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Organizations in Time: History, Theory, Methods

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13 Analyzing and Interpreting Historical Sources: A Basic Methodology

  • Published: December 2013
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This chapter outlines a methodology for the interpretation of historical sources, helping to realize their full potential for the study of organization, while overcoming their challenges in terms of distortions created by time, changes in context, and selective production or preservation. Drawing on social scientific methods as well as the practice and reflections of historians, the chapter describes analytical and interpretive process based on three basic elements, illustrating them with exemplars from management research: source criticism to identify possible biases and judge the extent to which a source can be trusted to address the research question; triangulation with additional sources to confirm or question an interpretation and strengthen the overall findings; hermeneutics to relate sources to their original contexts and make their interpretation by a researcher today more robust. The chapter contributes to the creation of a language for describing the use of historical sources in management research.

This chapter proposes a basic methodology for studying organizations and organizational fields using historical sources. It is intended primarily for scholars interested in publishing historical research in management and organization journals. However, we also hope to provide those publishing in business and management history journals with tools and language to explicitly describe their underlying methodology.

There has been a surge of interest in historical research in organization studies, which, as Leblebici (in this volume) shows, has translated into a growing number of articles in leading organizational journals that engage historical or longitudinal evidence (see also Kieser and Üsdiken, 2004 ). Among the broad range of issues of theoretical relevance that have prompted management and organization scholars to engage with historical time and context—and to use historical evidence—one can find, for instance, the study of organizational processes ( Langley, 1999 ; Pettigrew et al., 2001 ), evolutionary dynamics (Lippmann and Aldrich, this volume), institutional fields and mechanisms ( Davis and Marquis, 2005 ), as well as meanings ( Suddaby, 2010 ). Articles based on historical studies of companies or industries have also occasionally been published in the Strategic Management Journal (e.g., Tripsas, 1997 ; Rosenbloom, 2000 ; Danneels, 2011 ; see also Kahl et al., 2012 ). At the same time, business historians have increasingly used their research to engage with debates in organization and management theory (see Kipping and Üsdiken, 2007 ; Wadhwani and Bucheli, this volume).

Despite the growing interest in incorporating historical research in organization studies, little attention has been devoted to how this research should be conducted. Although there is a long-established tradition of qualitative social research (Yates, this volume), there is wide variation in what organization and management articles consider historical research (see Appendix 3.2 in Leblebici, this volume). At the same time, historians tend to confine their discussions of sources and prior research to footnotes and tend to not explicitly discuss their methods for others to follow. The lack of such explicit discussion of methodology within historical research, in turn, tends to limit the publishability of history in management and organizational journals, where explanation of data and methods are standard practice ( Decker, 2013 ). Thus, as Berg and Lune (2012: 306) note, historical methodology had until very recently been “omitted” by most research methods manuals, or, even worse, “mentioned only in terms of its possible threat to internal validity … or its effect on construct validity.” This stands in clear contrast to other qualitative approaches such as “ethnography” and “action research,” which have been able to explain their methodologies and become accepted as legitimate approaches to organizational research.

One of the main methodological challenges in employing historical approaches to studying organizations lies in the nature of historical sources. As Lipartito (in this volume) points out, historical sources are fragments or traces of evidence from the past rather than a set of systematic observations made by the researcher. Even when sources do seem to present systematic information, questions arise about why that particular evidence was initially collected, how it compares to other sources of information on the same phenomena, and why it has been preserved. Even in the impossible scenario where a “perfect” record of the past did exist, researchers would face the challenge of understanding the motives and meanings of actors and actions in the past in ways that avoid imposing assumptions and categories from the present (see also Berg and Lune, 2012: 307–8 ). To address these issues this chapter proposes a basic methodology for studying organizations and organizational fields based on such historical sources. We draw on both the extant practice in the social science literature and the methodological apparatus of historical research in explaining this methodology.

The remainder of the chapter consists of two main sections. The first section reviews how organizational scholars (mainly in some prominent methods handbooks) and historians have addressed the challenges involved in using historical sources. We try to show that both of these have made certain contributions but that neither has gone far enough in developing a methodological process for interpreting historical sources when studying organizations and organizational fields. The second section outlines such a methodology, which combines source criticism, triangulation, and hermeneutic interpretation. We discuss each of these elements in some detail and provide illustrative examples of how each has been applied in extant studies to address research questions in management and organizational studies. A brief conclusion summarizes the contributions and limitations of the chapter and calls for further discussion of historical methods in organization studies and business history.

Historical Methodology in Management and Organization Studies: A Review

Limited suggestions in the extant methods literature.

Trying to gain an overview of how historical methodology is defined in management and organizational studies is not easy. The predominant usage of the word “history” in the main journals in the field is actually as part of “event history analysis,” which is a fairly widely used statistical technique to analyze the probability of an “event,” defined as a discrete change from one state to another, as the dependent variable ( Castilla, 2007 : ch. 3)—and hence unrelated to the methodology proposed here. But even when it comes to the growing number of articles using historical sources and archives, many of them, as Leblebici (in this volume) points out, avoid explicitly characterizing their research as “history.” And, as has been noted earlier, most books dealing with research methods in the social sciences do not make any reference to historical methodology either. Thus, for instance, The SAGE Handbook of Social Research Methods ( Alasuutari et al., 2008 ) does not contain a chapter on historical methods and does not even refer to it in the index. The temporal dimension is covered in a chapter on longitudinal and panel research, which deals, however, largely with quantitative data and includes “event history” as one of the specific methods. The only relevant chapter in The SAGE Handbook of Organizational Research Methods ( Buchanan and Bryman 2009 ) is one on “Archival Research in Organizations in a Digital Age,” which focuses mainly on the preservation of digital records ( Moss, 2009 ).

