapter cover a very broad sweep of
organizational analysis and include a wide range of other more specific methodological
practices – from fundamental historiographic skills and strategies for archival
investigations to formal analytic techniques such as content analysis and
multidimensional scaling. The theoretical topics and substantive areas of investigation to
which these methods are applied are broader still – perhaps as broad as the domain of
organization science itself. In sum, archival methods can be thought of as a loosely-
coupled constellation of analytic endeavors that seek to gain insights through a systematic
interrogation of the documents, texts, and other material artifacts that are produced by
and about organizations.
CONTRIBUTIONS OF ARCHIVAL METHODS TO ORGANIZATION SCIENCE
In his discussion of the characteristics of modern bureaucracy, Weber noted that “(t)he
management of the modern office is based upon written documents (the ‘files’), which
are preserved in their original or draft form, and upon a staff of subaltern officials and
scribes of all sorts” (Weber, 1968, p. 957). Yates (1989) highlights this dimension of
organizational life in her study of the rise of the large-scale modern organization. Yates
demonstrates how the evolution of official document genres–such as the office
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memo–provided necessary infrastructure for the emergence of modern forms of control-
at-a-distance and administration.
The linkage of text and power is not new. As Giddens (1987) reminds us, written texts
have long been associated with forms of administrative power; writing systems were
originally invented in response to the need to count, survey, prescribe and control the
activity of others across both time and space (Goody, 1986; Latour, 1987; Ventresca,
1995). But it is in the modern bureaucratic organization that the production and use of
files comes into its most full and powerful expression. Indeed the production of written
documents may well be the most distinctive quality of modern organizational life. Few
official actions of any sort are conceived, enabled, or enacted without having been
written down both in advance, in retrospect, and invariably several more times in
between. As the telltale email messages from the Iran-Contra hearings, or more recently,
the emergence of incriminating archival records in tobacco arbitration cases demonstrate,
even questionable or illegal organizational activities have a tendency to be textually
recorded by those who inhabit modern organizations.
Organizations are fundamentally systems of ‘talk’ – more or less formalized, more or less
direct, more or less freighted with power. Organizational texts thus represent forms of
social discourse–literally, ways of communicating, producing, and enacting
organizational life (Riles, 2000; Smith, 1984). As Smith (1984) has argued, written texts
play an especially significant role in organizations because they codify in a potent
fashion, that which has been said and thought. Once it is written down, organizational
talk takes on new dimensions of veracity, credibility, and efficacy—an authoritatively
instrumental life of its own—often travelling well beyond the intent or expectations of
the author.
This makes organizational files — the embodiments of sedimented, accumulated talk
— an especially appealing data source. These texts enable researchers to view the ebb
and flow of organizational life, the interpretations, the assumptions, the actions taken and
deferred from a range of differing points of view as events unfold across organizational
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space and time. Archival materials provide unobtrusive measures of process for the study
of contemporary organizations (Covaleski and Dirsmith, 1988; Jermier and Barley, 1998)
and invaluable means of access in historical investigations (for the obvious reason that
archival materials are among the few resources we have available for learning about past
events). The examination of archival materials is thus important because they are
ubiquitous, consequential and strategically useful.
It is especially through the shifting character of historical research, shaped in
fundamental ways by alternative approaches to archival materials, that these methods
have had their most profound impact on organization science. The investigation of
organizational practices as they occurred in a different time allows scholars to gain a
sense of perspective of how shifting social and historical conditions affect the character
of organizational life (Kieser, 1989; 1994). Archival work provides a basis for defining
key questions, establishes a base of evidence, and supports debate about familiar forms
and mechanisms (Zald, 1993). Particular practices, ideologies, or social arrangements can
be better understood by exploring their origins, what Piore and Sable (1984) describe as
the key historical “branching points” or path dependencies. More than this, historical
study allows for the analysis of organizational change in increments of time that captures
significant institutional processes (what Braudel, 1980, refers to as the long durée).
But the use of archival materials is never innocent or transparent. The conditions of their
production and of their persistence mean that materials often offer partial or contradictory
evidence for an interpretation. Recognition of the inherently political and residual
features of archival material is thus a central methodological concern, the basis for
significant decisions about design and analysis. The skillfulness of scholars’ abilities to
master this ambiguity is a distinguishing feature of exemplary research in this tradition
(see for example Baron et al 1986 and the methodological commentaries by Jennings et
al, 1992; Guillén, 1994; Casadesus and Spulber, 2000). Moreover the complexity of the
task leaves open an especially wide space for intellectual disagreement. Thus Fligstein’s
(1990) archival work leads to a reconsideration of Chandler’s (1962) classic arguments
regarding the sources of the modern multi-divisional form. And so too do the alternative
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accounts in Freeland’s (2000, 2001) detailed archival study of GM, Yates’ (1989)
analysis of the rise of communication and control infrastructures within the firm, Roy’s
(1997) analysis of the contested origins of the modern corporation in the U.S., and
Djelic’s (1999) comparative study of the rules and resources shaping the spread of the
multidivisonal form in France, Italy, and Germany. In short, as researchers turn to
archives and put them to different uses they make possible alternative kinds of insights
about the nature and character of organizational events, structures, and processes.
MODES OF ARCHIVAL RESEARCH
Three very different approaches to archival study can be distinguished in organizational
research. The first is the historiographic approach. We include here the traditions of
historically-oriented work that found their way into the canon of organizational research
through the mid-1970's and early 1980's. Up until this time the use of archival materials
to study organizations was still relatively rare (Daft, 1980; Scott, 1965; Stablein, 1996).
