Linking History and Management Discourse: Epistemology and Method

Seizing the Opportunity: Towards a Historiography of Information Systems

Nathalie Mitev ( and François-Xavier de Vaujany (

Abstract: Historical perspectives are only timidly entering the world of IS research compared to historical research in management or organization studies. If major IS outlets have already published history-oriented papers, the number of historical papers – although increasing – remains low. We carried out a thematic analysis of all papers on History and IS published between 1972 and 2009 indexed on ABI and papers indexed in Google ScholarTM for the same period. We used a typology developed by theorists Usdiken and Kieser (2004) who classify historical organisation research into supplementarist, integrationist and reorientationist approaches. We outline their links with the epistemological stances well known in IS research, positivism, interpretivism and critical research; we then focus on their differences and historiographical characteristics. We found that most IS History papers are supplementarist descriptive case studies with limited uses of History. This paper then suggests that IS research could benefit from adopting integrationist and reorientationist historical perspectives and we offer some examples to illustrate how that would contribute to enriching, extending and challenging existing theories.


The Silence of the Archive: Post-Colonialism and the Practice of Historical Reconstruction from Archival Evidence

by Stephanie Decker (

Abstract: History as a discipline has been accused of being a-theoretical. For business historians working at business schools, however, the issue of methodology looms larger, as it is hard to make contributions to social science debates without explicating one’s disciplinary methodology. This paper seeks to outline an important aspect of historical methodology, which is data collection from archives. In this area, postcolonialism has made significant methodological contributions not just for non-Western history, as it has emphasized the importance of considering how archives were created, and how one can legitimately use them despite their limitations.


Review by Bernardo Bátiz-Lazo

In his blog post entitled Theory and Historians, Andrew Smith points to a recent article in The Economist on the role of conceptual frameworks in history. Smith notes how some people are ‘…fundamentally hostile to the application of social theory to the craft of history’ and the comments to his post point to an interesting debate along these lines within the pages of the Economic History of Developing Regions journal.

The papers reviewed in this blog entry dig deeper into this issue while, at the same time, illustrate a trend concern on how to strengthen the links between historians and management scholars. Both these papers were circulated by NEP-HIS on 2012-03-21. Other examples include a similar paper by Mitev & de Vaujany on history and management information systems, Jari Eloranta’s Quantitative methods in business history: An impossible equation?, Amedeo Lepore’s New research methods of business history as well as Geoff Jones’ and Walter Friedman’s editorial in the Business History Review A Time for Debate. Smith, Jones & Friedman, the authors below as well as myself, sit within a social sciences faculty and more to the point, most are employed by a business school. Thus, explaining and even justifying our research to management scholars has not only conceptual implications but also practical ones as such as dealing with the issue of history journals having lower citation impact scores; and even more mundane, issues about promotion and allocation of research budgets.

Nathalie Mitev

Coming from an information systems background, the paper by Mitev and De Vaujany offers an interesting epistemological schema to explore the premise that ‘ and organization studies have experience a move towards History’ while ‘[s]earching for theoretical and methodological benefits…’. Their concern is how to deal with ‘research [which] tries to include historical variability but still tends towards deterministic and universalist explanations.’ Based on the much celebrated framework by Behlül Üsdiken & Alfred Kieser’s History in Organisation Studies, Mitev and De Vaujany set on relating epistemological viewpoints of positivism, iterpretativism and cricial theory to corresponding historiographical methods.

François-Xavier de Vaujany

First there are supplementarist approaches where historical ‘context’ is simply added as a complement to common positivist approaches, still focusing on variables but with a longer time span. Examples of supplementarist, they say, are to be found in new institutionalism studies, which have become more ‘historical’ by studying a smaller number of variables over a longer period. But these, they say, lack the rich contextual evidence of case studies. Secondly, one finds integrationists or a full consideration of History with new or stronger links between organisation studies and the humanities (including history, literary theory and philosophy). Examples, they say, include most of the work around business history as ‘[b]usiness historians have progressed to realise the potential of their work to inform contemporary managerial decision-making.’ Thirdly, there are the reorientationistor post-positivist studies, which examine and reposition dominant discourses (such as progress or efficiency) and produces a criticism and renewal of organization theory itself, on the basis of history. Management history and history of management thought are said to be representatives. However,they add, here the logic of economic efficiency has superimposed onto the narrative of historians, that is, other potential avenues such as gender, culture and ethics have been disregarded in favour of a purely economicist narrative.

Mitev and De Vaujany then engage in very interesting an epistemological discussion of the three approaches and how can historical studies relate and/or inform different areas of management discourse. This is worth read as it is indeed, food for thought. I will thus make no attempt to summarise it. Nevertheless, the paper does progress while trying to find the prevalence of each of the three named approaches within research in information systems (IS). This through a content analysis of peer-reviewed journal articles which were identified by combining the ABI bibliographic database and Google Scholar:

The journals chosen had information systems as their primary focus as opposed to management science, computer science or information science. We selected journals whose principal readership is intended for those involved in the IS field… We do not claim that the survey is exhaustive; nor do we assume that a more comprehensive survey (e.g. including conference proceedings or using other databases) would deliver different results. The analysis involved the identification of all research papers in ABI that might broadly be defined as historical perspective on information systems. Using a further search on Google Scholar, we double checked on primary analysis in order to confirm general tendencies and identify complementary references, used in our discussion. Therefore, in our survey of relevant literature our intention is to focus on material that is published in outlets specifically targeted as IS.

