Organizational Culture and Business History
Organization studies are notoriously ahistorical (Kieser 1994), while business history is notoriously atheoretical (Hannah 1984). The burgeoning interest in organizational culture promised to make organization studies more historical (Nord 1985) and to provide theoretical relevance for business history (Dellheim 1986; Misa 1996). This is because it is generally acknowledged that organizational cultures are ‘historically based’, which means that they ‘cannot be divorced from their histories and they do not arise overnight’ (Trice and Beyer 1993: 6). Business historians contend that ‘business history can learn from the perspectives opened up by discussion of culture, and conversely, that sociologists of business can learn from history’ (Westall 1996: 43). Unfortunately, such worthy pronouncements do not confront the conventions that divide business history from organizational culture studies.
We set out to explore the implications of history for organizational culture studies and of culture for business history. This we do from our background in business and economic history (Rowlinson 1988; Procter 1993) and our interest in inter-disciplinary organization studies (Rowlinson and Procter 1997). Our discussion is therefore located in the wider context of the relationships between the disciplines of history, sociology, and economics, as well as the responses to post-modernism in organizational culture studies and business history. Our main purpose in highlighting the differences between the two fields is to deconstruct them as discourses. What we mean by this is that by reading texts against themselves, we try to reveal how, in spite of the claims that history is taken seriously, the discourse of organizational culture studies militates against writing well-researched historical narratives. We discuss the treatment of history in the three streams of organizational culture studies, namely: corporate culturism, organizational symbolism, and post-modernism. Then we turn to those aspects of the business history discourse that make it difficult to tackle the relativism and subjectivism associated with organizational culture studies; in particular, reliance on economic theory, professed objectivity, and complacency towards post-modernism. We maintain that a more historical approach in organizational culture studies would facilitate the deconstruction of corporate cultures, while engagement with the concept of culture might engender a much-needed critical reflex in business history.
History in Organizational Culture Studies
It is widely acknowledged that organizational culture is difficult to define (Schein 1985: x; Van Maanen 1988: 3), but following Smircich (1983), a cleavage is often discerned between researchers who treat culture as a variable, and those who see it as a root metaphor (Alvesson 1993: 13). According to Schultz (1995:11-17), culture is elaborated as a variable in the rationalist perspective of popular writers such as Peters and Waterman (1982) and Deal and Kennedy (1982), as well as in the functionalist perspective exemplified by Schein (1985). Culture is used as a metaphor in the symbolic perspective (Schultz 1995: 13-17) which draws on the work of anthropologists, especially Geertz (1993). From a functionalist point of view, the most important question is: ‘what function does culture fulfil in the organization?’ (Schultz 1995: 15), whereas the ‘fundamental question asked by symbolism is: ‘what is the meaning of the organization to its members?’ (Schultz 1995: 20).
Alvesson and Berg (1992: 4) dismiss as futile the various attempts to divide organizational culture studies into mutually exclusive camps. We follow their argument that organizational culture studies consist of three overlapping levels of analysis (1992: 200-201). At the first level ‘The organizational culture “metaphor” … captures the organization as a whole – a collective’. Second, ‘The organizational symbolism “perspective”‘ allows for an interpretation of the symbolic importance of phenomena ‘that have previously been inexplicable or unperceived’. Finally, the postmodern “discourse” of organizations’ is concerned with ‘how we go about doing research and, in particular, raises doubts about prevailing assumptions about the rationality of conducting research and using language in expressing it’. These three levels correspond with a generally accepted differentiation between corporate culturism, organizational symbolism, and post-modernism (Jeffcutt 1994; Turner 1990).
Even though we adopt a ‘critical posture’ towards post-modernism – which is why we use the hyphen (cf. Rosenau 1992: 18) – we would locate our discussion in the discourse concerning research. For each level of analysis we identify the conventions that militate against a more historical approach. We start with those studies that treat culture as a variable, even though Alvesson and Berg (1992: 200) discount them, because their emphasis on the importance of founders raises vital issues concerning historical sources, history and myth. Furthermore, it is founder-centred corporate culturism that is subject to a sustained critique at the level of organizational symbolism and post-modernism.
Founders and Corporate Culture
One explanation for the ‘corporate culture boom’ of the 1980s is that Japan’s economic success was believed to owe something to the cultural characteristics of its corporations (Alvesson 1993: 3-4; Schultz 1995: 6; Trice and Beyer 1993:29-31). In response, several American writers, especially Peters and Waterman (1982) and Deal and Kennedy (1982), perceived a need to celebrate the cultural virtues of successful American corporations. This popular version of ‘corporate culturism’ (Willmott 1993) has been heavily criticised for advocating ‘ideological manipulation and control … as an essential management strategy’ (Morgan 1997: 150).
