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Introduction to Organization Studies Special Issue
History as Organizing:
The Uses of the Past in Organization Studies
R. Daniel Wadhwani
University of the Pacific
University of Victoria &
University of Liverpool
Copenhagen Business School
University of Baltimore
Research on the “uses of the past” in organizations and organizing is flourishing. This
introduction reviews this approach to integrating history into organization studies and explores
its paths forward. We begin by examining the intellectual origins of the approach and by defining
why and how it matters to the study of management and organizations. Specifically, we
emphasize the performative role of history in making and unmaking organizational orders. Next,
we elaborate on how the articles in the special issue demonstrate the uses of the past in shaping
organizational identity, strategy, and power. We also highlight how this work contributes to our
understanding of the socially embedded character of history in organizations by accounting for
the role of materiality, intertextuality, competing narratives, practices, and audiences in how the
past is used. We conclude by considering four research frontiers particularly worthy of further
exploration – the influence of temporal form, the role of non-rational knowledge, the range of
methods, and the integration of ethics – in studies of the uses of the past in organizations.
Keywords: Rhetorical History, Organization Theory, Social Memory, Uses of the Past, Historical
Consciousness, History, Business History.
Uses of the Past
Historical approaches to management and organization research have been flourishing in
recent years, following decades when they were seen as marginal to the field. The development
has been characterized by plurality in both the conceptualization of organizations in historical
time (Bucheli and Wadhwani, 2014) and in how history is researched (Rowlinson, Hassard, and
Decker, 2014). One approach that has received particular attention focuses on how the past is
used in business organizations (Suddaby, Foster & Quinn-Trank, 2010).
The study of how the past is used for managerial purposes draws together threads of
organizational research from management scholars (Rowlinson and Hassard, 1993; Ericson,
2006; Foster, et al, 2011; Anteby and Molnar, 2012) and business historians (Hansen, 2012;
Mordhorst, 2008, 2014; Kroeze and Keulen 2013) that examine the powerful role history plays in
broader processes of epistemological and ontological “knowing” in organizations and organizing.
The approach, termed “historical consciousness” (Seixas, 2004; Suddaby, 2016), takes history as
constitutive (Wadhwani and Bucheli, 2014) in shaping how actors define their own sense of self
and action in time, and in emphasizing how their interpretation of the past shapes their
experience in the present, their expectations for the future, and the choices they make
(Kosseleck, 2004). Whereas other approaches to history in organizational research typically
involve the use of historical methods and evidence as valuable ways for scholars to learn from
and theorize about organizations and organizing in the past (e.g. Rowlinson et al, 2014; Kipping
et al, 2014), the “uses of the past” approach examines how organizational actors themselves
produce and use history for purposes in the present.
The emergence of “uses of the past” perspectives represents an important new direction
in how history and historical reasoning is integrated into management and organization studies.
Previous organizational research and theory, even when it took history seriously, typically
understood an organization’s history and the histories of industries or populations of firms
(Hannan and Freeman, 1984) as “given” by their path through time. History was synonymous
with the past, and thus understood as immutable, whether the goal of research was to identify a
normative evolutionary process (Nelson and Winter, 1982) or a path-dependent one (North,
1990). In contrast, the “uses of the past” approach emphasizes not only the malleability of
interpretations of the past, but also their relationship to how organizational actors experience the
present and set expectations for the future. The past thus is understood as a source of social
symbolic resources available for a wide variety of creative uses. History and memory become
fields where all actors are simultaneously producers and consumers of interpretations of the past.
Increasingly organizations play a critical role in the ongoing struggle for competing uses of the
past. Not only are organizations treated as critical sites for the production and consumption of
memory (Nora, 1990), they are also actors engaged in using history for their own interests
The approach opens up the possibility for a range of new research on the various ways in
which the past is used in organizations and organizing, an agenda that this essay and the special
issue it introduces survey. We begin by describing the intellectual origins of the uses of the past
perspective and outlining the reasons it matters for the study of organizations and organizing
broadly. Next, we highlight how the special issue extends and deepens this stream of research,
both empirically and conceptually, by documenting the range of purposes for which history is
deployed in organizations and by exploring the socially embedded character of these interpretive
processes. Finally, we outline a set of topics for future research that we see at the frontier of the
conversation on the uses of the past in organizing.
Back to the Future
While the scholarship on the “uses of the past” represents a new direction in
contemporary historical research in organization studies, the approach itself is not new. Indeed,
the premise that historical knowledge is valuable and usable for decisions in the present
characterized the emergence of history as a recognizable form of knowledge in the first place. In
its origins in ancient Greek and Rome, history was seen as a form of practice-oriented knowledge
used for present purposes (Koselleck 2004). Cicero’s De Oratore characterized it as historia
magistra vitae – history as life’s teacher (Cicero, 1860). History was considered ‘useful’ because
the past offered a reservoir of cases and examples that served as analogies pertinent to problems
in the present, an understanding that persisted through the medieval and Renaissance periods.
Those leaders with knowledge of historical events and figures could draw on these analogies as a
guide for decision-making in the present. From this perspective, history was understood not
primarily as a representation of the past, but rather as a rhetorical and didactical tool that
provided relevant, useful and applicable plots and morals that could serve strategic purposes in
the present (Rüsen, 1987, Grethlein, 2011). A related ancient Roman intellectual tradition was
that of rhetorical history, which focused on producing panegyric historical narratives designed to
cast their subjects in a positive light (Mordhorst & Schwarzkopf, 2017).
