The Material Foundations of Continuity in Family Business: A Uses of History Study

Christina Lubinski and R. Daniel Wadhwani

Scholars have long agreed that family business survival depends to a large degree on the emotional commitment of individual members to the family, and that conflict in family firms can be attributed to a lack of “psychological ownership” (Pierce et al., 2001, 2003) To understand continuity and long-term commitment, family business scholars have focused on governance systems, information sharing mechanisms, conflict management and the continuous renewal of family and firm, a balancing act between continuity and change (Sharma & Salvato, 2013). However, the material foundations of emotional commitment have been left largely unexplored. In this paper, we examine the role of material objects, and the practices surrounding these objects, in generating commitment among individual members of a family business and in fostering common identity and a sense of continuity.

The paper draws together two distinct bodies of literature and extends them into the realm of family business research: material culture research and the uses of history. Material culture is a well-established research field. Historians as well as anthropologists, sociologists and organization studies scholars have debated approaches to “things” and their social usage for several decades. Family Business Studies, by contrast, have yet to engage in the material turn. The paper also draws on the emerging literature on the “uses of history” to examine the usage and practices surrounding objects within family businesses. Most of the literature on “uses of history” has focused on language and texts as the foundations for history within organizations (Suddaby et al, 2010; Brunninge, 2009), and the little work that has considered the role of artifacts (Schultz and Hernes, 2013) has tended to focus on their use during pivotal moments of strategy making rather than their ongoing role within the practices of an organization. We therefore seek to extend the uses of history approach to examining ongoing practices and meaning making related to key material objects within family firms.

Specifically we examine three in-depth case studies of German family firms between 1945 and 2000. The companies were investigated through archival research (corporate and regional archives), company visits and eight interviews with family members and employees. We focus particularly on three groups of objects, which we found to be relevant in our case studies: (i) family graves and objects related to burial practices, (ii) family portraits and (iii) “toys”, i.e. objects handed to children in these business families.

First, we use established frameworks from history to show how these objects act as symbolic communicators in both family and firm. Given the strong focus in the literature on domestic objects and personal possessions, including heirlooms and intergenerational gifting, our analysis profits from previous insights about the role of objects as “bundles of meaning,” both summarizing complex relationships and remaining flexible for new and changing interpretations. Graves, portraits and toys, we argue, summarize and “use” history in these organizations for specific purposes, including reinforcing community, socializing new members into the community and communicating continuity and change simultaneously.

Second, we explore the most recent engagement with the link between objects and user practices. Historical “careers of usage practices” unveil how people have become committed and uncommitted to practices in relation to things. Objects have a usage history as well as ideas of how they will be used designed into them. Future practices are thus “scripted,” but they are also subject to time- and context-sensitive adaptations, as we will show based on our sample. In some of our cases, the suggested use of objects generated conflict and resistance so that materiality will yield insights into power relationships and micropolitical processes in family and firm.

The paper contributes to research in three particular ways. First, it extends our understanding of the social mechanisms fostering “psychological ownership” to the material side of generating emotional commitment. Second, by focusing on family firms, the paper advances historical materiality studies because it links the ownership of domestic objects, a recurrent theme, to the realm of business, thus unveiling the intertwined nature of public and private spheres. Finally, tracing usage patterns and changing interpretations of objects requires an historical approach, which neither organizational studies nor family business research can provide on their own.