Two streams of historiographic research were notable. One was the work of the original
institutional school in which scholars employed historical materials to study the
emergence of distinctive institutional arrangements. Selznick (1949) investigated the
history of the TVA, Zald and Denton (1963) studied the transformation of theYMCA
and Clark (1970) followed the histories of individual colleges as a way of understanding
the emergence of distinctive institutional arrangements. The second stream includes the
work of business historians such as Chandler (1962; 1977) who used archival materials to
examine the origins of modern business practices (see Galambos, 1970, and Jones, 1997,
for the legacy of Chandler’s work among business historians). This group was
complemented by a more radical contingent of labor historians and organization theorists
who used archival materials to explore the origins and character of class conflicts and
control in the work place (e.g, Braverman, 1976; Clawson, 1980; Stark, 1980; Perrow,
1991).
The distinctive character of the historiographic tradition was its attention to the rich
details of organizational life, rendering what were essentially ethnographic studies of
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organizations conducted through the medium of archival materials. Particular individuals
were identified, their lives and careers chronicled, mindsets and ideologies interpreted,
and conflicts, contests and power relationships revealed. Explanations were sought for
the creation of particular institutional configurations, modes of operation, and
management styles. A wide range of archival materials was typically employed,
including organizational documents, internal office memos, public announcements, and
personal narratives. Most often the materials were read and notes taken, but little formal
measurement or quantitative analysis conducted. These efforts were influential and
widely discussed, although they nonetheless represented a relatively small proportion of
the research work being conducted in organization science then and since (Kieser, 1994).
In the mid-1970’s, however, a new tradition of archival research based on ecological
analysis established a foothold. The methodological shift was dramatic. In place of the
more traditional engagement with historical materials, ecological research ushered in an
era of archival studies in which small amounts of information gleaned from the life
histories of large numbers of organizations was marshaled to tell a story about the
dynamics of organizational environments and organizational populations (see Baum and
Amburgey, this volume; Rao, this volume). Inspired by Stinchcombe’s (1965)
suggestion that we turn away from the study of particular organizations toward an
analysis of historically-embedded classes of organizations, or “organizational forms,” this
shift in focus opened a novel approach to archival research.
Hannan and Freeman (1977; 1984) were the first to link this conceptualization to a viable
methodology. Their focus was on the development of formal models in the tradition of
demography and a substantive argument about ecological variation and change
mechanisms in organizational populations. The ecological approach diverged
dramatically from prevailing research designs, requiring samples of historically complete
organizational populations, rather than conventional representative random (or
convenience) samples of diverse organizations.
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The new institutionalism in organizational analysis also emerged during this period, a
second stream within this larger archival tradition. Although Meyer’s early work (Meyer,
1977; Meyer and Rowan, 1977) focused on theoretical foundations of collective orders
and cultural analysis, his collaboration with Hannan (Meyer and Hannan, 1979) on
studies of education and national development connected the new institutional stream to
the ecological strategy in archival analysis. The institutionalist studies of this period
coded and analyzed small amounts of information on a large number of organizations
sampled over time. The arguments focused on how authority and expertise drove field-
level structuration and organizational change, tested over the years on a wide variety of
organizational populations —schools (Meyer, Scott, and Strang, 1987), juvenile justice
institutions (Sutton, 1988), firms (Edelman, 1990; Mezias, 1990; Suchman, 1994; Sutton
and Dobbin, 1997), and nation states (McNeely, 1995; Thomas, Meyer, Ramirez, and
Boli, 1987; Ventresca, 1995; see Palmer and Biggart, this volume; Strang and Sine, this
volume).
In contrast to the historiographic tradition, the ecological approach is far more formal in
its orientation. The empirical strategy is not based on nuanced readings of the actions,
understandings, or careers of individual persons, groups, or organizations. Rather, the
measurement of the degree of similarity and difference of specified structural
characteristics among a large number of organizations provide evidence and insight.
Measures of variation are used to support broader interpretative schemas about the logic
of macro-organizational processes. As the institutional and ecological research streams
gained professional momentum, the use of archival materials overall became widely
accepted in organization science and reliance on archival methods grew. A count of
articles published in the Administrative Science Quarterly confirms this point. Figure 1
shows the proportion of articles published between 1970 and 1998 in ASQ that employed
some form of archival methods. The graph shows a clear and sustained increase in the use
of these methods from the mid-1970’s to the present period.
Insert Figure 1 about here.
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Much of this growth can be attributed to the increasing rate of publication by scholars
who identified directly with the institutional and ecological theoretical traditions. Carroll
and Hannan’s (2000: 86-88) review of the research design features of articles published
in the ASQ supports this interpretation. Their analysis showed a marked increase in the
use of representative samples (up from 3 in 1960s to 17 in 1990s) and in homogeneous
population-specific samples (up from 2 to 18 over the same period). The most dramatic
change, however, was in the lengthening of the observation periods. Although the
number of empirical studies covering relatively short time spans ( 5 years) increased
from 5 to 14, the number of studies with timeframes spanning more than 25 years
increased from 1 to 25.
While these data rather dramatically demonstrate the increased prevalence of the
ecological approach to archival materials, other kinds of archival studies were also on the
rise during this period. Indeed, in our analysis of ASQ, we found a substantial increase
over time in the number of archival articles that relied exclusively on qualitative
methodologies (including more than a third of all the archival articles published after
1992; see Locke and Golden-Biddle, 1997). In some cases, researchers returned to
traditional historiographic methods as a way to supplement or respond to questions raised
by the ecological tradition. Langton (1984), for example, used an in-depth analysis of a
specific, historical case — the Wedgewood pottery company — to answer questions
about ecological change. Others went to the archives to more closely investigate the
kinds of change processes that had been demonstrated with quantitative methods by the
new institutionalists. Westney (1987), for example, investigated the coupled processes of
imitation and innovation that resulted from Meiji reformers’ efforts to incorporate
“modern” organizational patterns from the West. DiMaggio (1991) used traditional
historiographic methods to explore struggles among organization forms in the field of art
museums.