There is, however, a discussion of historical methods, covering several pages, in a chapter on researching institutional change by Suddaby and Greenwood (2009: 183–7) . The authors highlight that these methods have “three distinctive advantages over multivariate and interpretive approaches”: attention to process, that is, the consideration of multiple, often messy causes; path dependency, that is, the recognition that past decisions constrain current choices; and social construction, that is, the ability to more easily strip current institutional arrangements of their taken-for-grantedness by identifying their historical origins. At the same time, they remain relatively silent on how to conduct these studies, pointing to the multiplicity and variety of “historical research techniques” (with a reference to Ventresca and Mohr, 2002 ) and the care taken by historians in identifying the underlying interests when examining sources (with a reference to Carr, 1961 ).

A similar lack of detail is notable when it comes to widely cited books providing toolkits for qualitative researchers, whether it is Qualitative Data Analysis ( Miles and Huberman, 1994 ) or Case Study Research ( Yin, 2013 ). While the former does not make any mention of historical analysis, the latter characterizes “archival analysis,” “history,” and “case study” (in addition to “survey” and “experiment”) as distinct methods. “History” is portrayed as similar to case studies in terms of its research questions (how? and why?), but with a focus on past rather than contemporary events.

A few others do give a more prominent place to history, but—on the whole—also provide limited practical guidance for conducting such studies. Thus, Stinchcombe (2005) , long a proponent of a historical perspective in organizational studies (see in particular his earlier work on foundation conditions, Stinchcombe, 1965 ; Lounsbury and Ventresca, 2002 ), makes a strong case for historical research as one of “the four main methods of addressing causal questions in social science”—the others being quantitative, ethnographic, and experimental. In particular, he sees it as the most appropriate way “to study sequences of conditions, actions, and effects that have happened in natural settings, in sufficient detail to get signs of sequences that are causally connected” ( Stinchcombe, 2005: 5 ). While this gives history a prominent place, he remains relatively vague about how it should be studied other than pointing to the need for the “penetration of the details of processes and sequences” (referring to Bearman et al.’s (1999) graphic representation of events in narrative life stories as one relevant method, albeit without mentioning others) and, more importantly, using a number of examples for the comparative analysis of various contexts ( Stinchcombe, 2005: 230–8 ; see also Eisenhardt, 1989 , 1991 ).

Berg and Lune (2012) , who highlight the marginal position of historical research among the acceptable qualitative methods in the social sciences, also give it a more prominent and explicit place in their own textbook. Quite tellingly, they start their discussion of “What is Historical Research?” by stating what it is not , that is, “retelling of facts from the past” or “creative nostalgia,” before eventually defining it as entailing “a process that examines events or combinations of events in order to uncover accounts of what happened in the past” (p. 306)—a description that even many historians would not agree with (see, e.g., Carr, 1961 ) and that seems unlikely to endear it to organizational researchers who emphasize social construction (see for instance Suddaby and Greenwood, 2009 ).

In terms of methodology proper, it is significant and telling that Berg and Lune (2012) pair their chapter on social historical research with “oral traditions,” while they confine the analysis of archival records, which have much more importance in historical research than oral history (see Lipartito, in this volume) to a different chapter dealing with “unobtrusive measures,” albeit largely limiting their contribution to an overview of the wide variety of archives available. They ultimately note that “researchers should be cautious in the use of archival data” without providing an exact reason for this warning, but suggesting that scholars “use multiple procedures (triangulation) when working with archival data in order to reduce possible sources of error (missing data, etc.)” ( Berg and Lune, 2012: 283–96 ; quotes p. 296; for a detailed discussion of triangulation see pp. 316–9, this volume). They also provide a typology of the data used by social historians, distinguishing primary sources (produced by eyewitnesses); secondary sources (from those “not immediately present”); and tertiary sources (which involve a distillation or condensation of the former). They then elaborate on what they refer to as “external” and “internal” criticism of these sources in order to determine, respectively, their genuineness and meaning (pp. 309–17; see our discussion of source criticism).

A detailed discussion of archival documentation and analysis can also be found in Ventresca and Mohr (2002) . They contrast “historiographic,” “ecological,” and “new archivalist” modes of analyzing archival data and clearly favor the latter, since it combines more rigorous, quantitative approaches with the “key sensibilities of the historiographic approach,” in terms of “exploring the nuanced, meaning-laden, action-oriented foundations of organizational processes” (p. 810). However, as Lipartito (in this volume) shows, much of the available archival data does not lend itself to the kind of systematic, quantitative analysis necessary for the techniques of the “new archivalism” or for population ecology or, similarly, for so-called cliometric history, conducted in particular by the “new” economic historians (for a summary and critique of the latter see in particular Boldizzoni, 2011 ). Ventresca and Mohr (2002) recognize these problems, but the guidance they provide is rather limited: “the careful and detailed scrutiny of the archival materials,” where “the researcher reads through large amounts of archival information (often from un-standardized sources) in a disciplined fashion as a way to gain insights, make discoveries and generate informed judgments about the character of historical events and processes” (pp. 814–15).

Specific suggestions of how to deal with company archives are made in a short essay by Rowlinson (2004) in another handbook on qualitative organizational research. He first addresses a number of misconceptions about the use of archival documents in organizational studies, including that “archival research is not a proper method of empirical organizational research because instead of being directly generated in the course of organizational research, historical data is merely collected” (p. 302) and then recounts his own experience as a researcher “poring over documents in the Cadbury library” as part of a larger project examining changes in the work organization of the British company (p. 303). He describes in detail how he decided which documents to consult among the large number contained in the archives (i.e., those related to the topic of the research project) and the “procedure” he used to identify them: “to flick through the pages [of various minutes] trying to spot any item of interest” (p. 305). He characterizes the notes or photocopies taken of these documents as his “data,” “generated in the craft-like fashion of a historian” (p. 305) and has subsequently used them to address other research questions using a procedure he describes as similar to “coding for interviews” (“to identify themes and connections between the events recorded”), albeit made more difficult by the variety of different sources (pp. 307–8).

