Sub-theme 43: Theorizing the Past, Present and Future in Organization Theory

David Chandler
University of Colorado Denver, USA
Mar Pérezts
EMLyon Business School, France
Roy Suddaby
University of Victoria, Canada, & Newcastle University Business School, United Kingdom

Call for Papers

Many organizational outcomes are the result of processes that occur over long periods of time. In spite of this, within much macro-level research the passage of time tends to be assumed or ignored, rather than theorized rigorously (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 privileging the instance of change at the expense of the essential groundwork that generated the conditions under which the opportunity for change emerged (Pierson, 2004, p. 136). That is, our preference for studying dramatic instances of revolutionary change means that we know relatively little about processes of evolutionary change.
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, p. 614). We do this because much of our theory is driven by popular representations 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, p. 1038). In reality, however, time is relative (Einstein, 1916). It is a social construct that is subject to complex social, cultural, and political influences (Picard et al., 2015). In other words, time is a radically subjective phenomenological experience that affects our being in the world as individuals and collectives.
Our goal for this sub-theme, therefore, is to encourage theory about how the passage of time unfolds in the past, present, and future in relation to organizations and organizing. While this encompasses a broader understanding of complex historical processes, it also includes work on theories of the passage of time (e.g., a richer theorization of social time and experienced time). The resulting discussion, we believe, presents the opportunity for an exciting avenue of research that can bridge many existing research streams:

  • To explore the role of “ancestral organizations” (organizations that previously dissolved) and “organizational legacy” in embedding routines, knowledge, and technology in the community that subsequently fosters the founding, evolution, and dissolution of descendent organizations (e.g., Walsh & Bartunek, 2011; Walsh & Glynn, 2008).
  • To understand the role of rhetoric, narrative, and related social processes used to construct organizations, institutions, and collectives as mnemonic communities (e.g., Suddaby et al., 2010; Zerubavel, 2003).
  • To understand how organizations use history strategically to foster identification with key stakeholders (Foster et al., 2011; Suddaby et al., 2016).
  • To understand how the past, present, and future may become elements of organizations’ imaginary dimension and foster various forms of political activity (Picard et al., 2015).
  • To conceptualize organizations and institutions as cumulative, sedimented entities that become subject to change depending on the stability of their past – a dynamic resource that is curated in the present (e.g., Chandler & Foster, 2015).
  • To differentiate between objective time (normatively developed scales) and subjective time (socially-constructed perceptions) to redefine our conceptions of agency and explore processes of organizing within complex temporalities (e.g., Lee & Liebenau, 1999).
  • To understand the implications of artifacts that pace organizational life and activities (e.g. annual reviews, quarterly objectives, seasonality) and of phenomena happening outside or beyond the realm of experienced time (e.g. instantaneous global reach of social networks, or mechanisms of time-compression such as high-frequency trading).
  • To understand how perceptions of the future, examined through the lens of the past, affect organizational dynamics today – what Gioia, Corley, and Fabbri (e.g., 2002) term “revising the past while thinking in future perfect tense”.

We aim to explore these questions and many more, together with their implications for research, in a wide-ranging discussion about a fundamental area of organizational sociology (Clark, 1985). In this spirit, researchers across the range of organization theories are encouraged to apply for this sub-theme with submissions that encompass both theory (e.g., path dependence, sedimentation, philosophical conceptions of time) and methodology (e.g., qualitative analysis, rhetorical analysis). Our goal is to foster discussions that locate the past, present, and future as integral to the organizational story.


  • Bluedorn, A.C., & Denhardt, R.B. (1988): “Time and Organizations.” Journal of Management, 14 (2), 299–320.
  • Chandler, D., & Foster, W.M. (2015): A Present Past: A Historical Perspective on Institutional Maintenance and Change. Paper presented at the Academy of Management Annual Meeting. Vancouver, Canada.
  • Clark, P.A. (1985): “A Review of the Theories of Time and Structure for Organizational Sociology.” Research in the Sociology of Organizations, 4, 35–79.
  • Einstein, A. (1916): Relativity: The Special and General Theory. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
  • Foster, W.M., Suddaby, R., Minkus, A., & Wiebe, E. (2011): “History as Social Memory Assets: The Example of Tim Hortons.” Management & Organizational History, 6 (1), 101–120.
  • Gioia, D.A., Corley, K.G., & Fabbri, T. (2002): “Revising the Past (While Thinking in the Future Perfect Tense).” Journal of Organizational Change Management, 15 (6), 622–634.
  • Goodman, P.S., Lawrence, B.S., Ancona, D.G., & Tushman, M.L. (2001): “Introduction to the Special Issue: Time in Organizations.” Academy of Management Review, 26 (4), 507–511.
  • Lee, H., & Liebenau, J. (1999): “Time in Organizational Studies: Towards a New Research Direction.” Organization Studies, 20 (6), 1035–1058.
  • Picard, S., Steyer, V., Pérezts, M., & Philippe, X. (2015): “Exploring Corporation’s Activism: Predatory Modus Operandi and Its Effects on Institutional Field Dynamics.” In: C. Garsten & A. Sörbom (eds.): Politics and the Corporate World: Advocacy, Lobbying and Markets. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
  • Pierson, P. (2004): Politics in Time: History, Institutions, and Social Analysis. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Strang, D., & Tuma, N. B. (1993): “Spatial and Temporal Heterogeneity in Diffusion.” American Journal of Sociology, 99 (3), 614–639.
  • Suddaby, R., Foster, W.M., & Quinn Trank, C. (2010): “Rhetorical History as a Source of Competitive Advantage.” In: J.A.C. Baum & J. Lampel (eds.): The Globalization of Strategy Research. Advances in Strategic Management, Vol. 27. Bingley: Emerald Group Publishing Limited, 147–173.
  • Suddaby, R., Foster, W.M., & Quinn Trank, C. (2016): “Re-Membering: Rhetorical History as Identity Work.” In: M.G. Pratt, M. Schultz, B.E. Ashforth & D. Ravasi (eds.): The Oxford Handbook of Organizational Identity. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 297–316.
  • Walsh, I.J., & Bartunek, J.M. (2011): “Cheating the Fates: Organizational Foundings in the Wake of Demise.” Academy of Management Journal, 54 (5), 1017–1044.
  • Walsh, I.J., & Glynn, M.A. (2008): “The Way We Were: Legacy Organizational Identity and the Role of Leadership.” Corporate Reputation Review, 11 (3), 262–276.
  • Zerubavel, E. (2003): Time Maps: Collective Memory and the Social Shape of the Past. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
David Chandler is Assistant Professor of Management and Co-Director of the Managing for Sustainability Program at the University of Colorado Denver, USA. His research focuses on understanding how organizations interact with their complex institutional environments.
Mar Pérezts is Associate Professor at EMLyon Business School, France, where she belongs to the OCE Research Center. Her research is transversal, linking managerial and organizational questions (e.g., business ethics) with philosophical and sociological approaches.
Roy Suddaby is Professor & Winspear Chair at the Peter B. Gustavson School of Business, University of Victoria, Canada. He is also Research Professor at Newcastle University Business School, Newcastle University, UK. His research focuses on organizational and social change.