But something else is also afoot in the contemporary legacies of this archival work. A
new archival approach in organization science has emerged over the last decade. Like
the ecological strategy before it, this “new archivalism” is steeped in the ethos and
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methods of formal social science. However, its practitioners dissent variously (at times,
vigorously) from the methodological conventions of ecological research. Indeed, the
new archivalists tend to share key sensibilities with the historiographic approach,
including the concerns for exploring the meaning-laden, action-oriented foundations of
organizational processes. We turn now to a more detailed discussion of this emergent
archival tradition.
EXEMPLARS OF THE NEW ARCHIVAL TRADITION
New archivalists, like their predecessors, are a heterogeneous lot. They come from
different theoretical traditions and pursue different empirical agendas. But they
nonetheless partake of a common vocabulary of research strategies and goals that
together comprise a new set of principles for archival work. These include: (1) reliance
on formal analytic methodologies, (2) focus on the measurement of social organization
and its constituent elements rather than on organizations themselves, (3) emphasis on the
study of relations rather than objects or attributes, (4) concern with measuring the shared
forms of meaning that underlie social organizational processes, (5) focus on repertoires
and grammars of action, and finally, (6) interest to understand the configurational logics
that tie these various elements together into organized activity.
Take the first of these principles. A defining feature of the new archival project is the
premise that archival materials can and should be treated as data to be analyzed. The new
archivalists, like the ecologists before them, are aggressively social scientific. They enter
the archives in search of datasets, they rely on formal methods to reveal features of social
life that would otherwise be difficult if not impossible to perceive and they put their
analytic findings up front, at the core of their interpretive endeavor. In this respect, the
new archivalists are direct heirs of the ecological turn in archival analysis.
However, they quickly part company with the ecological research strategy in a number of
fundamental ways. Perhaps the most significant is the turn away from an organization-
centered approach to the study of social organization. Whereas organizational ecologists
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talk a great deal about broader social phenomena such as legitimacy, these elements of
social organization are generally not measured directly. Rather, organizations (and their
features or behaviors) are measured and used to infer the existence, the effect, and the
transformation of broader social organizational processes. Many studies in the new
institutional analysis of organization reported through the early 1990s continue this
research strategy (Schneiberg and Clemens, 2001). Isomorphism and structuration are
highlighted in the theory (and in the discussion sections of published research articles)
but it is the attributes of organizations that are measured and compared to one another in
the analyses.
In contrast, work in the new archivalist tradition consistently theorizes and measures
social organizational processes directly. In this work, organizations become a feature of
the landscape, not the entirety of it (Mohr, 2001; Scott, 2001). Consider, for example, the
research by Baum and Oliver (1991, 1992) on childcare centers in Toronto. These papers
exemplify an early shift away from the standard ecology tradition. They employ archival
materials in the ecological spirit but incorporate relational data coded from public agency
registries to distinguish among unit-level organizations. Baum and Oliver use these data
to measure institutional linkages in order to test arguments about the nature and
consequence of public authorization on the survival and founding of organizations. The
papers represent early efforts to augment the indirect measurement of legitimacy and
competition with direct, varied measures that test empirical variation in linkages of social
structures of authority and resources on organizationl form dynamics.
The Baum and Oliver papers also point to a second distinguishing characteristic of this
new archival tradition, the shift away from analytic projects that emphasize organizations
as independent objects towards the measurement of relations among objects and the
inherent connectivity of social organization. The ecological tradition begins from a
demographic perspective in which every organization is treated as a discrete and distinct
observation within a larger population. Organizations are thus treated as a scatter of data
points arrayed across time. The new archivalists have been reluctant to accept this
approach, preferring instead to attend to the ways in which elements of a broader social
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organization are related to one another in distinctive and patterned ways (Dacin,
Ventresca, and Beal, 1999).
This is most clear in papers such as McLean and Padgett’s (1997) network analysis of
economic markets in fifteenth century Florence. Inspired by contemporary debates in
institutional economics, McLean and Padgett explore whether market exchanges in this
early capitalist arena were strictly arms-length transactions or embedded within
relatively enduring social relationships. With evidence preserved in the Florentine
municipal tax archives, they set about the painstaking task of piecing together a coherent
map of the economic transactions which linked (nearly) all of the active companies in the
core of the Florentine economy in the year 1427. They coded detailed information on
more than a quarter of all the transactions (sales and purchases) which occurred during
that year (including information on some 60% of the total value of debts and credits).
With these data, they model the exchange networks between firms in order to assess the
principles guiding firm strategy and behaviors-- choosing exchange partners according to
considerations of price alone, as neoclassical economic arguments would contend, or
whether the firms worked through ties of social familiarity.
Of course McLean and Padgett were not the first to analyze these types of social
relations—their work is moored in a long tradition of archival research on organizational
networks, a tradition that provides one analytic foundation for the new archivalists (see
Burt and Lin, 1977; Aldrich and Whetten, 1981; Schwartz and Mizruchi, 1988). But
unlike traditional network analysts, the new archivalists are generally reluctant to limit
themselves to the formal analysis of social networks. Rather they are interested in the
full range of relational systems that operate to produce forms of social organization,
including the forms of knowing, styles of understanding, and sets of shared beliefs that
constitute organizational activity (see Mohr, 2000).