Rowlinson (2004: 308–9) also discusses the differences between company documents intended for public consumption and those meant to remain confidential, as well as the bias towards the view from the top (“senior management”). In general, he emphasizes the problem of studying everyday life in the organization, given the absence of documents recording the personal experiences and feelings of its members, be they workers or board members. Finally, he contrasts the way historians interpret the data and construct their narrative with similar endeavors by other qualitative researchers, that is, ethnographers, highlighting that the former stress singularity while the latter insist on typicality. In his view, this explains the extensive use of footnotes in historical writing (“it is in the footnotes that the nature and interpretation of the evidence is laid out”) and the use of “stylization” and even “fictionalization” by organizational ethnographers, intent on demonstrating the generalizability of their findings ( Rowlinson, 2004: 308–9 ).

Thus, while—in part—recognizing the value of historical research, the extant social science literature offers a rather limited, piecemeal approach to address the challenges resulting from the nature of historical sources. Consequently, there is little clear guidance on how to analyze and interpret this kind of evidence in order to generate valid and reliable insights for the study of organizations and organizational fields. It should therefore not be surprising that the growing use of historical sources and contexts in organizational research seems to have taken place applying widely varying approaches and techniques for analysis and interpretation. To some extent, such methodological variation is reasonable and healthy. But, it also limits a broader use of incomplete sources from a temporally distant past in organizational research and the publication of its results in management journals.

History as an “Opaque” Craft

Unfortunately, historical scholarship typically provides little explicit explanation or guidance on the methods used (cf. Chandler, 1962 ). Reflective historians are well aware of this practice. As the philosopher of history, Hayden White (1995: 243) , explains, “history is rather a craftlike discipline, which means that it tends to be governed by convention and custom rather than by methodology and theory and to utilize ordinary or natural languages for the description of its objects of study and representation of the historian’s thought about those objects” (here quoted from Rowlinson, 2004 ; see also Evans, 2001: 66 and, for the description of history as a “craft” by the influential American historian Bernard Bailyn, Ekirch, 1994). In his treatise on “how historians map the past,” historian John Lewis Gaddis (2002: XI) , who would otherwise agree with little of White’s view of history, makes a similar observation: “We recoil from the notion that our writing should replicate, say, the design of the Pompidou Center in Paris, which proudly places its escalators, plumbing, wiring and ductwork on the outside of the building, so that they’re there for all to see.” This lack of explicit discussion of methods, however, creates a significant barrier to interdisciplinary discourse between history and organization studies. As Decker (2013: 2) points out, the “issue is that historians are not explaining their methodology, and in fact are missing a language and a format to do so that are compatible with the approach in social sciences.”

The conventions of historical writing and presentation mask what is, in fact, a well-established methodological tradition of thought and practice on the nature of historical sources and how to analyze and interpret them. As an academic discipline, history in fact owes its very origins to methodological concerns about the nature of sources and how to use them to make valid and credible claims about the past ( Novick, 1988 ). The 19th-century scholars who moved history into the academy were particularly concerned about establishing a methodology akin to the scientific method, that would make history “objective” by establishing rules and procedures for the treatment and analysis of sources. This effort to develop history as a “human science” included the development of methods for understanding and reconstructing the perspective of historical actors, in addition to procedures for rigorous examination of sources ( Dilthey, 2002 [1910] ).

Though scholars in the 20th century raised appropriate doubts about the possibility of achieving perfect historical objectivity ( Gadamer, 1975 ), methods for critiquing and using historical sources remained central in defining the differences between sound and unsound scholarship ( Bloch, 1954 [1946] ; Carr, 1961 ; Gottschalk, 1950 ). Indeed, explanations of historical methodology became more sensitive to a number of problems involved in the use and interpretation of sources, including issues related to language and discourse ( Appleby et al., 1995 : 207–23), the role of power in silencing some voices from the past ( Said, 1991 ; Spivak, 1988 ), and the interpreter’s perspective ( Gadamer, 1975 ) in the identification and analysis of sources. These issues are now central to methodological debates and discussions in the discipline (for summaries, see Howell and Prevenier, 2001 ; Donnelly and Norton, 2011 ).

More importantly, beyond the philosophical debates and treatises on analyzing sources in the discipline, historians have developed new practices for dealing with sources as they incorporated new types of evidence and interpretive challenges into the historiographical tradition. The evolution of academic history from a discipline focused on the political past to one encompassing economic, social, cultural, and even natural phenomena has led to encounters with new types of sources and new analytical and interpretive techniques ( Appleby et al., 1995 ; Howell and Prevenier, 2001 ). Hence, behind what appears to be disinterest by historians in explicit discussions of methodology lies what is in fact a vibrant and evolving body of methodological thought and practice focused on the analysis and interpretation of sources.

In the subsequent section of the chapter, we will draw on these practices, together with relevant suggestions in the social sciences literature already outlined, to propose a basic methodology to study organizations and organizational fields using historical sources.

Elements of Basic Historical Methodology in Organization Studies

The proposed methodology is designed for the analysis of historical texts. We define such texts broadly to include a wide range of written documents, the spoken word, as well as artifacts that constitute traces of the past. In some regards, the methodological issues of source analysis in history are similar to the methodological issues already well examined by text and discourse analysis in organization studies (highlighted for instance by Rowlinson, 2004 ; see also, for the widely used “discourse analysis,” Phillips and Oswick, 2012 ). However, the nature of historical sources raises a number of specific issues related to their analysis and interpretation. First, sources are not direct observations of action, and certainly do not provide comprehensive or controlled evidence on the subject under consideration. Second, sources are typically fragments or incomplete accounts that were produced by authors with personal or institutional perspectives that may not be readily apparent. And third, sources from the past may have been produced in cultural and social contexts very different from our own that need to be taken into account in their interpretation.