It was only with the professionalization of history in the eighteen and nineteenth
centuries that academic history became oriented toward the study of the past in and for itself, a
focus that remains a central and legitimate endeavour for scholarly history. Responding to the
intellectual claims proffered by Enlightenment thinkers, modern academic history developed
around the argument that scholarly history involved the study of the past for its uniqueness rather
than for universal or present-oriented purposes (Novick, 1988). As Leopold von Ranke (1824)
put it, the purpose of scholarly history was not to “judg[e] the past for the benefit of future
generations … it merely seeks to show the past as it once was (Ranke, 1824).” While most
modern academic historians reject Rankean scientism, they often still embrace Rankean
professional norms in seeking to understand and represent actors and actions in the past “on their
One of the most biting and enduring critics of this view was Friedrich Nietzsche, who in
his essay ‘On the Use and Abuse of History for Life’ (1874) accused academic history of
neglecting the role of history in living life in the present. Nietzsche instead articulated three
varieties of uses of past in the present: monumental, antiquarian and critical. With that Nietzsche
paved the road for a return to the study of how everyday actors – and not just scholars – “use”
history in the present and subsequently for the emergence of intellectual claims about the
phenomenological and linguistic character of historical knowledge.
This influence can be seen in Wilhelm Dilthey’s (1910) argument that “we are historical
beings first, before we are observers of history, and only because we are the former do we
become the latter” (cited in Carr, 1991: 4). A number of intellectual traditions in twentieth-
century epistemological and ontological thought began to explore the ways in which historical
consciousness was central to how human beings experienced the world and drew scholarly
attention back to the relationship between past and present in shaping understandings of
everyday experience (Heidegger, 1927; Mead, 1932; Gadamer, 1989; Koselleck, 2004). The
linguistic turn further deepened scholarly appreciation of the interpretive and agentic aspects of
historical knowledge by pointing to the representational character of history (Danto, 1965;
White, 1966, 1973). These intellectual developments brought the focus back to the role of “the
present” in the formation of historical knowledge and re-expanded the scope of history from a
specific kind of scholarly knowledge to a broad form of everyday knowing. Unlike in the ancient
world, however, the “uses of the past” in modern thought focused less on history as a didactical
tool and more on its role in the human epistemological and ontological construction of the world.
Within the discipline of history, a growing body of scholarship has considered how
historical representations organize everyday social, political, and economic life, both in the
present and the past. Some of this work emphasized the interpretive – or even “invented” –
nature of history, and the role of these traditions in shaping group identities (Hobsbawm and
Ranger, 1983). But, even more significantly, the growing scholarly interest in the constitutive
character of historical knowledge shaped the critical examination of who such forms of
knowledge represented and who it left out (Appleby, et al, 1994), as well as the implications of
how such historical representations shaped perceptions, legitimacy, and power in the present
(Foucault, 1972; Said, 1978; Wolf, 1982). These critiques prompted the growth of historical
scholarship on people and nations whose historical voices had been previously marginalized. It
also led to a robust body of scholarship that examined places and practices in which public
memory and history entered the everyday life of ordinary people (Nora, 1996). Business
historians too became increasingly interested in how historical narratives shaped identity and
understanding in markets and organizations (Hansen, 2012, 2018), and how conflicts and
disagreements over representations shaped and constrained strategy (Mordhorst, 2014).
Organization scholars working in the social constructivist tradition (Berger and Luckman,
1967) have also elaborated on the “uses of the past” approach as a way of integrating history into
organization theory. This work has pointed to the value of history as a cultural or knowledge
resource available to organizations, and has emphasized the way in which the interpretive
character of history may provide managers agency in how historical knowledge is used to
achieve goals in the present (Suddaby et al, 2010). Whereas historians have tended to examine
the broader contexts in which historical representations organize actors, their interests, and their
struggles, management scholars have tended to focus on the micro-foundational processes and
temporal structures by which history is used in organizations, including the types of artifacts
used to recall the past (Schultz and Hernes, 2013) and the processes by which organizations
recover, use, and forget their history (Rowlins and Hassard, 1993; Hatch and Schultz, 2017;
Anteby and Molnar, 2013; Ravasi, et al, forthcoming), research that is seen as particularly
closely aligned with social memory studies (Halbwachs, 1925) and process research on
organizations (Hernes, 2014).
In bringing together these distinct intellectual threads and traditions, the special issue
creates a robust interdisciplinary forum for re-examining the fundamental questions of why and
how the uses of the past matter in organizations and organizing, as well as how to continue to
develop this emerging stream of research. We begin that project by clarifying key constructs and
assumptions of the conversation.
The Performativity of History: Definitions, Assumptions, Implications
The term “history” can be deceptively slippery. In general use, it sometimes refers to the
past and, at other times, to our claims to knowledge about the past. The recent emergence of a
historical consciousness in organizations studies (Bucheli & Wadhwani, 2014; Rowlinson,
Hassard & Decker, 2014; Suddaby, 2016) has hinged on distinguishing between these two
usages. Because of the profound implications for each use, in this article and throughout the
papers that comprise this special issue, we adopt a clear distinction between “the past” and
“history”. We refer to the past as all events that occur chronologically before the present,
independent of our knowledge of a particular event. We define history, by contrast, as the
mobilization of the past in the present. History, therefore, can be thought of as the various ways
of making the past present. In contrast to the assumed objectivity of the past, history is a
uniquely humanist form of knowledge that continually integrates facts about the past with the
values, desires, and interpretive processes of actors in the present.
Building on this distinction, history can be seen as inherently performative. From a
phenomenological perspective, an actor’s interpretation of the past shapes how they experience
the present, the expectations they have of the future, the choices they make, and the actions they
take; as Koselleck (2004) put it, history acts as the nexus between the “space of experience” and
the “horizon of expectations.” Seen as a speech act, history holds the capacity to consummate
action (Austin, 1962; Zundel et al, 2016). Historical narratives bring into being the relationships
they describe. One’s gender, as Butler (1986: 40) observes, is not an essentialist fact of nature,
but rather is a subtle but distinct historical strategy in which one chooses “a tacit project to renew
one’s cultural history in one’s own terms”. Because of this, it is important to avoid essentializing
history as an objective view of the past but, rather, to see it as an interpretive process involving
the interpenetration of objective facts and contemporary values (Gadamer, 1960). By adopting a
view of history as performative we begin to see history as an ongoing set of practices through
which the past is used to help actors make sense of the present and imagine the future. The
performativity of history draws attention to the ways in which the everyday use of history –
sometimes consciously and reflexively but often habitually and unconsciously – makes a
particular view of the past true by embedding it in collective memory as fact.