This concern links the new archivalists to yet another stream of archival work in
organization science which has focused on the application of content analysis to annual
reports and other corporate documents. Some of this work follows in a tradition
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pioneered by Salancik and Meindl (1984) who used a content analysis of annual reports
to identify and test claims about attributions of blame for losses, reduced earnings, or
other turbulence in shareholder expectations. Recent developments in content analysis
techniques and software (Pollock, 1998) make more varied uses of these data possible.
For example, a stream of papers by Porac, Wade, Pollock and colleagues extend
traditional content analysis to investigate industry-level models of rivalry and meaning
(Porac et al, 1995) and broader field-level frames of understanding that give meaning to
the justifications for CEO compensation (Porac et al, 2000) and dominant managerial
logics in high growth firms (Porac, Mishina, and Pollock, 2000).
This use of formal methods to analyze shared systems of meaning is one of the most
intriguing and vibrant sectors of the new archival tradition. Increasingly scholars are
finding innovative ways to use formal methods to extract the same kinds of interpretative
readings of archival texts that had once been the sole purview of the historiographic
tradition. For example, Shenhav (1994, 1995, 1999) uses a content analysis of
professional engineering and union publications at the turn of the century to understand
the engineering origins of modern management concepts and practices. Barley and
Kunda (1992) code data from the academic literature on research strategies to provide
evidence of alternating periods of “design and devotion” in management ideologies.
Studies by Abrahamson (Abrahamson, 1991; Abrahamson and Fairchild, 1997) analyze
journal articles over a 20 year period to explore variations in the diffusion of conceptual
innovations such as quality circles and TQM. Guillén (1994) uses content coding to help
explain the diffusion of management ideologies in Great Britain, Germany, Spain, and
the U.S. And Orlikowski and Yates (1994) analyze an archive of over 1,300 email
messages from a virtual community of computer language experts to identify a repertoire
of communicative genres — standardized ways of communicating that facilitate shared
understanding — in distributed organizational initiatives.
Part of what is so exciting about this work is that it allows us to understand the details of
how things are accomplished, of how things get done. Orlikowski and Yates’ explication
of the emergence of repertoires of communicative genres explains this in the context of
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how stylized conventions enable communication . But it is also important to see how
organizational activities are themselves bundled in standardized packets of what Charles
Tilly (1979) has called repertoires of action. Clemens (1993; 1997; 1999) does exactly
this, borrowing from Tilly and social movement theory to explain the institutional
changes that foster the emergence of alternative repertoires of organizational action. She
shows how late nineteenth century U.S. women’s activism, blocked from expression by
the existing system of political parties, drew upon alternative organizational models
(founded on women’s social movement organizations) to contest and ultimately supplant
the existing institutional structures of politics, paving the way for the development of
modern interest group politics.
Pentland and Rueter (1994) report a kindred accomplishment at the level of the firm.
They use archival materials taken from a software manufacturer’s call-tracking database
to understand the basic repertoires of action that are deployed to manage calls for
software service and assistance. Individual "calls" may comprise many actual phone
conversations and other actions, which they code as a sequence of activities or moves.
They analyze a random sample of 335 calls from an archival software database to identify
the set of action sequence, or “moves,” that constitute what they refer to as the “grammar
for [the firm’s] software support process” (1994:490); that is, they explain through a
systematic analysis of empirical data precisely how and in what manner organizational
activity happens. 1
Each of these concerns represent a part of the puzzle which the new archivalists are
seeking to assemble. That puzzle concerns the assembly of the basic building blocks of
organizational life, the ways in which sets of practical activities and shared systems of
understanding combine to make up a recognized area of institutional life (Meyer and
Rowan, 1978). It is the combinatorial logic itself, of how sets of practices fit together
1 Van de Ven and colleagues (Van de Ven and Garud, 1993; 1994) developed an “event analysis”
research strategy to describe key infrastructural processes in industry, organization, and technological
change. This work draws from the unstandardized data sources characteristic of the historical approaches,
but reaches toward more formal analysis and thus can be seen as an important antecedent to this project.
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with particular ways of understanding, which reflects a final set of concerns that are
constitutive of the new archival project. Friedland and Alford (1991) clearly articulate
this agenda in their conception of institutional logics, which they defined as "a set of
material practices and symbolic constructions" which provide the governing principles
for a given field of organizational activity (1991, p. 248).
Several papers in the new archival tradition have sought to give empirical substance to
this notion of component assembly. Mohr and Duquenne (1997) do this in the context of
nineteenth century social welfare organizations. Their goal is to trace how particular
organizational practices (e.g., social investigations, giving advice, food or money,
providing job training, employment, temporary shelter or long-term asylum) were
matched to and defined by different conceptual categories of the poor (the distressed,
destitute, fallen, deserving, homeless, indigent, misfortunate, needy, poor, strangers, and
worthy). By mapping out precisely how different categories of the poor were treated in
New York City over a forty year period, Mohr and Duquenne are able to offer concrete
interpretations of how and why alternative professional ideologies emerged. And, central
to the preoccupations of the new archivalism, they are able to measure the degree of
institutionalization and structuration within the organizational field by assessing the
levels of structural congruence between meanings and practices.
A recent article by DiMaggio and Mullen (2000) provides a second example. The paper
focuses on the events of National Music Week in 1924. Using data on types of
celebrations that occurred in 419 different cities and towns spread across the United
States, DiMaggio and Mullen raise the question of how the kinds of civic rituals that
occurred in these localities reflected (and constituted) alternative institutional logics.