The basic methodology we describe in what follows draws on both the historiographical tradition and qualitative methods in organization studies to propose a set of analytical and interpretive processes for addressing the issues already mentioned. Specifically, the methodology involves a number of elements, viz. (i) the critique of each text to determine its external as well as internal validity; (ii) a triangulation of various sources to reduce bias and increase confidence in the robustness of the research results; and (iii) an iterative process (often referred to as the “hermeneutic circle”), which situates texts within their historical contexts and in relation to other texts. We will describe and illustrate each of these elements in the following. It is important to note here that these elements should not be taken as a set of discrete or sequential steps. The analysis of historical sources is usually characterized by an iterative use of these elements in both inductive and deductive reasoning that fits together evidence and interpretation.

Source Criticism

Both historians and organization scholars turn to historical sources to address research questions or working hypotheses they may have about a phenomenon or theory (see Lipartito, in this volume, for a description of different types of sources). Unlike most of the data used in the social sciences historical sources were not originally created by researchers (through say questionnaires, interviews, or observation) for addressing the research question at hand. Rather, they were created by actors driven by agendas determined by a context that differs from the one of the researcher. Moreover, most of these sources tend to be incomplete or have a biased survival rate. The incompleteness and temporal remoteness of historical sources as well as the fact that they were produced in conditions beyond the control of the researcher creates a methodological concern for understanding the circumstances surrounding their production and has led historians to develop practices for critiquing their use and abuse ( Bunzl, 1997 ; Novick, 1988 ). Source criticism constitutes one key element of historical methodology and consists of an attempt to establish their validity (through external source criticism) and their credibility (through internal source criticism) (see also Berg and Lune, 2012: 312–17 ) as well as expectations about source transparency in their relation to the question at hand. We will address each of these in turn, providing illustrations of how they have been addressed in exemplary organizational research.

First, researchers need to establish the validity of a source by analyzing the circumstances surrounding its production and preservation. A source’s validity establishes its authenticity and pertinence for the research question at hand. This is of crucial importance for historical research on earlier periods, where both the authenticity and authorship of a source is often in doubt ( Howell and Prevenier, 2001: 60–8 ). But even for more recent historical sources it remains important to examine (a) the provenance of a source, including identifying the author of a text or an artifact as well as the time and place it was actually produced; (b) its intended audience and purpose; and (c) the context under which it was written ( Donnelly and Norton, 2011 ).

Incidentally, these concerns help explain the relative preference of historical research for printed rather than oral sources, given that the former allow a researcher to better isolate the circumstances surrounding the production of a source ( Donnelly and Norton, 2011 ). By contrast, historians tend to shy away from the latter—except for purposes of triangulation (see pp. 316–9, this volume)—since the poor memory and cognitive biases of respondents often result in retrospective biases ( Golden, 1992 ; Kirby, 2008 ). It should be noted here, however, that there is a long tradition of oral history, which has attempted to give voice to those whose position is not reflected in written records ( Thompson, 2000 ).

Analyzing the validity of a source requires attention not only to the individual motives surrounding its production, but also to the institutional setting in which it was produced. This is particularly important in the context of corporate or organizational records, which are presumed to reflect not only the interests and views of the individual producing them, but of the organizational structure and culture of which they were part. Many organizational sources—such as memoranda, minutes, newsletters, or even contracts—are not solitary documents but part of a communication genre and understanding their validity requires situating them as part of their institutional, organizational, or communicative category ( Yates, 1989 ; Yates and Orlikowski, 1992 ; Orlikowski and Yates, 1994 ).

A good example for an extensive discussion of the validity of a source can be found in the study by Arndt and Bigelow (2005) of the shift in hospital administration from female dominated in the late 19th and early 20th century to male dominated by the 1950s. This study sheds light on how gender occupational boundaries were created and changed over time and argues that professional associations played an important role in defining these boundaries. The researchers focus their attention on the American Hospital Association (AHA) and particularly its trade journal Modern Hospital as their main source. In order to establish the validity of Modern Hospital as a source to use to answer their research question, Arndt and Bigelow discuss, at length, who authored the magazine and the purpose of writing it. For instance, they highlight that it was “founded in 1913,” “targeted hospital superintendents and trustees,” and “represented the voice of the American Hospital Association’s leadership.” They also stress that “the leaders of the American Hospital Association had control over its content” ( Arndt and Bigelow, 2005: 237–8 ). They even describe the positions the individual members of the editorial board of Modern Hospital had at the time and how that could have affected the qualitative and quantitative information provided by the journal. Establishing the source’s validity as a voice of the AHA allows them to convincingly argue that the association was behind the application of “scientific” management thought to hospital administration, which led to a change in the perception of hospital administration from a “sentimental” profession that required caring and loving individuals (characteristics in those times associated with women) toward a perception of this profession as “scientific” and therefore requiring cold analytical thinking (which was associated with men).

Secondly, source criticism is used to establish the credibility of a source, which involves assessing a source’s trustworthiness or reliability in addressing the researcher’s question. A basic principle here is that sources that are closer to the event or action being explained can be considered more credible than sources that are further removed or that relay the content from other sources that were “more primary” in their position vis-à-vis the event under consideration. In this sense, the primacy of a source depends on its relationship to what the researcher is trying to explain. This principle highlights, again, that historical research does not allow direct observation of action or behavior in the past and so researchers have to consider how to weigh the credibility of evidence presented in the sources. Eyewitness accounts are hence preferred over secondhand ones.

For similar reasons, source criticism places heavy emphasis on the question of authorial authority and perspective—the extent to which the producer of a source can be thought of as trustworthy and capable of speaking to the issue at hand. Do they have the competency to address the issue or development of concern? Do they have a reason to shape impressions or hide facts? What are likely to be their biases? Do they have a regular pattern of dependably reporting on the events or developments ( Donnelly and Norton, 2011 ; Howell and Prevenier, 2001 )?