At this point I grew a bit dissapointed by the paper by Mitev and De Vaujany. Ultimately only 64 papers were identified. For me, these represented the use of history as a method within the IS field. This should by no means be disregarded (more below). It is an interesting excerise in itself. But I thought that could have considered journals where historians of computing publish. I mean outlets such as the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing where Campbell-Kelly, Haigh and Heide (all of these are authors that Mitev and De Vaujany cite in their paper) regularly publish. I also felt more could be done about method and methodology in history.

Stephanie Decker – Aston University

Here is where the paper by Decker
fits in nicely. I had the fortune of hearing her present it at the M6 Business History Workshopat Coventry University. In comparison with Mitev and De Vaujany, Decker largely side steps epistemological issues to tackle head on how to explain what historians do in the archives and the issues that one faces in confronting surviving records of a particular organisation or event. This explanation is particularly poignant as she chooses to illustrate through her own work in Africa.

‘Triangulation’ and dealing with the issue of selection is part and parcel of most readers of this blog. I guess it does not need further explanation. But to be fair, Decker does present the topic in a new light and it is worth even for the most experience researcher to review her arguments and refresh some of the issues. As often things we take for granted are not examined in sufficient detail.

But the above does suggest there is a group of people who are seriously thinking how best to make history and management studies interact. Whether this should also translate into active presence in management journals and broad interest, peer-reviewed outlets is also part of the question. I am one of those who firmly believe that we as business historians have a serious contribution to make to the present conversation in management studies. As has been noted elsewhere by Ludovic Cailluet:

For those of us business historians who work in business schools/management departments, to publish in management journals is very important. One solution is to find “mainstream” or “pure players” co-authors who are interested in your data, and skills and who could help you with the format and describe methodology in a way that would answer the demands of management journals. Mixed methods (quanti/quali) are becoming very trendy lately in the management field. There is an opportunity.

Indeed, Business Historyhas initiated a series of special issues that offer social scientists an opportunity to explain how their work gels with the

Mustafa Özbilgin – editor of the British Journal of Management

discipline. But the opposite is not necessarily true. There is little or no representation of business historians in mainstream journals (hence the relevance of the paper by Mitev and De Vaujany above). Mustafa Özbilgin, general editor of the British Journal of Management, concurs:

You are right in spotting that business history have been rather under represented in the journal. There are a number of reasons for this. First business historians typically do not offer review service to the BJM nor do they typically submit papers. I don’t know the reasons for this. You may wish to seek explanations also within the business history community. BJM publishes only empirical pieces which draws on robust data, both of which are specific disciplinary constructs I am aware.

Dissecting epistemology and method of history is thus interesting and relevant for those aiming to build bridges outside our specialist area.

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9 thoughts on “Linking History and Management Discourse: Epistemology and Method

  1. Giovanni Favero

    I read the paper by Stephanie Decker with much interest, as I found it very useful at first for teaching purposes with PhD students in Business.
    Stephanie’s article shows indeed very clearly that, despite historians’ reluctance to theorize explicitly on methodological issues, there is a lot to say about archival work and source criticism as tools for the reconstruction of the past.

    I think her reflections about how telling are silences in archives is also very important to show the distinct contribution history can provide to social sciences.

    But her article sounds interesting to me also from the point of view of my studies, as I am more and more reinterpreting my past research in the history of statistics as a way to reinsert classical historical methodology (i.e. criticism of sources and cross-checking of different documentation in order to build a narrative reconstruction that holds and distinguishes clearly what we know and what we suppose) into quantitative economic history,
    focusing on how quantitative and statistical data from the past were produced.
    Criticism of quantitative sources is usually limited to statistical coherence and tests of significance/representativeness. But historians can do much more, showing how data were constructed, what they were collected for, how their display was hiding and emphasizing different aspects, how they were conditioning the perception of phenomena.
    I tried do do that in a case study here

    From this point of view, Stephanie’s article made me wonder if the matter of “telling silences” could perhaps be extended to quantitative and statistical sources, making them much more qualitative, perhaps sometimes less immediately reliable, but much more multifaceted and rich in collateral information.

    1. bbatiz Post author

      Thanks for yours Giovanni. I agree that very few people using secondary data series question how they were collected and by whom. It is particularly sad to see students not being aware of this but taking the series at face value.

    2. Stephen Linstead

      A relevant multimethod approach to the qualitivisation of quantitative information – focusing on how it is used by those affected by it – is Robert Gephart’s ethnostatistics. It integrates documentary and archival data into broader qualitative and quantitative methods and opens up a number of narrative opportunities by balancing information on how statistics are produced with information on how they are used and interpreted in specific historical events.

      1. Stephen Linstead

        I’ve never used it as a textbook, but there was a special issue of Organizational Research Methods 2006 vol 9 devoted to the approach that might be useful. He’s a very approachable guy and would I’m sure be delighted to field any queries you might have.

  2. bbatiz Post author

    Further to my previous, there is a panel along these lines at the forthcoming annual meeting of the Association of Business Historians:

    B.2 Business History & Management Studies- Chair: tba

    Business History and Accounting History- Steve Toms, University of Leeds

    Making the case for Management and Business History research: Progress with the British Academy of Management and Business History Track- Kevin Tennent, York University

    Complexity, anachronism and time-parochialism: Doing historical research from a management studies background- Luca Zan, University of Bologna

  3. Pingback: ¿Qué es un archivo? | Pasado y Presente de la Economia Mundial

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