They focus on three analytical dimensions — the types of actors involved (churches,
schools, recreational associations, professional groups, etc.), the types of actions taken
(lectures, slide shows, recitals, parades, etc.), and the objects of action (or types of
audiences) that were targeted (children, members of particular church or ethnic
communities, the general public, etc.). What they discover is that there were clear
differences in the logics according to which different communities organized their ritual
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activities. Some rituals were constructed in such a way as to ratify the existing social
order while others were organized so as to draw citizens into either a broader civic mass
public or into alternative corporate identities.
In this discussion we have used examples from recent books and articles to highlight the
basic principles of what we see as a significant, still emergent new archivalist tradition in
organization science. We turn now to a more focused discussion of the kinds of practical
decisions and research strategies that are involved in conducting archival research on
organizations.
DOING ARCHIVAL RESEARCH ON ORGANIZATIONS
Researchers who use archival materials to study organizations have tended to use three
broad strategies that we have labeled historiographic, ecological, and the new
archivalists. These divisions reflect basic differences in how research is designed,
archival materials are selected and data are analyzed.
Types of Archival Designs
Four distinctions in how archival research is designed strike us as being fundamental.
The first two concern how researchers approach archival materials. The next two pertain
to how researchers interpret their data. Table 1 shows how these distinctions map onto
the three major modalities of archival analysis.
Insert Table 1 about here.
Few vs. Many. This refers to basic differences in the level of analysis that conditions the
type of materials that one chooses to pursue. The ideal-typical distinction is between
studies that make intensive use of archival materials from a single or a few organizations
in contrast to studies that make use of small amounts of information taken from a large
number of organizations. Historiographic research is typically restricted to the careful
and detailed scrutiny of the archival materials of a few organizations. Ecological projects
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use information from many organizations, while the new archivalists have used both
types of research designs.
Read vs. Measure. A second basic distinction has to do with how the data are collected
— the input method. In historiographic investigations, the researcher reads through large
amounts of archival information (often from unstandardized sources) in a disciplined
fashion as a way to gain insights, make discoveries and generate informed judgments
about the character of historical events and processes. This method relies upon intensive
note-taking and a carefully managed pattern of strategic reading. In contrast, archival
materials can be used to enable more conventional social scientific measurement by
“coding” them as data. This approach depends upon a careful assessment of the relevant
variables that are implicitly embedded within the material and a systematic method of
recording the constituent information in order to apply formal methodologies. Insights
here stem from attention to systematic variations, patterns, or configurations within
formally measured data fields.
Descending vs. Ascending. Other differences occur in how the data are put into the
service of a particular analytic agenda, a distinction that says something about the
implicit theory of causality that a scholar brings to the materials. One important
distinction in this regard is whether the researcher uses a more macro-historical
interpretative framework to motivate the data gathering process or whether she seeks to
identify local constellations of practices and interpretations that can be used to build up a
larger narrative interpretation. Foucault (1980) describes this as the difference between a
“descending model of analysis” in which more macro patterns of social life are expected
to explain more micro processes, and an “ascending model of analysis” in which local
practices and logics of action are presumed to develop in their own fashion after which
they are incorporated at higher levels of social organization. The latter is the approach
most valued by the new archivalists who are concerned with identifying and specifying
the nuts and bolts of institutional life, the modes of understanding, the grammars of
action, the relational networks that tie elements of organizational life together. It differs
in this sense from the tendency to embrace a grand explanatory narrative which is then
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applied to generate interpretations of archival material. In this sense, both Chandler
(1962) and, in their own way, the organizational ecologists are more likely to embrace a
descending explanatory model.
Objects vs. Relations. A final analytic distinction concerns whether the archival data are
employed chiefly as a means of learning about individual social objects or used in the
service of understanding the relations among objects. This is a distinction that speaks to
the implicit theory of measurement that is brought to bear upon the data. In an object-
oriented approach to the data, the distinguishing characteristics of people, organizations,
and other social entities are seen as central to developing an adequate explanation. The
primary analytic issue concerns which features, traits, or characteristics of the objects in
question can and should be used to explain the adopted behavior or stance. Analysis
focuses on connecting attributes to outcomes. In contrast, a relational approach tends to
look at the relations that connect individuals, organizations or elements of a discourse
system together into some larger, more systemic whole. In this model it is the features of
the relations, rather than the characteristics of the objects, that are expected to yield
explanatory value. It is the social network tradition which has most vigorously advocated
an approach to social scientific measurement that privileges relations over objects (see
Emirbayer, 1997). However, it is also a basic tenet of semiotic theory and structural
linguistics more generally that meanings are constituted through systems of difference
and it is through the application of relational methods that formal methods can be most
fruitfully brought to bear on interpretative problems (Mohr, 1998a; 2000). The new
archivists have been especially interested in paying attention to how organizational
activities, meanings, and logics of action are linked together as relational systems.
Types of Archival Materials
There are two more specific methodological questions that arise when designing a study
using archival materials. The first is “What types of materials will be chosen for
analysis?” The second is “How will those materials be analyzed?” It is difficult to give
an answer to either question in general terms. We have already noted the great diversity
of methodological approaches that are associated with archival research. An even greater
18
diversity exists in the types of archival materials that might be employed in
organizational research. Indeed, one could say that there are as many kinds of archival
materials as there are types of organizational talk. A quick (and incomplete) inventory of
some general categories of organizational talk would include, for example, how
organizations talk about: who they are, what they do, what happened, what they want,
what’s ahead, who other organizations are and what they do, and on and on.2 Moreover
this talk may be generated as a result of the routines of administrative data production
(Burton, 1995, 2000), reflexively instrumental forms of rhetoric (Hirsch, 1986; Kunda,
1992), or in response to extraordinary demands (Vaughan, 1996).
In those areas of organizational science that are well institutionalized such as
organizational ecology, established conventions for choosing archival materials do exist.