Historical method typically places emphasis on weighing the intentionality of the author in producing a source as one way of assessing credibility. Sources that unintentionally convey information are typically considered more reliable because the author has not tried to actively shape the information that is being conveyed about the event. For instance, using a firm’s public relations material about labor relations to chronicle its dealings with unions is often seen as less credible because the authors’ intention suggests an interest in carefully shaping and framing the information conveyed while “silencing” other information and perspectives.

An example of the examination of source credibility can be found in King and Soule’s (2007) study of the effects of anti-corporate political activism on firms’ stock prices for the 1962–1990 period in the US. The authors use the New York Times as their main source for identifying protest movements targeted at companies. The authors explain the Times’ position vis-à-vis the events they sought to identify, stating that “because the major financial exchanges are in New York City, the New York Times is ideally positioned to cover protests of business corporations.” Moreover, they explain why the source is less likely to be subject to selection and description biases than other sources by comparing the Times ’ coverage of protests to that of the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post for shorter periods of time. They note that the Times is not only more comprehensive than these other newspapers in its coverage of protests but is also more prompt, making it a credible source by which to examine how information about protests is conveyed and, in turn, affects stock price (King and Soule, 2005: 422–4).

Finally, as in any scientific endeavor, research based on historical sources needs to be verifiable ( Gaddis, 2002 ). Historical scholarship is thus typically expected to practice source transparency , linking claims and evidence back to specific sources and documents. This explains the extensive use of footnotes in historical writing, noted earlier. It is here where authors describe a particular source in detail, providing information on the document itself and also where it is located. For a primary source, for instance, this would include the name of the person or organization writing the document, the date it was written, and those it was intended for, but also the name of the archive, the box in which the file is located, and, if available, the file number.

The expectation of source transparency makes it difficult to preserve confidentiality/anonymity, as might be required for the more contemporary sources and information used in organizational scholarship. A respect for such requirements tends to already be embedded in the rules governing the use of historical archives, to which a researcher normally has to consent before being allowed access. This does not exclude that in exceptional circumstances the name of the organization where the historical research was undertaken (or of certain informants, for instance, those that were interviewed) might be anonymized.

A good example of a study that provides source transparency is the work by Kalev et al. (2008) on the joint productivity councils established in Palestine before 1948 and their changing role after the creation of the state of Israel. Their study relies heavily on archival sources to show how the idea of the role of these councils changed from being considered useless during the British rule of Palestine, to becoming an integral part of Israel’s economic policies aimed at modernizing the country’s economy. The authors consider particular letters and memos as crucial for showing this transition and therefore cite them in footnotes, while at the same time using the standard social science citation system for the rest of their references. In this way, they manage to exploit a wealth of primary sources, citing them for other researchers to consult, while conforming to the type of citation required in management journals.

Ultimately, then, source criticism is designed to allow researchers to understand not just what a source tells us about a development or topic of interest, but also the limits of relying on that particular source. To overcome those limits, scholars using historical sources have to rely on additional analytical and interpretive procedures, which we detail in the following.


This term originally refers to techniques in geometry, surveying, and so on to determine the location of an unknown point from known points or known points and distances. In the social sciences, where there is a long tradition of “triangulation” (see, e.g., Berg and Lune, 2012: 6 ; Denzin, 2010 ), it is generally seen as a way to cross check and, ultimately, corroborate and validate results. Today the term is often used synonymously with “mixed methods,” which in turn usually implies a combination of quantitative with qualitative methods (e.g., Buchanan and Bryman, 2009a: 9 ; Jick, 1979 ; Miles and Huberman, 1994: 40–3 ), with some debate about the priority or at least order in which they should be employed. There are, however, some who advocate a broader use of this term and the underlying techniques. In particular Denzin (1970 , 1978 ; here as summarized by Berg and Lune, 2012: 6–7 ; Bryman, 2004 ) suggests that triangulation can take place along four “lines of action,” involving the use of multiple data (from different sources); multiple investigators (with different researchers gathering and analyzing data independently); multiple theories (applying different perspectives to the same object of study); and multiple methods (which includes combining quantitative and qualitative methods and/or different qualitative methods such as participant observation, interviews, document and text analysis).

The type of triangulation normally applied by historians is the use of multiple data: “Typically, historians do not rely on just one source to study an event or a historical process, but on many, and they construct their own interpretations about the past by means of comparison among sources” ( Howell and Prevenier, 2001: 69 ). This can involve a combination of qualitative and quantitative sources, like the ones used by Vikström (2010) in her examination of women’s occupations in the 19th century. The author actually highlights the gender bias in one of these sources—population registers—which she uncovered by triangulating it with qualitative evidence. More common is the combination of different qualitative methods, namely the analysis of archival documentation with interviews. However, as noted by Rowlinson (2004: 305–6) and already explained, historians would put more credence into the former whereas social scientists tend to do the opposite. For instance, in a study of the origins of European integration, a respondent insisted that he had favored the creation of competitive markets, even if his internal memoranda from the time clearly showed the intention to create Europe-wide producer cartels ( Kipping, 2002 ). Most often in historical studies, triangulation would involve looking at different sources, for example, an internal memorandum compared with say an external communication.

Thus, whereas social scientific approaches to the past often search out and value data sources that provide consistent observations about a phenomenon of interest in order to identify and test hypotheses, historical triangulation actually values sources that are different/heterogenous because of the interpretive procedure involved and the aim of avoiding the bias of any one authoritative source, however consistent it may be. There are several reasons for this. First, multiplicity and variety of sources are often a necessity, especially with research examining long-term developments. Here a trade-off has to be made between the time period covered, which increases the chances of identifying continuity and change, and the consistency of the available sources, which tends to decrease, because organizations change the kind of documentation they generate and retain. In these cases, it is crucial to consult various types of overlapping sources that can both complement and corroborate each other.