The performativity of history – i.e. “history work” – is not limited to the professional
representations of the past produced by historians. Rather the production and dissemination of
history occurs across a broad range of actors, both individual – i.e. historians, curators, archivists
– and collective – i.e. museums, historical societies, media (the History Channel, National
Geographic), historical re-enactment groups, corporations and nation states. History is performed
in a wide variety of mnemonic communities (Zerubavel, 2012) that constitute a diverse array of
mnemonic fields (Coraiola et al, 2018). Seen in this way, the performance of history is integral to
how any actor navigates their world and academic history emerges only secondarily as involving
a reflexive and professionalized set of practices by which scholars interpret and use the past in
the present (Carr, 1991).
History makes social orders. Shared interpretations and understandings of the past form
the basis for “imagined communities” of all sorts because they shape the common knowledge
through which the present is experienced and the future perceived. The role of history in the
organization of mnemonic communities has been most extensively studied in the context of the
formation of modern nations (Anderson, 1983), and to a lesser extent of social groups
(Hobsbawm and Ranger, 1983). But contemporary work in organizations has increasingly
emphasized the performative role of history for organizing fields (Coraiola et al, 2018),
categories (Hansen, 2018; Khaire and Wadhwani, 2010), and organizations (Hatch and Schultz,
2017; Anteby and Molnar, 2013; Ravasi et al, forthcoming).
Why Organizations Use History
The performativity of history is acutely apparent in organizations. While it is perhaps not
recognized as such, a variety of organizational scholars, working in a range of paradigms, have
implicitly or explicitly described how history-work performs a number of basic tasks in
organizations. Research of this type has examined how actors have interpreted the past to forge
organizational identities (Mordhorst, 2014; Suddaby & Foster, 2016; Ravasi et al, forthcoming),
consolidate social memory (Rowlinson, et al 2010), set strategic direction (Schultz and Hernes,
2013), understand entrepreneurial opportunities (Popp and Holt, 2013a, 2013b), redefine market
categories (Khaire and Wadhwani, 2010), shape understandings of products (Hansen, 2006,
2010), establish new industries (Kirsch, 2000), forge social movements (Wadhwani, 2018), and
manage the perception of change (Suddaby & Foster, 2017; Dalpiaz & Stefano, 2018). It thus
suggests the tremendous variety in how, why and with what consequences the past might be used
in organizations and organizing.
The papers that comprise our special issue exemplify and extend these nascent
observations of how history is performed in organizations. Our submissions reflect and elaborate
the ways in which organizations interpret the past and use history in three key organizational
processes; to create and manage identity and identification, to create and manage strategic
change and to create and manage power dependencies. We elaborate on each of these uses of the
past in the balance of this section.
Identity and Identification
Organizational identification, or the perceived affiliation, oneness and belonging that an
individual acquires with an organization, is a historical process that unfolds over time (Suddaby,
Foster & Quinn-Trank, 2013). As Benedict Anderson (1991) observed, history produces an
“imagined community”, distinguishing who belongs and who does not by locating the sense of
belonging in the experience of a common past. Anderson’s focal “imagined community” was the
nation-state and his critical insight is that nations are socially constructed communities that,
often, override ethnic, racial and linguistic differences to construct a common identity based on
an assumed history. Perceptions of a common identity are often predicated on what Eric
Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (1983) termed “invented traditions”. By “invention” the authors
refer to deceptive or purposely inaccurate representations of the past designed to make certain
communities, typically nation-states, appear natural, more grounded in a teleological past, and
much older than they actually are. Governments have been particularly effective at using
techniques of invented tradition and imagined communities to create a powerful sense of loyalty
amongst their citizens to weave together a set of constructs – nation, territory, citizen,
nationalism – that produce such a compelling sense of identity that individuals willingly sacrifice
their property and lives for the preservation of a socially constructed community.
Organizations are also “imagined communities” that use “invented traditions” to build
identity. Recent empirical research has reinforced the powerful role of history in processes of
identification. Walsh and Glynn (2008) introduce the term organizational legacy to describe how
employees of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) so strongly identified with their company
that they maintained many of the informal traditions long after the company ceased to exist. By
ritual storytelling, the employees drew from central identity elements of their shared past to keep
their strong sense of communal belonging alive.
Anteby and Molnar (2012), by contrast, demonstrate how the management of a French
aeronautical firm engaged in strategic forgetting in order to construct a coherent organizational
identity that mapped onto the employee’s sense of French national identity by systematically and
conveniently excising elements of their historical collaboration with American firms. Ybema’s
(2014) study of a Dutch company, which survived by strategically shifting from a politically
motivated newspaper to one more focused on popular culture, describes how the firm
reconstructed their imagined history through “temporal discontinuity” talk to alter the firm’s
traditional “missionary” identity to a “open and newsy” one.
Although each of the papers that form this special issue speak to some degree to the issue
of how the past is used to construct organizational identity, two papers directly address how
organizations use the past to manage identity. In the first, “Invoking Alphonse: The founder
figure as a historical resource for organizational identity work”, Basque and Langley (2018)
describe the process by which the memory of the founder of a financial cooperative was invoked
by executives to engage in organizational identity work over a period of eighty years. The
authors identify five methods by which executives in the present spoke through the founder – a
strategy of historical ventriloquism – in order to articulate, stretch, preserve or refresh
expressions of organizational identity. Collectively, the founder invocations serve a dual purpose.