These conventions have been carefully developed and empirically tested. Carroll and
Hannan (2000: Chapter 8) provide a comprehensive review of archival sources
commonly used in ecological research. These include industry directories, encyclopedic
compilations, governmental registries, census government, proprietary databases, survey
data, and lists of prominent firms. Carroll and Hannan discuss trade-offs made in the
choice of archival materials that affect sampling. They describe four typical errors in
observation plans: organizational coverage, which refers to the inclusiveness of the
sample of organizations within the definition of a population or industry; temporal
coverage, which concerns the extent to which the observation period cover the critical
times in a population’s history; precision in timing, which refers to the specificity and
completeness of data on organizational changes and their timing; and accuracy of
information, which refers to the quality and completeness of detailed data available for
individual organizations such as ownership, strategy, technology, and size.
However, the same degree of clarity or convention does not yet exist in the new archival
research traditions. Indeed, one of the distinguishing features of the new archivalism’s
2 Clemens and Hughes (2001) provide an alternative framework intended for social movement
researchers but also useful for organizational analysts: organizational archives, government documents,
newspapers, and bibliographical dictionaries.
19
exemplars has been the enormous creativity and convention-shattering abandon with
which new sources and types of materials have been brought into empirical use.
Consider, for example, Jones’ (2001) study of the early U.S. film industry. She relies on
an extraordinary dataset containing entries for every American film that was produced
during these years, including information on the individuals and firms that produced and
distributed the film, release dates, film length, genre and story synopsis. Her measures
also include time series data on the career histories of key individuals, their relationships
with others (e.g. litigation, partnerships, kinship, etc.), personal attributes (ethnicity,
religion, gender), and then similar data on firms including: foundings, production
function, (and changes in function, e.g, from distribution into production), name changes,
mergers and acquisitions, key personnel changes, legal actions, and exits. Also included
are the histories of strategic networks (information on their founding, memberships, and
types of relationships within the network), and, finally, key industry events such as law
suits, court decisions, and broader political and economic circumstances. Jones takes in
the broad sweep of social organization, treating organizational forms, entrepreneurial
careers, institutional rules, and cultural models as complexly interwoven, co-evolving,
and equally worthy of empirical analysis.
Or, look at Guerra-Pearson’s (2000) investigation of nineteenth century custodial
institutions based on her detailed tracking of the usage and design of the buildings which
they occupied. Her dataset consists of several thousand observations, one for each
building “event” for each of some sixty organizations. Whenever a new building is built,
added to, remodeled, redesigned, sold, rented, purchased or simply put to a different use,
that information is recorded. What makes Guerra-Pearson’s database especially
distinctive, however, is that the entries are not simply numbers or a small sample of
predefined codes, but literally thousands of pages of rich, verbatim primary archival
texts. Her database is accessed through a content analysis program that returns complex
sweeps of information about the architectural details of buildings, the rationale behind
various decisions, the ways in which and the amounts of money spent, the architect’s
comments, the practices that were embodied within the organization, classifications of
20
inmates, and on and on. Moreover she uses these data to show how architecture was,
quite literally, the material embodiment of the ideas which both defined and
fundamentally shaped the organizational character and competitive success of these
institutions.
Finally, consider Kaghan, Ventresca, and Sakson’s (2000) study of e-business models
using data coded from the features of electronic shopping carts (ESCs) on the websites of
online retailers of books, records, and equities. This project, at the intersection of
institutional theories of organizations, entrepreneurship research, and technology studies
in the actor network tradition, explores ESCs (order processing systems) as empirical
"boundary objects" that align and focus the activites of entrepreneurs, technologists, web
designers, and venture capitalists. For the comparative study, they code over 60 websites
for U.S. and European firms, extending principles of "net-nography" (Kozinets, 1999)
developed by ethnographers in marketing. Their coding protocol records several layers of
data embedded in the webpages including: (1) technical foundations (e.g., language), (2)
analogy to design and use of physical shopping carts, (3) structure of the order process,
(4) options incorporating choice for the consumer, and (5) features that enable
personalization (e.g., use of “cookies”).
Our point is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to lay out specific prescriptions or
strategies for the use of textual sources that will hold for all types of archival work given
the enormous variety of archival materials and the ingenuity of design that characterizes
archival work today. Indeed, it is difficult to say very much at all about the actual
decision points and practicalities of archival research without specifying the research
goals in question. Because these vary widely by theory and analytic perspective, we
restrict ourselves here to those research endeavors that we have already identified with
the new archivalist tradition and offer general observations on the relationship between
research goals, archival materials and methods of analysis.
Matching Goals, Materials, and Methods
21
Above, we propose four kinds of research goals as being central to the new archivalist
project: (1) concern with the structural embeddedness of organizations and their
components, (2) focus on the shared systems of understanding and meanings that
facilitate organizational action, (3) interest in identifying and specifying the formal
grammars and repertoires of action that are deployed by organizations, and (4)
understanding and mapping the institutional logics that set all of these processes in
motion. Researchers have pursued each of these goals through the use of distinctive
types of archival materials and methods of analysis. We will briefly review each of these
in turn. The options we discuss and the conventions for addressing them are summarized
in Table 2.
Insert Table 2 about here.
Studying Structural Embeddedness:
The research goal is to understand how individuals, organizational units, and firms are
embedded within relational networks that facilitate the flow of communications,
interactions, material transactions, ideas, social sentiments (and so on) through the social
order. Patterns of similarity of compositional attributes can also be modeled to identify
the structural positions of objects within a field. A network approach treats the relational
structure as foundational. Relations and their logics effectively constitute the objects
which are connected by them.
Archival materials are used to identify relational ties that link elements of a given
structure together. Many different kinds of relations can be extracted from archival data.