Second and more importantly, it is actually crucial for historical researchers to use various types of texts to overcome the limits that source criticism identifies about any one source. Sources produced by different authors with different motives and perspectives on the development of interest hence constitute a critical part of historical research procedures for overcoming the limitations identified for a particular source. For instance, to understand the extent to which management education became “Americanized” after World War II requires recourse to sources examining the various actors involved both from the United States and the recipient countries—otherwise one might easily adopt a sender-only perspective, which as various studies have shown would be overly simplistic and mistaken (for a summary Kipping and Üsdiken, 2009 ).

The reliance of historical interpretation on multiple sources and triangulation procedures is also reflected in how primary and secondary sources are integrated in the process of interpretation and analysis. Whereas both quantitative and qualitative organization studies research tends to limit the use of secondary literature in the interpretation process to the theoretical setup for a study or the post-analysis interpretation of a study’s findings, historical interpretation often integrates secondary sources into the analysis and interpretation process itself (Lipartito, this volume). While recognizing the particular weaknesses of secondary sources in their historical “distance” from the development or phenomenon under consideration, the historical procedure of using heterogeneous sources in order to triangulate means that secondary literature can often serve as a “data point” in the interpretation and analysis process—albeit one that requires a particularly critical and careful interpretation ( Donnelly and Norton, 2011 ; see also Berg and Lune, 2012: 316–17 ). Given the incompleteness of historical sources, the use of secondary sources in this process can be seen as a matter of convenience as well as a matter of methodological adherence to source heterogeneity.

Finally, it is important to understand that triangulation of historical sources is not only used to corroborate evidence; it is often most useful in instances where sources contradict each other. For instance, as Vikström (2010: 212) notes with respect to the “dissonant data” she found in her study on the occupations of 19th-century women such contradictions can be “beneficial in the questioning that it engenders for the gaining, viewing and analysis of knowledge.” Confronted with such research results, organizational scholars might take another page from the playbook of historical methodology and be somewhat more assertive—albeit always justifying their choices explicitly: “Sometimes the information they have from various sources is contradictory, sometimes mutually confirming, but the historian’s job in any case is to decide which accounts he or she will use, and why” ( Howell and Prevenier, 2001: 69 ).

Following are selected examples for the application of triangulation to reduce bias and corroborate results among the historical studies of organizations and organizational fields. Thus, in her work on the effects of corporate identity in generating resistance to technological change Tripsas (2009: 444–6) explicitly applies triangulation to address potential bias, also generated by the fact that she had formerly been a board member of the company in question, Linco, which made flash memory cards for digital cameras. She actually uses different methods: semi-structured interviews, participant observation, and an analysis of written documentation. The latter consist of three types of sources: (i) the confidential, internal archives of the company, providing insights into how a variety of insiders viewed the organization; (ii) documents addressed towards the outside, such as business plans or SEC filings, showing the kind of identity it tried to project; and (iii) documents generated by observers such as reports by analysts or the media, revealing how outsiders viewed the company. Triangulation of methods and sources thus allows her to compare different perspectives and increase the overall validity of her findings.

An even wider range of sources, combining qualitative and quantitative data, internal archives, published company documents, and external reports, as well as interviews, can be found in a study examining the role of cognition and path dependence on shifts in competitive advantage among the four dominant Finnish retailers between 1945 and 1995 ( Lamberg and Tikkanen, 2006 ). The wide variety of sources not only allows corroboration of the results, but also helps the authors examine the complex interplay between developments in society, technology, and the firms’ strategic decisions. Nevertheless, the authors highlight the particular importance of the confidential company records, which should not come as a surprise, given that one of them was trained as a historian: “This archival material lacks the retrospective bias of interview data and was central in the reconstruction of the decision-making criteria underpinning strategic behavior” (pp. 821–2; see also Rowlinson, 2004: 306 ).

Using almost the whole array of triangulation as laid out by Denzin is the study of changing organizational forms among management consulting firms in the UK by Kipping and Kirkpatrick (2013) . While relying on the confidential archives of the industry’s main trade association as the main source, which contains statistical data, internal minutes, and a variety of other documentation, they supplement this with material from select consulting firms, published reports by industry observers, secondary sources, both contemporaneous and contemporary, as well as a number of interviews (which can be considered methods of triangulation). They also use investigator triangulation (examining some of the potentially more biased documentation independently) and, one might argue, theoretical triangulation considering alternative readings of the evidence (mainly from the sociology of professions and neo-institutionalism). This combination allows them to cover a significantly longer time period (more than half a century) than comparable studies of other professional service firms and to advance an alternative account of what drives the changes in the modes of organizing among these firms.

Hermeneutic Interpretation

The challenge of analyzing fragmented and incomplete historical sources is further complicated by the problem of interpreting them in the social, cultural, and historical contexts in which they were produced. While there are some traditions of historical scholarship that assume actors in the past thought and acted in essentially economically or socially functional ways, the predominant stance in academic historical research is that the use of historical perspective requires efforts to understand historical actors and sources in their own context—with interests, identities, mentality, and actions shaped by their place in historical time ( Dilthey, 2002 [1910] ; Collingwood, 1946 ).

To use the language of organization studies, historical research usually requires researchers to understand historical actors’ own ways of sensemaking and sensegiving in order to analyze the sources they produced. To fail to interpret the meaning of sources from the actor’s point of view and in their contexts risks imposing categories and methods of thought from the present onto the past that distort our understanding of the event or action. Reconstructing the meaning of historical sources thus requires the procedure of historically contextualizing the source and reading it empathetically. The body of theory that most closely describes the procedure of historical interpretation through contextualization is hermeneutics ( Grondin, 1994 ), a philosophical tradition associated with historicism that deals with the interpretation of the meaning of texts.