Not only do they allow managers in the present to justify and legitimate action in the present,
they also serve to enhance the mythology of the founder, further elevating his symbolic power
within the organization. Basque and Langley (2018) elaborate on our understanding of processes
of identification – i.e., how the past is used to create internal social cohesion through symbolic
acts of re-membering (Suddaby et al, 2016).
The second paper that analyzes how the past is used to construct organizational identity is
“History as a Source of Organizational Identity Creation” in which Oertel et al (2018) describe
the use of history in self-representations of a regional cluster of twelve watch-making firms
located in the Saxonian region of Germany. The authors divide the firms into three groups;
mature firms founded in the region in the early 19th century and with continuity of family
ownership, GDR rooted firms which were also founded in the region in the early 19th century but
which were subsequently sold to non-family owners, and new firms that relocated relatively
recently to the region.
The analysis demonstrates considerable variation in how each of these groups use history
to craft their identity. The new firms leaned heavily on using the history of the region, rather than
their own firm history, in their online promotions. More interestingly, two of the new firms refer
to founders who had no actual link with the firms. Mature firms leaned heavily on their firm
history, particularly founder stories, rather than the regional history. And the GDR rooted firms
typically did not disclose much about their firm history at all. Collectively the firms demonstrate
a wide range of experimental variation as they each adopt different vocabularies of the past as
they create their individual identity narratives. In contrast to the Basque and Langley (2018)
study, which demonstrates the malleability of a single source of history over time, this study
illustrates how history can also be a multi-level resource that can be constructed from historical
resources that exist at the individual (founder), organizational and field (or regional) level of
analysis. In processes of identity creation, history is a highly fungible resource that, when used
skilfully, can be utilized to fashion identity spillovers between organizations or from one cluster
of organizations to another.
Organizational scholars are beginning to systematically analyze how history is used to
manage processes of strategic change (Suddaby & Foster, 2017). Studies have shown how
historical narratives legitimate novelty by making it cognitively familiar and therefore less risky.
Hargadon and Douglas (2001), for example, observe how historically familiar designs can
facilitate the adoption of new technology – i.e. the electric light – by making it seem continuous
with prior technology. Others have demonstrated how history can be used to disrupt existing
organizational arrangements. Wadhwani (2018), for example, shows how new interpretations of
economic history formed the basis for the social movement that delegitimized the Poor Laws of
the nineteenth century and created the foundations of new social institutions for alleviating
poverty. Another stream of research demonstrates how a strategic narration of history can be
used to create new product and competitive categories in furniture design (Hansen, 2006;
Hansen, 2018), Indian art (Khaire & Wadhwani, 2010), and fast food (Boje, Hayley & Saylors,
2016; Foster, Suddaby, Minkus & Wiebe, 2011).
Each of these studies provide an empirical illustration of rhetorical history. Defined as
“the strategic use of the past as a persuasive strategy to manage key stakeholders of the firm”
(Suddaby, Foster & Quinn-Trank, 2010: 157), rhetorical history draws attention to how the
narration of history has been used strategically by organizations to facilitate processes of change.
The construct is premised on the observation that strategic adaptation is based on how well a
firm is able to conceptualize and act on demands to change imposed by the competitive
environment. Variations in how we conceptualize change, in turn, “are underpinned by different
assumptions about history and its relationship to our capacity for change” (Suddaby & Foster,
2017). When history is used to characterize the past as fixed and immutable, the agency for
change is seen as limited or “path dependent” (David, 2005). When history is used to
characterize the past as open to reconstruction, however, agency for change is high and
organizational actors employ a variety of strategies – periodization, memorialization and
strategic forgetting – to encourage the subjective perception of continuity or discontinuity with
the past in order to promote a particular version of organizational change.
Again, each of our papers demonstrates how the past is reconstructed in order to facilitate
or inhibit strategic change. Two papers, however, focus explicitly on the causal relationship
between history and adaptation. In the first, “Intertextuality, Rhetorical History and the Uses of
the Past in Organizational Transition” Maclean and Harvey (2018) introduce intertextuality as a
unique form of historical rhetoric used to transform Procter & Gamble (P&G) from a
multinational to a truly global business enterprise. The authors demonstrate how, in order to
facilitate the transition to a globalized firm, P&G engaged in linguistic practices that anchored
the organization’s history to its ongoing and future prosperity by mythologizing selective
elements of the firm’s past. The myths were strategically repeated and reinforced across a range
of texts generated by the company in order to enable change while appearing to stay the same.
In the second paper, “The Career of a Catalog: Organizational Memory, Materiality and
the Dual Nature of the Past at the British Museum,” Blagoev et al. (2018) extend our
understanding of rhetorical history to encompass not only the skilful use of language to facilitate
strategic change, but also the strategic use of material objects and the material technologies of
memory in processes of facilitating strategic change. Blagoev et al. (2018) analyze the process of
digitization of artefacts in the British Museum and demonstrate both the critical importance of
physical objects in processes of constructing organizational memory and in processes of using
history as a form of rhetorical persuasion. The study also focuses our attention on the interaction
between technology and social practices in processes of constructing organizational memory.
Materiality, the visual, tactile and olfactory elements of archives, thus, is an important but largely
understudied element of the persuasive use of the past.
Dependencies of Power
It is commonly understood that the ability to control the narrative of history confers
power on the narrator. This was George Orwell’s observation in his now famous aphorism “Who
controls the past controls the future … who controls the present controls the past” (Orwell, 1949:
32). The understanding of how power becomes embedded in academic history is reflected in
Charles Beard’s classical response to Theodore Clarke Smith’s 1933 presidential address to the
American Historical Association, in which Smith proclaimed objectivity to be the “noble dream”
of the professional academic historian. Beard (1935: 83) responded that history was not a science
but an act of interpretation and despite the aspiration of objectivity, the academic historian
“remains human, a creature of time, place, circumstance, interests, predilections, [and] culture”,
all of which conspired to erode the noble dream. Within academic history, the challenge to
objectivity erupted in large part based on the critique that who wrote history and whose history
was told had strong implications for who was ascribed power and who was seen as invisible and
powerless. Beginning in the 1960s, this critique of power spurred the proliferation of a number
of new fields – gendered history, post-colonial history, history of race, etc. – each of which
sought to both critique the dominant narratives produced by powerful actors and produce
histories that represented previously marginalized people (Said, 1978; Novick, 1988; Lerner,
1982; Appleby,et al, 1994 ; Wolff, 1982). Business and labor historians, too, paid considerable
attention to issues of power in their accounts of the histories of firms, industries, and economies,
more extensively incorporating less-powerful actors and foregrounding conflict and struggle in
narratives of change over time (Thompson, 1966; Licht, 1983), but with relatively little attention
to how actors used the past in these struggles.