Evaluations made about others can be taken from textual narratives such as annual
reports (e.g., Porac et al, 2000). Transactions that link firms or sub-units together can be
taken from archives of accounting materials such as tax records (e.g., McLean and
Padgett, 1997). Linkages between larger aggregates (such as product markets) can be
derived from published government data (Burt, 1992). Interactions between firms can be
deduced from interlocking directorate patterns (Mintz and Schwartz, 1985) or from
evidence of co-membership of firm managers in clubs or associations (Galaskiewicz,
22
1985). Burt and Lin (1977) describe useful strategies for creating network data taken
from a variety of archival sources (organizational archives, journal articles, minutes of
meetings, court records, newspaper accounts, etc.).
There is a long and well developed tradition of formal methodologies that have been built
up over the years for analyzing these kind of data (see Wasserman and Faust, 1994).
Often a key distinction is made between methods that rely on calculations of network
cohesiveness (Aldrich and Whetten, 1981) and those that rely upon measures of structural
equivalence (DiMaggio, 1986). Burt (1978; 1980) reviews this distinction.
Studying Meaning Structures:
The research goal is to assess relevant features of shared understandings, professional
ideologies, cognitive frames or sets of collective meanings that condition how
organizational actors interpret and respond to the world around them, to measure
essential properties of these ideational systems and to use them to explain the strategies
and actions of individuals and organizations.
A wide range of archival materials have been used to study meaning systems. The study
of managerial ideologies and belief systems has often relied upon analysis of repositories
of professional discourse in professional journals, trade publications, and academic
literatures (e.g., Shenhav, 1995, 1999; Barley and Kunda, 1992; Abrahamson, 1997,
Guillén, 1994). Archival data from organizations has also been used. For example, some
studies make use of procedural documents, information gleaned from the normal flow of
work in organizations(Orlikowski and Yates, 1994). Others have focused on analytic
accounts that organizations are often called upon to produce — organizational directories,
initial public stock offerings, annual reports, governmental accounting demands, and so
on (Proffitt and Ventresca, 2001).
Another long tradition of formal methodologies are relevant. Content analysis (which
dates back to propaganda analysis techniques developed in World War 2) are useful here.
Two recent developments in content analysis are especially important. One is the shift in
23
data gathering techniques, away from basic word counts toward more context-specific
treatments such as the coding of semantic grammars (Franzosi, 1989, 1990). The other
development has had to do with how meanings are analyzed. Early work by Osgood and
colleagues relied on semantic differential analysis (Osgood et. al., 1971). Recent
developments have drawn on structural linguistics, semiotic theory, and network analysis
(Mohr, 1998a). Multidimensional scaling analysis is a common analytic tool. For a
review of theoretical issues and software packages see Dohan and Sanchez-Jankowski,
1998. For more general discussions of methodological strategies see Jepperson and
Swidler (1994), Franzosi and Mohr (1997), Wade, Porac, and Pollock (1997), Ruef
(1999) and Mohr (2000).
Studying Grammars of Action:
The research goal is to understand how things are done by analyzing the raw elements of
organizational activity, the sequences of actions that go together, and the underlying
grammars or combinatorial principals that account for these configurations. While
organizational scholars have long been interested in understanding technologies as
specific ways of accomplishing tasks, recent work shifts the focus more toward a
relational understanding of activities organized through time.
The archival materials that are likely to be most appropriate for this kind of research
either involve detailed sequences of events (Van de Ven and Garud, 1993, 1994; Garud
and Lant, 1997) or the daily communications that flow within and between organizations
as a natural part of organizational life. Again, Pentland and Rueter’s (1994) work on
assistance calls is an example.
A relatively new strand of formal methodologies have emerged in the social sciences over
the last decade and a half that lend themselves particularly well to the analytic problems
defined by this research goal. Boolean algebra is a means of linking qualitative data to a
more formal metric of analysis by identifying irreducible and non-redundant
combinations of features which are associated with specified outcomes (Ragin, 1987).
Recently Ragin (2000) has extended his method by the inclusion of fuzzy-set theory.
Sequence analysis is another qualitatively oriented formal methodology which can be
24
used. These methods find reduced form patterns in the sequencing of events through
time (Abbott and Forrest, 1986, Abbott and Hrycak, 1990; Abell, 1987).
Studying Institutional Logics:
The research goal is to understand how ways of knowing and ways of acting are
combined together into a broader package or logic of action. The study of institutional
logics brings together the analysis of meaning structures and the study of grammars of
action (Heimer, 1998; Jackall, 1988). A central presumption is that the two orders —
practical and symbolic — are mutually constitutive.
The best archival materials contain classificatory statements that invoke fundamental
distinctions between classes or categories of things. These kinds of classifications are
especially powerful because they usually link understandings together with actions. They
also tend to be fairly stable and to be organized around institutional assumptions (Mohr,
1998b; Mohr and Guerra-Pearson, 2001). DiMaggio and Mullen (2000) extract
classificatory distinctions from summary reports of community ritual activities. Mohr
and Duquenne (1998) draw upon categories listed in an organizational directory.
The most useful formal methodologies are those intended for the analysis of two-mode
data. The goal is to highlight the relevant relations which link a set of meanings into an
organized structure by seeing how they are differentially embedded within a set of
activities. Correspondence analysis is probably the most well known of these methods
(see Weller and Romney 1990). Galois lattices (Duquenne, 1986) and hierarchical
classification models are also appropriate (de Boeck and Rosenberg, 1988). Mohr
(1998a) provides an overview of these methods. Breiger (2000) demonstrates the
practical utilities of each method in a comparative manner.
