Sub-theme 08: (SWG) Back to the Future: Using History to Study Organizations in Uncertain Times

Matthias Kipping
Schulich School of Business, Toronto, Canada
Behlül Üsdiken
Sabanci University, Istanbul, Turkey
R. Daniel Wadhwani
Eberhardt School of Business, University of the Pacific, USA

Call for Papers


Within the context of current uncertainties, this sub-theme of the Standing Working Group 08 aims to explore how historical perspectives shape our understanding of organizations and their development. Does "looking backward" provide insights into the present and future? Does the past offer order and guidance during times of uncertainty? How do organizational actors themselves use the past? There are many ways in which history can make a contribution to the study of organizations and organizational fields in unsettled times (Üsdiken & Kieser, 2004; Wadhwani & Bucheli, 2013), which is why we will consider a broad range of empirical and theoretical papers. Some examples include:

Provide past parallels: History does not repeat itself, at least not in the exact way. And only the future can vindicate present decisions (or not). However, many of the issues and challenges faced by organizations today are not entirely new and neither are the ways in which they can be addressed. So, rather than reinventing the wheel, we might want to study how actors in the past have responded to uncertainty in their environment.

Understand pathways: History provides one of the few settings where we have some certainty of outcome. It therefore allows us, as Stinchcombe (2005: 5) put it, "to study sequences of conditions, actions and effects", which in turn helps us to understand how, on the one hand, past decisions condition current actions, leading to path dependencies and, on the other, different conditions, either in the past or today, might allow alternative pathways (Kipping et al., 2004; Zeitlin, 2008).

Question established wisdom: Events and decisions look different from a distance (both spatial and temporal). History can provide us with such a distance and thus help us avoid "easy", possibly simplistic judgements about current events in organizations and organizational fields, namely by examining how actors in organizations and organizational fields have been evaluated by their contemporaries, and how this evaluation has changed over time, as (i) more information becomes available, (ii) the longer term consequences of actions (and reactions) become clearer or (iii) the overall context has evolved shedding a different light on past events (Danto, 1965).

Reduce uncertainty: Organizational actors have been shown to use history for a variety of purposes (Rowlinson & Hassard, 1993), including as a strategic, legitimizing resource, to make sense of the present, and as an integral part of rhetoric and discourse (Suddaby et al., 2010). History, in this sense, may be particularly important during moments of deep uncertainty, when existing models and explanations of organizations and their behaviour seem flawed (Schultz & Hernes, 2013). The question is how exactly history has been used to address such moments of uncertainty.

We are also planning to hold a roundtable discussion the Wednesday before the Colloquium dedicated to the issue of publicly communicating history, through exhibitions, teaching, writing commissioned histories, consulting, etc.



Schultz, Majken & Tor Hernes (2013): 'A Temporal Perspective on Organizational Identity.' Organization Science, 24, pp. 1–21.
Stinchcombe, Arthur L. (2005): The Logic of Social Research. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
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.
Üsdiken, Behlül & Alfred Kieser (2004): 'Introduction: History in Organization Studies.' Business History, 46 (3), pp. 321–330.
Wadhwani, R. Daniel & Marcelo Bucheli (2013): 'The Future of the Past in Management and Organization Studies.' In Marcelo Bucheli & R. Daniel Wadhwani (eds.): Organizations in Time: History, Theory, Methods. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Zeitlin, Jonathan (2008): 'A Historical Alternatives Approach.' In: Geoffrey Jones & Jonathan Zeitlin (eds.): The Oxford Handbook of Business History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 120–140.


Matthias Kipping is Professor of Policy and Chair in Business History at the Schulich School of Business, York University in Toronto, Canada. His research has focused on the development and role of the different institutions of management knowledge, namely management consulting and business education. In his publications, as well as in his teaching, he has been trying to link historical research with organizational theory. He is active in a variety of scholarly associations in both business history and management and organization studies.
Behlül Üsdiken is Professor of Management and Organization at Sabanci University, Istanbul, Turkey. Previously, he was a professor at Bogazici University. He has contributed to numerous journals as well as a variety of edited collections. He has served as a Co-editor of 'Organization Studies' in 1996–2001 and a Section Editor of the 'Journal of Management Inquiry' in 2007–2012. His current research focuses upon family business groups, management education and universities.
R. Daniel Wadhwani is Associate Professor of Management at University of the Pacific, USA, and Visiting Professor at Copenhagen Business School, Denmark. His research has used historical approaches to study a range of organizational issues, including the emergence of new markets, the nature of entrepreneurial agency, and the processes of categorization and value determination in organizational fields. He is co-editor (with Marcelo Bucheli) of "Organizations in Time: History, Theory, Methods" (Oxford University Press), which examines the role of historical research and reasoning in organization studies.