Management scholars have a long-held understanding of organizations as historical
accretions of power (Stinchcombe, 1965; Clegg, 1981; Selznick, 1996). Research has
demonstrated how history can be used to claim power through legitimacy – i.e. by legitimating a
new organizational form (Suddaby & Greenwood, 2005), a new product (Hargadon & Douglas,
2001) and a new market or industry (Navis & Glynn, 2010). Similarly, related research has
shown how history has been used to claim market power by bolstering claims of authenticity in
the context of heritage brands (Beverland, 2005), tourism (Halewood & Hannam; Waitt, 2000),
music (Peterson, 2005) and food (Lu & Fine, 1995).
Arguably the most influential view of history/power relations in management scholarship,
however, has been reflected in the application of Michel Foucault’s theories of the archaeology
of knowledge to organizations (Burrell, 1988; McKinley & Starkey, 1998). Foucault, in a sense,
transferred the locus of power in history from the narrator to the historical discourse, and hence
opened up possibilities for more complex and nuanced ways to analyze power and how it is
wielded through history. But, as some organizational theorists (Suddaby, 2016) and business
historians (Fear, 2001) have observed, the potential contribution that historians might make to
the study of organizational power has not been fully realized, in part because of historians’
tendency to eschew theory in favour of empirical observation (Fear, 2001).
Two contributions to this special issue, however, begin to bridge this gap by
demonstrating how historical analyses can provide an understanding of how power is expressed
in organizations. In the first, “From ‘History as Told’ to ‘History as Experienced’:
Contextualizing the uses of the past”, Lubinski (2018) demonstrates how politically motivated
struggles to define the historical context contribute to the construction of organizational reality.
Based on a historical analysis of German business organizations’ efforts to build affiliation with
colonial India during the interwar period, Lubinski (2018) demonstrates how such historical
claims must be moderated by legitimation with multiple audiences and, as a result, can be
critiqued, contradicted and revised. While history is narrated, the study shows, the more this
history is made plausible in practice and through negotiations with audiences, the more likely it
is to be accepted.
In the second paper, “‘Do not expect me to stay quiet’: Challenges in managing a
historical strategic resource”, Cailluet (2018) demonstrates some serious limitations on the
ability of an organization to manage history as a competitive resource. Based on an analysis of
Emmaus, a large charitable organization in France, and its founder, Abbé Pierre, the study shows
how organizations use four management dimensions – appropriation, ownership, maintenance
and distancing – to manage history as a competitive resource. Despite these efforts, however,
Cailluet cautions that because the image, stories and related attributes of the founder form part of
the common property of historical experience, there are serious limits on the ability of the
organization to fully ‘manage’ the historical resource. As the study demonstrates, the value of
any organizational historical resource is diminished when it is available as a public good and can
be interpreted and used by external actors in ways that conflict the strategic purpose of the
The Social Embeddedness of Historical Consciousness
In addition to demonstrating the range of organizational uses to which history is put, the
papers in the special issue also deepen our understanding of the socially embedded character of
the interpretive processes that shape historical consciousness in organizations and fields. They do
so by incorporating and theorizing the roles of materiality, intertextuality, competing narratives,
practices, audiences, and other stakeholders in the historical process.
The “uses of the past” approach, and rhetorical history in particular, has posited an
agentic role for management in part by emphasizing the interpretive character of history within
organizations (i.e. Suddaby et al, 2010; Garud et al, 2010). Management research had
traditionally conflated “history” with “the past”, an assumption that seriously restricted the range
of agency afforded to managers. Perhaps the best example of this is the way in which history is
theorized in evolutionary economics (i.e. Nelson & Winter, 1982) where key historical events –
primarily changes in technology and routines – provide key sources of variation in managerial
agency, but which are subsumed under the agency of the market which selects winners and
losers. The market was seen to exist outside the agency of managers, in the same way that the
environment is theorized as being exogenous to the agency of organisms in evolutionary theory
in biology (Penrose, 1952).
In both cases, history was treated as the longitudinal sequence of past events with which
organizations or organisms must contend and the capacity of organizations or organisms to
influence their environment is largely ignored. A variety of constructs – “path dependence”,
“legacy”, “imprinting” – are used to locate agency in the flow of events that comprise the past,
rather than in the managers who populate the organizations. Notably, the absence of human
agency has been criticized in both biological and economic theories of evolution (Penrose,
By contrast, when history is understood as an act of interpretation that is conceptually
distinct from the flow of events that comprise the past, that is mobilized in the present, the
degree of agency in how descriptions of those events might be summarized, ordered, infused
with meaning and value, and projected becomes apparent. The mobilization of the past as history
occurs through symbolic action, most typically language or rhetoric, defined by Kenneth Burke
(1962: 565) as the “use of words by human agents to form attitudes or to induce actions in other
human agents.” Rhetoric can, of course, be extended to visual rhetoric, to incorporate artefacts,
music and other images used with similar intent (Barthes, 1977).
