Sub-theme 16: Theorizing Time and History within Organization Theory

David Chandler
University of Colorado Denver, USA
Roy Suddaby
University of Alberta, Canada
Rodolphe Durand
HEC Paris, France

Call for Papers

                                                                     "The past is never dead. It's not even past." William Faulkner

Within organization theory, many of the outcomes that we study are the result of processes that occur over long periods of time. In spite of this, within much macro-level research, time tends to be either assumed or ignored, rather than rigorously theorized (Bluedorn & Denhardt, 1988; Goodman et al., 2001; Lee & Liebenau, 1999). One way in which we exclude time from our theories is by studying climactic moments of change. Although these "moments of institutional choice" are inherently interesting, focusing on them risks ignoring the essential groundwork that generated the conditions under which the opportunity for change emerged (Pierson, 2004: 136). Such "important influences on courses of development may operate only over extended periods of time and are unlikely to be captured by snapshot accounts focused on the choices of particular actors" (Pierson, 2004: 134).

One way in which we make assumptions about time is to model "temporal homogeneity", which adds to theoretical parsimony, but detracts from the ability to capture "decay in the influence of events over time" (Strang & Tuma, 1993: 614). An important reason for this is that much of our theory is driven by popular perceptions of clock time. This characterization presents time "as homogenous and divisible in structure, linear and uniform in its flow, objective and absolute, that is, existing independent of objects and events, measurable (or quantifiable), and as singular, with one and only one 'correct' time" (Lee & Liebenau, 1999: 1038). In reality, however, time is relative (Einstein, 1916, trans. 1920). Time is a social construct that varies from one person to another and, as such, is subject to complex social, cultural, and political influences.

Our goal for this sub-theme, therefore, is twofold – to encourage theory that reflects the integral role of time in the study of organizations (fostering more complete analyses of complex historical processes), but also to stimulate work on theories of time (replacing our popular conception of clock time with a richer theorization of social time). The combination of these two discussions, we believe, presents the opportunity for an exciting avenue of research that includes, but is not limited, to the following issues:

  • To explore the role of "ancestral organizations" (organizations that have previously dissolved) in embedding routines, knowledge, and technology in the community that subsequently foster the founding, evolution, and dissolution of descendent organizations.
  • To understand the role of rhetoric in constructing history that serves as a source of competitive advantage for organizations (Suddaby et al., 2010).
  • To reduce the proliferation of terms associated with time effects and clarify definitions of concepts and corresponding measures and methods (Vergne & Durand, 2010).
  • To conceptualize institutions as cumulative, layered entities that become meaningful as a result of complex, historical processes (Thelen, 2003) and path-dependent events (Schneiberg, 2007). Such a perspective suggests that institutions never die – that however far they recede into the collective memory, they never go away, but form a layer of sediment in the geology of life (Cooper et al., 1996).
  • To differentiate between objective time (normatively developed scales that divide our days into hours, minutes, and seconds) and subjective time (socially-constructed perceptions of history, based around specific events) (Lee & Liebenau, 1999). Such a shift de-emphasizes research that is characterized by short episodes, single dramatic phenomena, and quantitatively-assumed change, in favor of research that is evolutionary, investigates complex competing events, and demonstrates change qualitatively.
  • To explore the role of time and history in emerging areas of organization theory, such as corporate social responsibility. In spite of CSR existing for fifty years, it is becoming broadly accepted now as a series of temporally-determined factors coincide and interact.

We aim to explore these research questions and many more, together with their implications, in a wide-ranging discussion that encompasses both theory (e.g., path dependence, sedimentation) and methodology (e.g., qualitative analysis, rhetorical analysis). In short, we hope this sub-theme will begin to move us away from an objective, static view of time and history to a subjective, more process-oriented view. Such a shift locates temporal issues as central to organization theory and has profound implications for our current understanding of organizations and the processes associated with maintenance and change.



Bluedorn, Allen C. & Robert B. Denhardt (1988): 'Time and Organizations.' Journal of Management, 14 (2), pp. 299–320.
Cooper, David J., Bob Hinings, Royston Greenwood & John L. Brown (1996): 'Sedimentation and Transformation in Organizational Change: The Case of Canadian Law Firms.' Organization Studies, 17 (4), 623–647.
Einstein, Albert (1916, trans. 1920): Relativity: The Special and General Theory. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
Goodman, Paul S., Barbara S. Lawrence, Deborah J. Ancona & Michael J. Tushman (2001): 'Introduction to the Special Issue: Time in Organizations.' Academy of Management Review, 26 (4), pp. 507–511.
Lee, Heejin & Jonathan Liebenau (1999): 'Time in Organizational Studies: Towards a New Research Direction.' Organization Studies, 20 (6), pp. 1035–1058.
Pierson, Paul (2004): Politics in Time: History, Institutions, and Social Analysis. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Schneiberg, Marc (2007): 'What's on the Path? Path Dependence, Organizational Diversity and the Problem of Institutional Change in the US Economy, 1900–1950.' Socio-Economic Review, 5 (1), pp. 47–80.
Strang, David & Nancy B. Tuma (1993): 'Spatial and Temporal Heterogeneity in Diffusion.' American Journal of Sociology, 99 (3), pp. 614–639.
Suddaby, Roy, William M. Foster & Chris Quinn Trank (2010): 'Rhetorical History as a Source of Competitive Advantage.' In: Joel A.C. Baum & Joseph Lampel (eds.): Advances in Strategic Management: The Globalization of Strategy Research. Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp. 147–173.
Thelen, Kathleen (2003): 'How Institutions Evolve: Insights from Comparative Historical Analysis.' In: James Mahoney & Dietrich Rueschemeyer (eds.): Comparative Historical Analysis in the Social Sciences. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Vergne, Jean-Philippe & Rodolphe Durand (2010): 'The Missing Link between the Theory and Empirics of Path Dependence: Conceptual Clarification, Testability Issue, and Methodological Implications.' Journal of Management Studies, 47 (4), pp. 736–759.


David Chandler is Assistant Professor of Management and Co-Director of the Managing for Sustainability Program at the University of Colorado Denver, USA. His broad area of research interest lies at the dynamic interface between the organization and its institutional environment. He is also interested in the relationship between institutions and values, and how firm actions reflect values that sustain meaningful institutions. Empirically, he focuses on studying organizations within the context of corporate social responsibility, business ethics, and firm/stakeholder relations.
Roy Suddaby is Professor of Strategic Management and Organization at the University of Alberta, Canada where he holds the Eldon Foote Chair in Law and Society. He is the editor of the 'Academy of Management Review'. His research interests focus on the changing role of the corporation in society.
Rodolphe Durand is the GDF-Suez Professor of Strategy at HEC Paris where he chairs the Strategy & Business Policy department. His primary research interests concern the sources of competitive advantage and the interplay between the strategic, social, and institutional determinants of performance.