At its most basic level, hermeneutics is a theory of textual interpretation that posits that the meaning of language and texts arises through their relationship to the contexts in which they are interpreted. Specific texts, or parts of texts, therefore need to be understood in relationship to contexts and vice versa. The meaning of a text, therefore, can only be derived by moving back and forth between a text and the contexts in which they are understood. This back and forth between text and context forms what is referred to as the “hermeneutic circle” through which interpretations arise ( Grondin, 1994 ; McAuley, 2004 ; Alvesson and Skoldberg, 2009 ). Hermeneutics is one of the bodies of theory and methods that organizational scholars have used to interpret organizational texts within their cultural settings and to critically analyze the intent of authors ( McAuley, 2004 ).

Phillips and Brown (1993: 1547) , for instance, used a critical hermeneutic approach to study corporate advertising campaigns to show how companies sought to “create and disseminate cultural forms that support preferred patterns of power and dominance.” Similarly, Prasad and Mir (2002: 92) used a critical hermeneutic approach to analyze the texts of letters from oil industry executives to shareholders and “juxtaposed them against the ‘context’ of key historical events” during the turbulent 1970s and 1980s to show how they sought to deflect the crisis of legitimacy they faced from OPEC. Heracleous and Barrett (2001) draw on hermeneutic theory along with rhetorical theory to explore the role of discourse in shaping organizational change. Thus, within organization studies, attention to hermeneutic theory and methods of interpretation is associated most closely with approaches to discourse analysis ( Phillips and Oswick, 2012 ) that are attentive to the context within which texts are interpreted.

In historical research, hermeneutic theory has been influential in explaining and accounting for the researcher’s task of understanding and interpreting sources in the historical contexts in which they were produced ( Howell and Prevenier, 2001 ; Ricoeur, 2004 ). In practice, this is done by interpreting a primary source in relationship to other sources that establish the context for its interpretation, and by using this context to try to understand the author’s intention or point of view in producing the source. Historians sometimes refer to this as reconstructing the “voice” of the source ( Decker, 2013 ; Evans, 2000 ). Secondary sources, in this regard, play an important role in guiding a researcher in identifying the historical contexts within which to interpret a historical source. Understanding the minutes of a corporate broad, for instance, may be facilitated by contextualizing them within what other scholars have explained about the forces shaping the industry at the time the minutes were produced. But, original historical research typically also involves establishing context by understanding a particular source’s relationship to other primary sources through an iterative process of moving back and forth between the focal source and other primary sources that situate the source in different, often progressively broader, ways. In this regard, hermeneutic interpretation is related to triangulation (as well as to the discourse analytic notion of intertextuality) because the latter’s emphasis on the use of multiple, heterogeneous sources in research helps establish a broader context for the analysis of any one particular primary source.

Khaire and Wadhwani’s (2010) study of the emergence of modern Indian art as a market category provides an illustration of the use of hermeneutic processes in the interpretation of sources. The authors study how Indian art emerged from an indistinct form of provincial art to a distinct category in the international art market in the late 20th century, and the implications of this categorization for how the art was valued. They use a series of auction market catalogues covering the period of change as their focal primary sources, but interpret these sources within a series of broader contexts represented by other bodies of sources. These other contexts (which include the market for Indian art, the literature on Indian art history and criticism, and the development of “modern art” over the course of the 20th century) were established by moving outward from the primary source to a set of progressively broader contexts to which the previous sources referred. By placing art market catalogues within these broader contexts, the authors are able to show that the primary source reflected changing understandings of modernism in the late 20th century. Challenges to the identity of modernism’s uniquely Western identity by art historians and critics laid the foundations for the way in which Indian art was understood and appreciated. Over time, auction catalogues, they show, drew on and reflected these changes in how they described the art and how they explained its aesthetic and economic value.

Khaire and Wadhwani’s article also shows that hermeneutic interpretation of sources is attentive not only to the cultural and social context in which a source is produced but also to its temporal embeddedness—that is, to the contexts of what came before and after a source was produced as relevant to its interpretation. Hence, they analyze changes in art market catalogues in the late 20th century in the context of the development of “modern art” much earlier in the century as well as from the point of view of the naturalization and institutionalization of the category in the years that followed.

In recent decades, both hermeneutic theory and historical practice have devoted increasing attention to the historical consciousness and the situated perspective of researchers themselves, and the constraints these place on one’s ability to reconstruct the past in a way that is not mediated by one’s own time and experience ( Gadamer, 1975 ). While such issues are less problematic in the investigation of more recent histories, such as the one presented by Khaire and Wadhwani, they come into sharper focus when researchers attempt to reconstruct meaning from sources in more temporally and contextually distant settings. In such contexts, research that attempts to “understand” sources is shaped not only by the context in which the source was created but also by subsequent developments, including the historical researcher’s own historical embeddedness in the present. In this sense, modern hermeneutic theory takes into account the notion that historical perspective on a given subject is not entirely fixed and objective, but rather inherently shaped by a researcher’s view of the past from his/her position in the present. Such temporal distance, however, has its benefits as well as its constraints in achieving understanding of a subject that more recent histories and contemporary perspectives cannot achieve. In particular, a critical awareness of how one’s position in time shapes understanding offers a way to understand and contextualize seemingly settled ideas in the present and to “deconstruct” accepted stories from the past.

The recent body of historical research on the Hawthorne Studies by organization scholars, particularly Hassard’s (2012) account, illustrates how awareness of one’s historical perspective is taken into account in the process of hermeneutic interpretation of primary sources. The Hawthorne Studies were conducted in the 1920s and quickly came to be understood as a turning point in labor-management relations by establishing scientific evidence in favor of a “human relations” perspective, which challenged and eventually overturned the principles of F. W. Taylor’s system of scientific management. Contributing to recent critical re-evaluations of the motives and impact of the Hawthorne Studies ( Gillespie, 1991 ; O’Connor, 1999 ; Bruce and Nyland, 2011 ), Hassard (2012) questions the accepted view by contextualizing the sources in two new ways: the corporate context of Western Electric, as the site of the studies, and the cultural context “through an examination of its social organization and communal experience.” Though he does not use the term, Hassard employs an essentially hermeneutic approach in explaining that his methods were focused on developing a sense of “‘prior context,’ or considering the ‘parts that immediately precede’ an event or era and which serve to ‘clarify its meaning.’”