While maintaining the fundamentally interpretive and potentially agentic character of
historical interpretation, recent work by both organization theorists (Hatch and Schultz, 2017;
Ravasi et al, forthcoming) and organizational historians (Hansen 2012b, 2018; Mordhorst, 2014)
has emphasized the socially embedded processes through historical interpretations gain
authenticity and influence, as well as the ways in which historical interpretations may be
contested. A number of the papers in the special issue contribute to this development.
Maclean et al. (2018), for instance, highlight the role of intertextuality in the production
of historical knowledge. Rather than focusing on the single text or speech act, the authors
demonstrate historical texts acquire their rhetorical power in part by the way they “appropriate
prior works to produce new texts.” Blagoev et al. (2018) move beyond the linguistic quality of
the texts themselves to also take into account their materiality – what the authors call the
“technologies of memory.” Using the case of the digitalization at the British Archives, they show
how the material and technical qualities of a text or artefact played a role in “actively orienting
organizational action in the present.” The paper emphasizes “how the materiality of objects
inherited from the past also actively constrained and oriented how actors worked upon various
obstacles on the path to digitization”
Lubinski (2018) draws in several other contextual elements that take into account the
situated character of the uses of the past. In particular, she emphasizes the ways in which
historical representation does not acquire influence through the act of interpretation in isolation
but in relation to its reception and response by various audiences, through critique of existing or
competing narratives, and in the social practices in which they are embedded. Overall, Lubinski
argues, these elements point to a need for organization scholars to move beyond examining
history as “told” to examining history as ”experienced” and to study the uses of history as a
Finally, Cailluet et al. (2018) emphasize the way in which attempts to shape history often
”eludes the sole control of the organization.” Like Lubinski, they emphasize the role of ”various
stakeholders” in shaping history, which makes it ”both an asset and an arena for struggle.” Both
papers see history as a complex historical resource for managers in that interpretations of the past
are constantly subject to contestation.
The special issue hence recognizes the interpretive agency of managers in uses of the past
but does so in ways that considerably deepens our understanding of the complex social processes
at play in how it shapes order and disorder in organizations.
New Frontiers of the Past
While the scholarship on the uses of the past in organizations and organizing has
developed rapidly over the last decade, the field still remains ripe for further exploration. In this
section, we consider four promising research frontiers that represent significant new research
The Role of Form in the Uses of the Past
Although organizational researchers have been attentive to analyzing the content of
historical representations and the processes by which the past is evoked in studying the
performative power of history in organizing, less attention has been paid to the crucial issue of
the form in which history is represented (but see Hansen, 2012b and Daliaz and Stefano, 2018 for
notable exceptions). White (1987), Carr (1991) and a handful of other philosophers and
historians (see Roberts, 2001; Mordhorst, 2008; Hansen, 2012; Mordhorst & Schwarzkopf,
2017) have highlighted the importance of form, and particularly of narrative structure – a
beginning in which a central problem arises, a middle in which the tension grows and struggles
play out, and an end where they are resolved – in shaping the relationship between past, present,
and future that historical representations convey. This work has brought attention to the role of
form in the representation of the past by academic historians (White, 1973) and in the
construction of reality by everyday actors (Carr, 1986), and there is a valuable opportunity in
linking this work to the burgeoning research on “temporal structures” in organizations (Kaplan
and Orlikowski, 2013; Hernes, 2014).
Indeed, the temporal form that historical representations take in organizations may be as
important as the content of that representation in shaping actors perceptions of the temporal
relationship between past, present, and future. One clear opportunity lies in extending the work
that has been produced on how variations in the narrative structure of historical representation
shapes perception, choice, and action in organizations. For example, such research could
elaborate on how narrative structure shapes strategy (Brunninge, 2009; Dalpiaz et al, 2018;
Mordhorst, 2008) or understandings of value (Hansen, 2012b; 2018). Historical narrative forms
that look to the past as a source for reinvention in the present, as is illustrated in the case of
Carlsberg’s use of the motto semper ardens (Hatch and Schultz, 2017) may have very different
performative implications than historical narratives that imply the need for a revolutionary break
from the past, as is exemplified by the spread of narratives of “disruptive innovation” (Lepore,
2014). There are also opportunities for organizational researchers to examine non-narrative
forms by which the past is made present in organizations. For instance, the use of timelines as a
form that conveys continuity and progress may be very different than the performance of
historical rituals that emphasize tradition and a constant return to the past.
Research on historical forms can also be fruitfully applied to examining the social
organization of space as well as the social experience of time (Linde, 2008). Indeed, the form in
which history is represented varies widely across social and organizational fields, and researchers
have the opportunity to examine how these variations shape differences in the way in which the
past is used. To begin, the material media (e.g. journal articles, academic books, exhibits,
movies, documentaries, advertisements, etc.) though which past is represented varies widely
(Schultz and Hernes, 2013; Ravasi et al, forthcoming), as do the physical spaces (e.g. museums,
libraries, theatres, websites) in and through which these representations are made visible to
actors (Decker, 2014; Giovannoni and Quattrone, 2017). The display and curation of artifacts in
museums (Hooper-Greenhill, 1992; Ravasi et al, forthcoming), for instance, is a form of
historical representation that differs markedly from the incorporation of history into advertising
and branding in corporate communications and marketing (Holt, 2004) and from the publication
of an academic book within a university setting (Iggers, 1997). Organizational narratives also
take a range of softer forms, embedded in information and communication systems, hierarchies,
processes, and myriads of other non-textual and non-material forms. These material, spatial, and
other forms through which the past is made present in turn shape the practices through which
history is produced and consumed within a field, as well as the kinds of “knowledge” that that
history conveys. The practices that surround the production and consumption of an exhibit
designed to convey the authenticity of an identity (Gilmore and Pine, 2007; Evrard & Krebs A.,
2018), differs from the practices related to the incorporation of history into entertainment
designed to infuse a sense of realism into the production of amusement. Thus, explorations of
how historical form shapes such social spaces and practices in organizations and organizing
remains a significant research opportunity that would expand the conversation about the uses of
Varieties of Historical Knowing
Given that the recent work on the “uses of the past” in organizations has focused on the
strategic value of history to managers, much of the empirical work in the emerging field has
concentrated on the rational or calculative processes to which the past is deployed in the present.
