Abstract: Organization Theory as Theory, Business History as History

Daniel Raff


            This paper continues the BHC discussions of the past several years concerning business history methodology and how business historians should understand the tasks and terrain involved in making a home for themselves in business school faculties. In many respects the most obvious home for business history in the usual departmental structure of business schools lies with the field that calls itself Organization Theory.  Businesses are organizations in the relevant sense—a promising start.  But org theory as a community of practice is a somewhat peculiar enterprise.  Practically none of the literature, at least as it is produced today, is theory in any sense in which scientific people would use the word, the almost fetishistic valorization of theory in the writing and in the discourse notwithstanding; and the empirical methods most commonly deployed to validate what does pass for theory, though sometimes quite sophisticated both statistically and computationally, are often deployed with a shocking casualness (or worse).  Yet the culture is very thick, the scholarly community large, and the efforts to carve out teaching franchises, and so appointments lines, have been quite successful.  There are established journals and there is a normal science way of doing research.  A number of recent events have begun making the rhetoric of that last, and evocations of science in defense of it, wear thin; and the research itself, at least in the style in which it is generally written, is in any case not particularly what the students really want to hear about    Carefully developed business history, oriented in a context-sensitive way, could actually make a contribution on both of the relevant fronts—both  the research proper and the teaching in the courses would benefit greatly from an infusion of the right sort of historical materials and perspectives.  The challenge is one of presenting our strengths effectively.  This paper situates org theory amongst the social sciences more methodologically carefully than org theory people themselves usually do.  It surveys what conventional org theory research actually accomplishes and what its principle points of weakness are.  It describes the sort of business history that could address these in terms of types of subject matter, style of research and rhetoric of exposition, and to some extent specific conceptual tools that might be useful.  The sort of work I am advocating is unmistakably history, but it is not just any sort of history.   “Men make their own history,” Marx wrote about agency in the Eighteenth Brumaire, “but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”  (I might just as well have quoted the apparently apocryphal remark generally attributed to Willie Sutton.)  This paper outlines a practical and progressive program.