These contexts show that the Hawthorne Studies did not represent a major shift in perspective on labor-management relations, but rather reconfirmed a shift toward welfare capitalism that firms like Western Electric had already embraced in response to the social and ethnic background of their labor force and as part of corporate strategy and reputation. “Contrary to the orthodox narrative of management and organization studies, which suggests a theoretical and practical paradigm-shift in the wake of behavioural experimentation,” Hassard explains, “the impression from this research is that Mayo and his team did not so much turn the sociological tide at Hawthorne as swim briskly with it ” (p. 1447). Hassard hence uses temporal distance from the events of study and explicit explanation of how he was contextualizing sources to both deconstruct the accepted understanding of the past as well as to critique assumptions widely held in our own time about the relationship between scientific studies and organizational practices. In this way, the deconstruction of existing historical narratives through deeper contextualization is used to examine and critique prejudgments held in the present ( Gadamer, 1975 ).

In addition to becoming increasingly aware of how historical perspective in the present shapes interpretation of the past, hermeneutic theory and, to a lesser extent, historical practice has also embraced greater awareness of language and linguistic forms in contextualizing the interpretation of sources. This has been especially true for the importance of the narrative form ( White, 1973 ; Ricoeur, 1984 ; Carr, 1986 ), as both historical writing and many sources from the past conform to elements of narrative style and structure. In this regard, an important theoretical debate addresses the question of whether historical research “imposes” narrative interpretations onto the past or whether such narratives in part reflect experiences of historical actors themselves, and hence constitute an important element embedded within primary sources themselves ( Carr, 1986 ). More broadly, this growing attention to language and linguistic forms has opened up a growing area of research at the intersection of historical and communicative theories of organization, such as rhetoric ( Suddaby et al., 2010 ) and discourse ( Phillips and Oswick, 2012 ), particularly to account for processes of organizational change.

For instance, in their study of the “birth of the Kodak moment,” Munir and Philips (2005) draw on archival sources to examine “how Kodak managed to transform photography from a highly specialized activity to one that became an integral part of everyday life.” The “typology of strategies” that the firm used to reshape the institutional field links their primary archival texts to broader discourse. They argue that these texts were “not meaningful individually” but that it is only an examination of the links “to other texts, the way in which they draw on different discourses, how and to whom they are disseminated, the methods of their production and the manner in which they are received and consumed that make them meaningful.” Their emphasis on intertextual interpretation of sources is essentially hermeneutic in that it “links texts to discourses and locates both within a particular social and historical context.”

Thus, while the hermeneutic tradition remains crucial to historical research, the ways in which it has been practiced have evolved in recent years, and hence vary depending on the researcher’s attention to issues of language, power, and perspective. From this point of view, it is more accurate to say that historical interpretation involves a range of practices, all of which emphasize attention to context and the perspective of contemporary actors.

While there have been calls for more historical research in the study of organizations and organizational fields, the results, as Leblibici (in this volume) has shown, have been mixed, especially when it comes to the publication of such research in management journals. This stands in stark contrast to other qualitative approaches such as “ethnography” or “action research,” which have been legitimized within management and organization studies. The comparatively weak position of the historical approach is, we have suggested, related to the absence of a well-articulated methodological framework—an absence not only detrimental per se, but compounded by the challenges posed by the very nature of historical sources: (i) the records tend to be incomplete, especially if covering long time periods and many actors; (ii) they are not created by the researcher to answer a particular question, but rather represent traces of the past “found” ex post; and (iii) the contexts in which they were originally produced are usually very different from our own.

As we have also shown, efforts in methods handbooks in the social sciences to address these challenges have remained rather limited and piecemeal, leaving organizational researchers interested in an historical approach with little guidance and driving them to develop their own methodologies on an ad hoc basis—with varied success. And while historians have developed an elaborate methodological apparatus since the 19th century and have continued to discuss its philosophical and epistemological underpinnings, most of their publications provide little if any explicit discussion of the challenges posed by the underlying sources and how they were dealt with.

The present chapter provides an attempt to overcome these shortcomings by suggesting a basic methodological framework of how to study organizations and organizational fields using historical sources. It does so by building on the solid foundation of the relevant reflections among historians and the previous efforts by management and organizational scholars. What we have suggested consists of three interrelated elements, which—and this bears repeating—should not be seen as discrete steps or procedures but rather as an iterative processes, where researchers move back and forth between the historical sources and the research question in developing interpretations and findings that best fit the evidence:

Source criticism , which allows the researcher to identify the ways in which any one source is incomplete and biased and hence helps the researcher judge the extent to which it should be trusted in addressing the research question.

Triangulation , which combines insights from different sources and thus complements source criticism in corroborating or identifying contradictions in the claims of any one source, hence strengthening the findings or interpretations of the researcher.

Hermeneutics , which addresses the challenges resulting from the time that has elapsed between the production of a source and the moment of its interpretation by the researcher, by requiring the latter to carefully consider the cultural, social, as well as temporal context in which a given source was produced.

Providing illustrative examples, we show that parts of the proposed methodology have already been applied successfully in the extant management research. We hope that our framework provides more systematic guidance and a methodological language for scholars examining organizations and organizational fields with the use of historical sources—be they social scientists or (business) historians. We consider the framework a starting point for discussion and further elaboration by others interested in the use of historical sources and methods in management and organizational research.

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  1. Analyzing and Interpreting Historical Sources: A Basic

    Despite the growing interest in incorporating historical research in organization studies, little attention has been devoted to how this research should be conducted. . Although there is a long-established tradition of qualitative social research (Yates, this volume), there is wide variation in what organization and management articles consider historical research (see Appendix 3.2 in ...