Yet the “uses of past” approach rests on the much broader assumption that humans are historical
beings who experience the world through historical consciousness in ways that are not limited
only to rational and reflective relationships with the past (Carr, 1991). A robust set of research
opportunities exist for scholars interested in non-rational and non-strategic ways in which history
performs organizational work.
One domain for further exploration would be in craft-based industries and professions in
which historical knowledge may be embodied as much in skills, practices, and aesthetic
sensibilities as in language. Hatch and Schultz (2017:32), for instance, find that at Carlsburg the
authenticity of the historical motto “semper ardens” rested in large part of the perception among
actors that it was “true to craft.” Research in women’s (Ulrich, 2001) and labor history (Gutman,
1977) provide similarly rich examples of the ways in which craft-based practices and
sensibilities formed mode by which actors engaged with the past. History and tradition play
important roles in such embodied knowledge, but the processes by which these are conveyed and
the organizational implications for the continuity and coherence of a practice or profession may
be very different than in cases where historical identity is represented in more well-defined
Likewise, recent research (Howard-Grenville et al, 2014; Bell and Taylor, 2016; Ravasi et
al, forthcoming) indicates the potential for exploring the role of emotions in the “history work”
performed by organizations – or to the “emotional work” history performs. A handful of business
historians have begun to bring emotions into their work (Holt and Popp, 2013), reflecting the
growth of the broader scholarly interest in the history of emotions (Reddy, 2001; Plamper, 2010),
but this work has typically examined the past of emotional experiences rather than how emotions
might be recruited or evoked when organizations use history. One notable exception has been
research on nostalgia when an organizational community engages with the past in ways that
shape experience and action in the present (Howard-Grenville et al, 2013). Likewise Popp (2018)
has examined some of the emotions, most notably nostalgia, contained in and provoked by sites
of industrial heritage (themselves an important form of organizational narrative or
representation). But nostalgia remains only one of a range of ways in which historical
representations work to perform emotions in organizations, especially in certain firms such as
A Broader Range of Methods
Much of the empirical research on the uses of the past in leading management journals
(Anteby and Molnar, 2013; Hatch and Schultz, 2017, Ravasi et al, forthcoming) has employed
widely accepted qualitative and process-oriented methods in organization studies, which use
procedures for codifying the processes by which particular representations of the past are
generated and performed (e.g. Glaser and Strauss, 1967; Langley, 1999). These methods are
excellent for examining and formalizing the processes and actions managers and organizations
may take to generate particular historical knowledge claims, and should continue to form one set
of techniques for studying the uses of the past in organizations and organizing. However,
particularly novel insights may also be found by employing a range of other methods, most
notably historical methods and experimental techniques.
One promising opportunity lies in more expansively using historical research methods in
studying the uses of the past in organizations (e.g. Rowlinson and Hassard, 1993; Hansen,
2012b; Lubinski, this issue). Historical methods involve abductive reasoning using a
retrospective point of view, a vantage point that allows the researcher to interpret actions or
events based on their consequences as well as their causes (Wadhwani and Decker, 2018). The
use of historical perspective allows scholars to generate robust contextualization of
organizational action and rhetoric because it typically takes into account both longer spans of
time and broader sets of actors and developments beyond the organization in interpreting a
particular action (e.g. Hargadon and Douglas, 2001), including with the aim of analyzing
complex social processes (Maclean et al., 2014). For instance, historical perspective allows the
researcher to trace the reception of historical claims among multiple audiences, and to take into
account evolving responses and contestations over a particular use of the past (Mordhorst, 2014).
It also allows researchers to account for surprise and irony in the use of history – crucial factors
that can confound the intentional use of history in organizations. Some varieties of historical
methods – such as microhistory and ethnographic history – hold particular promise in analyzing
the socially-embedded dynamics involved in the uses of the past over time (Rowlinson et al,
2014). The abductive character of historical methods can also open up opportunities for a more
reflexive examination on the role of the researcher in the analysis of the uses of the past, since it
embraces the stance that methods are not only procedural but inherently subjective (Mantere and
Kitokivi, 2013). Popp and Holt (2013a), for instance, highlight the value of this reflexivity in
examining how a historical researcher’s perspective on an organizational opportunity differs
fundamentally from that of the subject of research because of the researcher’s situatedness in
time and place.
Engagement with historical methods would also allow organizational scholars to redefine
and expand the boundaries of what they consider appropriate sources; in particular it means a
greater critical engagement with archival sources, sources that are currently viewed with
something close to suspicion (Yates, 2014). Organizational choices around archiving are one of
the subtlest but most powerful ways in which historical representations become encoded within
an organization. First, archives form the primary source of materials organizations draw on in
shaping their historical representations (Decker, 2013; Schwarzkopf, 2013). Second, archives
always reflect acts of choosing, even if that is to neglect to choose (Fellman and Popp, 2013;
Lipartito, 2014). Thus, we can interpret not only the contents of the archive to gain insight into
the organizational past itself but we can also interrogate the archive, the fact of its existence and
the choices and practices it has been shaped by, as a representational mechanism and form.
Another methodological opportunity lies in the use of experimental methods to examine
how particular historical representations or analogies actually shape organizational actors’
choices and behavior. Indeed, work in experimental psychology has already proven powerful in
showing how knowledge of a historical outcome significantly increases subjects’ estimations of
the likelihood of that outcome, and that subjects are largely unaware of how knowledge of
historical outcomes shape their own perceptions and the perceptions of others (Fischoff, 1975,
Fischoff and Beyth, 1975). March et al. (1991) discuss the importance of such experimental
research for understanding how organizations learn or don’t learn from “samples of one of
fewer,” yet there has been relatively little experimental follow up work that explicitly looks at
how historical knowledge shapes decisions related to risk and uncertainty in organizations. Such
experimental approaches therefore continue to represent an untapped methodological approach
for examining the consequences of historical analogies on decision making in organizations.