CONCLUSION
This chapter answers two key questions about archival methods — what archival
materials are and how to analyze them. We have identified three traditions here — the
historiographic, the ecological, and an emergent project we have referred to as the new
25
archivalists — and we demonstrate how they vary in terms of four basic criteria: their
level of analysis (few/many), their input method (read/measure), their implicit approach
to causality (descending/ascending) and their conception of measurement
(objects/relations).
We have spent most of our energy detailing the character of the new archivalism which
we see as embodying strategies and goals that are leading the field of organizational
science in useful and important directions. It is these approaches in particular that we
believe begin to take up a difficult challenge posed to the organizations research
community by Mayer Zald (1993). In that gentle polemic, Zald suggested that
organizational researchers have not yet effectively bridged the gap between the demands
of the more interpretative and humanistic dimensions of organizational life and the
ambitions of their enterprise as a formal social science. Drawing on his appreciation of
what the humanists have to teach us, Zald proposes that organization scholars should seek
to render behavior in specific time and societal contexts, attend to the coherence and the
transformation of symbols and sign systems, and focus on the ways in which
organizations embody substantive meanings in presentational forms such as rhetoric and
narrative. To do all this and yet preserve the canons of organizational science is a tall
order and one that requires innovations of both theory and method.
As we show in this chapter, the use of archival methods presents an especially rich
opportunity for advancing Zald’s precepts in practical research activity. The use of
archival methods and materials has frequently been the occasion through which core
questions of organization theory, strategy, and practice have been confronted and
reframed. Archives contain the residues of organizational life, stretched out across time
and space, available for all to come and see. As we have shown with examples
highlighted in this chapter, archival studies afford scholars the opportunity to do things
differently, to tell new tales, to make their own path. Such is the exuberance of insight
evident in contemporary archival work.
26
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Figure 1. Articles Employing Archival Methods* Published in the
Administrative Science Quarterly, 1970-1998 (proportions).
0
0.1
0.2
0.3
0.4
0.5
0.6
0.7
0.8
0.9
1
Percent
1970 1980 1990 2000
Year
*Articles were coded at two-year intervals, starting in 1970.
42
Table 1. Major Analytic Distinctions and the
Three Modes of Archival Analysis
Level of
Analysis
Input
Method
Causality
Theory
Measurement
Theory
Historiographic
Few
Read
Both
Both
Ecological
Many
Measure
Descending
Objects
New Archivalist
Both
Both
Ascending
Relations
43
Table 2. Research Goals, Data Sources and Dominant Methods
for Archival Research on Organizations
Objects of Investigation
Data Source
Dominant Analytic Methodologies
Structural Embeddedness
Relational ties
(Corporate interlocks,
exchange agreements, market
transactions, reference groups, etc.)
Network Analysis
Blockmodels
Meaning Systems
Professional discourse (journal
articles, trade publications),
Procedural Talk (emails),
Organizational identity statements
(directories, IPOs, annual reports)
Content Analysis,
Semantic Grammers,
Semiotics,
Multidimensional Scaling
Grammars and
Repertoires of Action
Event sequences,
Organizational Practices
(procedural records)
Sequence Analysis,
Boolean Algebra,
Fuzzy-Sets
Institutional Logics
Classification statements
(directories, industry reports,
organizational narratives)
Galois Lattice,
Correspondence Analysis,
Hierarchical Classification Model
44
BIONOTE (200-250 WORDS)
John W. Mohr is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology (and Associate
Dean of the Graduate Division) at the University of California, Santa Barbara (CA,
93106). He has studied the history of social welfare organizations in New York City from
the nineteenth century up through the New Deal period, focusing in particular on the way
in which category systems operate and how new organizational forms are created. More
generally, he has a longstanding interest in the formal analysis of culture. In this respect
he has published articles (with Paul DiMaggio) applying Bourdieu’s concept of cultural
capital to the study of social stratification among American high school students. He has
also published a number of papers which apply relational (network) methodologies to
facilitate the interpretation of meanings embedded within texts. These ideas are
summarized in his (1997) Annual Review of Sociology article “Measuring Meaning
Structures.” He recently edited a special double issue of the journal Poetics (Vol. 27/2-3)
on the topic of “Relational Analysis and Institutional Meanings” highlighting
developments in this style of work. He is currently working on a project concerning the
politics of post-affirmative action at the University of California and he is editing a book
(with Roger Friedland) for Cambridge University Press based on the “Cultural Turn”
conference series that they host at UCSB every two years. He received his Ph.D. in
sociology from Yale University in 1992. (Email: mohr@sscf.ucsb.edu).
Marc Ventresca is an Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations, Kellogg
Graduate School of Management (and by courtesy, of Sociology, and Research
Asssociate, Institute for Policy Research), Northwestern University, 2001 Sheridan Road,
Evanston, IL 60208 (e-mail: m-ventresca@nwu.edu). His current research interests
investigate the interplay of regulation and activity as sources of new organizational
forms, in three empirical contexts: governance innovations in the global stock exchanges
industry, the emergence of online information services, and higher education policy.
Recent publications are “Ideology and Field-Level Analysis” (Research in Social
Movements, Conflict, and Change, forthcoming, with Trex Proffitt), “The Embeddedness
of Organizations” (Journal of Management 25, 3 with Tina Dacin and Brent Beal), and
“The Institutional Framing of Policy Debates” (American Behavioral Scientist 42, 3 with
Andy Hoffman). He is co-editor of Constructing Markets and Industries (Elsevier
Science, 2001 with Joe Porac) and of Organizations, Policy, and the Natural
Environment (Stanford University Press, 2001 with Andy Hoffman). He received his
Ph.D. from Stanford University in 1995.
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