February 26, 2015, by Harry Cocks

History and Organization Studies

In a recent article with Andrea Bernardi of Manchester Metropolitan University, Anna Greenwood, newly appointed as an Assistant Professor at Nottingham History, asks what historians can learn from studies of organizations and what organization studies scholars can gain from history.

Organization Studies is the sociological study of organisations like businesses or other bureaucracies.  It has been defined as “the examination of how individuals construct organizational struc­tures, processes, and practices and how these, in turn, shape social relations and create institu­tions that ultimately influence people.”  Yet although crucially engaged with the study of how institutions and their processes change over time, the discipline rarely uses historical perspectives as part of its routine method. History can often fail to engage with other social science disciplines, and, Greenwood and Bernardi argue, could learn from many of the approaches deployed by Organization Scholars.

The article traces the long and fraught relationship between history and the social sciences and identifies several key reasons why that engagement is still rarely taken for granted or routinely employed. The article analyses, problematises and extends the claim by sociologist Philip Abrams that history and sociology are effectively the same enterprise as both seek to “understand the puzzle of human agency and both seek to do so in terms of the processes of social structuring.”  Greenwood and Bernardi state that the two disciplines, although essentially independent can learn from each other.  “While Sociology must be concerned with eventuation because that is how structuring happens…History must be theoretical because that is how structuring is apprehended.”   The conclusion is that there can be no organizations without History, no History without social organization, and no Sociology without History.

The benefits of cross-fertilization between history and organization studies are therefore palpable, Greenwood and Bernardi conclude. Interdisciplinary co-operation like this dilutes the tendency of the former to see itself as having a privileged relationship to objectivity, and also reduces the tendency of the latter to see their theories as timeless truths.

Anna Greenwood and Andrea Bernardi, “Understanding the Rift, the (still) Uneasy Bedfellows of History and Organization Studies,” Organization (December 2013)



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