Ethics and the Uses of the Past in Organizations
The field’s initial emphasis on examining the strategic value of history in organizations
begs for an equally important but distinct line of inquiry into questions of the ethics of the uses
of the past by managers. The research finding that a particular historical representation can be a
powerful resource for a manager in shaping organizations and organizing does not address the
question of whether that representation should be used by the manager. Thus far, the latter
question has not received significant attention by organizational researchers, despite its
profoundly important implications for both theory and practice in the world we face today.
The question of the ethics of the uses of the past in organizations deserves sustained and
extensive attention, but we suggest it involves at least three dimensions with implications for
both managers and scholars. The first is a matter of the ethics of falsifying incorrect
representations. The matter is not as simple as it at first appears in part because some
mischaracterizations may do little harm and still represent the past in an essentially truthful light,
while other distortions of events or people may be deeply destructive in imperceptible ways.
Indeed, we suggest that the ethical role of falsification in the uses of past may have more to do
with critique of powerful actors and myths than it has to do with objectivity. For instance,
O’Connor’s (1999) study falsifying and revising the claim that the “human relations school”
originated in fundamentally humanistic motives in contrast to the efficiency-oriented motives of
F.W. Taylor is designed as a critique of a powerful actor (Harvard Business School) and a
powerful identity myth in management thought.
A second dimension involves the matter of whether organizations and managers may at
times have a positive ethical obligation to examine and consider the past seriously and
reflexively even when it may challenge organizational identities, values, or goals in the present.
Given that historical interpretation inherently involves value judgments held in the present, are
there moments when organizations should turn to the past to challenge and confront those values,
self-identities, and ways of seeing the world rather than using the past to enforce them?
Examples of instances where firms ought to have or needed to engage with the past on ethical
grounds include German firms that have reckoned with their role in National Socialism (Wiesen,
2001) and the entanglement of American firms and American capitalism with American slavery
(Murphy, 2005; Baptist, 2014). Likewise, an increasingly important issue pertains to how firms
that have engaged in environmental degradation in the past should grapple with that history and
its implications for their identities and strategies in the present. Scholarship in these areas could
examine examples of situations in which organizations ought to have or did grapple with a past
that transgressed values held in the present, yet research in the areas of business ethics and
corporate responsibility tends to be separated from the growing empirical and theoretical
scholarship on the “uses of the past.” As Schrempf-Stirling et al (2014: 700) point out, “there is
little or no scholarly theorizing about the ways contemporary managers engage with these
critiques or how this corporate engagement with the past affects the legitimacy of current
A third dimension involves the question of whether, when, and how managers and
organization scholars have any obligation to represent less powerful and more marginal actors
within the history of the organization, even when these representations do not align with
management’s representation of the past. Motivated by the insight that historical representation is
important to identity and power in the present, academic historians have been driven at least in
part by ethical considerations in developing historical fields focused on underrepresented groups
and regions of the world (Appleby et al., 1994). It is not clear whether and on what grounds
managers ought to be driven by similar professional ethics as academic historians, but we posit
that a clearer case could be made that organization scholars – increasingly aware of the power
that historical representation holds – do have a positive ethical and normative obligation to
critique the uses of the past by managers, and not just describe and theorize it (Stutz and Sachs,
Indeed, studies of the ethics of the uses of the past in organizations may prove to be one
of the most original lines of inquiry in this field. In a sense, the finding that powerful actors
proffer interpretations of the past to further their strategic aims in the present can be seen as
commonplace in the world we now inhabit. And potentially insightful and impactful research lies
ahead in considering when and how this power to use the past in the present should be
Interest in the uses of the past in organizations and organizing has flourished in recent
years. The articles in this special issue – along with an array of other publications in leading
management journals – attest to both the significance of this line of research and the substantive
conceptual and empirical contributions that have recently been made to it. Moreover, as this
article highlights, important research vistas within the stream remain largely unexplored, and
open to scholars interested in entering the conversation. Indeed, the ‘uses of the past’ remains
fertile ground for further exploration within management and organizational research.
The field represents an especially rich opportunity for interdisciplinary dialogue and
engagement. Rooted in common intellectual origins in hermeneutics and the linguistic turn, both
organization scholars and historians have developed significant theoretical and empirical
literature on the uses of the past. Yet, their approaches to the subject have differed in important
and interesting ways. While organization scholars have focused on the micro-processes and
temporal structures of historical interpretation in organizations, historians have been primarily
concerned with the contexts within which this occurs and the struggles between firms and other
actors to define the past. This special issue and introduction has provided a forum for bringing
these perspectives together and has highlighted the opportunities that lie at the nexus of the two
Implicit within the emergence of the “uses of the past” approach is an embrace of what
Mayer Zald (1996: 256) called the essential “historicity of organizational life.” History, in this
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Mads Mordhorst is Associate Professor and the Head of Centre for Business History
at Copenhagen Business School. He has a position as Professor II at Oslo University.
Andrew Popp is Visiting Professor in Entrepreneurship at the University of Baltimore. He is
Editor-in-Chief of Enterprise and Society: The International Journal of Business History.
Roy Suddaby is the Winspear Chair of Management at the Peter B. Gustavson School of
Business, University of Victoria, Canada and the Chair in Organization Theory at the Liverpool
Management School. He is an adjunct professor at Ritsumeikan University and an honorary
professor at Copenhagen Business School. Roy was recently named a JMI scholar by the
Western Academy of Management.
Dan Wadhwani is Fletcher Jones Professor of Entrepreneurship at University of the Pacific
(USA). He is also an adjunct professor at Ritsumeikan University and a visiting professor at
Copenhagen Business School, University of Kyoto, and University of Southern California.