The importance of history is clearly recognised in popular corporate culturism, even if its treatment is naive. Peters and Waterman rely on historical accounts written by prominent organization members, yet treat these as uncontested historical sources. For example, almost all their material on ‘IBM’s philosophy’ is taken from A Business and Its Beliefs, a book by Thomas Watson Jr., the founder’s son (Peters and Waterman 1982: 258-259). Deal and Kennedy also place great importance on historical sources. They set out to ‘see what had made America’s great companies not merely organizations, but successful, human institutions…
“Here we stumbled into a goldmine of evidence. Biographies, speeches, and documents from such giants of business as Thomas Watson of IBM, John Patterson (the founder of NCR), Will Durant of General Motors, William Kellogg of Kelloggs, and a host of others show a remarkable intuitive understanding of the importance of a strong culture in the affairs of their companies.”‘ (Deal and Kennedy 1982: 7-8)
As the critics of corporate culturism have pointed out, ‘what executives and managers say in words or on paper is taken as proof. There is little critical reflection on this’ (Thompson and McHugh 1990:231-232). Neither Peters and Waterman, nor Deal and Kennedy, discuss the darker side to the history of companies such as IBM or NCR (cf. Delamarter 1986) that sometimes surfaces in business history (Nelson 1974).
While Peters and Waterman recognize the importance of history, they appear to believe that it can be clearly separated from myth. They treat history as if it is given and fixed, whereas ‘stories, myths and legends’ can be constructed almost at will to ‘convey the organization’s shared values, or culture’ (1982: 75). When it comes to managing culture, they attribute far more power to myth than history: ‘History doesn’t move us as much as does a good current anecdote (or presumably, a juicy bit of gossip)’ (1982: 62). Positing a clear-cut distinction between history and myth avoids any suggestion that if a company were to find itself with ‘the wrong history and myths’ (Dumaine 1990: 56), then its history should be manufactured in the same way as its mythology or managed as part of its culture. Any such suggestion would exacerbate the fear that corporate culturism is creating ‘an Orwellian world of “corporate newspeak”‘ (Morgan 1997: 151).
Schein (1985) is recognized as one of the most influential writers on corporate culture (Alvesson 1993: 82; Schultz 1995: 20). Working within a functionalist framework, he explicitly acknowledges that ‘historical data’ is vital for the study of culture. However, he deems history to be methodologically inaccessible because of the problem of meaning. Schein’s studies of culture are largely based on interviews. The nature of the data reinforces the problem that: ‘Real history is fantastically complex, difficult to unravel, and itself culture bound … cultures simplify and reinterpret the events to fit into themes that make cultural sense’ (1985: 303).
Schein interprets the ‘historical factors’ concerning the origins of cultures through ‘group and leadership theory’ (1985: 148-150). As a result, he imposes a preordained structure on to the history of organizational cultures, namely the story of a founder. As Schultz (1995: 25) points out, rather than study the specific histories of organizations, Schein invokes psychological theories of ‘the psychodynamic makeup of leaders’ (1985: 172). He uses these to paint an idealised picture of how ‘organizations begin to create cultures through the actions of founders’ (Schein 1985: 221). This rests on an assumption that ‘culture and leadership are really two sides of the same coin’ (1985: 4). Pettigrew (1979, 1985) is noted in both organizational culture studies (Alvesson and Berg 1992: 15) and business history (Coleman 1987a: 152-153) for his use of documentary historical sources as well as interviews. However, in common with Schein, he privileges the importance of entrepreneurial founders in the creation of culture and uses documentary sources to reinforce stories derived from interviews (Pettigrew 1979).
Organizational Symbolism and Founder-centred Corporate Culturism
Organizational symbolism is informed by a ‘wide range of theoretical traditions’ including ‘anthropology, semiotics, literary criticism [and] communication studies’ (Schultz 1995: 75). Organizational symbolists readily accepted that ‘there is no consensus … about what organizational culture is’ or what the study of organizational culture ‘can reasonably expect to accomplish’ (Ott 1989: 100), but they are keen to distance themselves from popular corporate culturism (Alvesson and Berg 1992: 33; Schultz 1995: 75). Organizational symbolists portray themselves as ‘academics’ rather than ‘practitioners’ (Barley et al. 1988), as cultural ‘purists’ as opposed to ‘pragmatists’ (Martin 1985), and as ‘honest grapplers’, rather than ‘pop culture magicians’ (Ott 1984, quoted by Turner 1990: 94; and Jeffcutt 1994: 255) or ‘merchants of meaning’ (Czarniawski-Joerges 1988, quoted by Alvesson and Berg 1992: 24). Organizational symbolism is associated with the view of social theorists (Geertz 1993; Giddens 1986) that if we are to understand social reality we need to be less concerned with prediction and more with the meanings and interpretations of actors who help to constitute social phenomena such as organizations. Organizational symbolists are adamant that culture is not the key to predicting the success of organizations (Trice and Beyer 1993: 21).
Organizational symbolists have been particularly critical of the assumption that organizations possess a unitary ‘corporate’ culture that can be manipulated by management (Louis 1985; Trice and Beyer 1993: 13). Instead, organizations can be seen as containers for sub-cultures (Hatch 1997: 226), although a more historical view would highlight the extent to which subcultures reflect cross-cutting national, regional, factory, occupational, industrial, and other cultures that can be far more extensive and enduring than corporate cultures (Alvesson 1993: 78-79; Sorge 1982/3: 108). A manifestation of the unitary view of culture in relation to history is the ‘tendency to see the organizational culture as a reflection of the founder’s beliefs and values – “the founder writ large” – which often appears simplistic and misleading’ (Alvesson and Berg 1992: 61; Alvesson 1993: 81-87). Martin et al. are scathing about the ‘seductive promise’ offered to entrepreneurs, namely that a founder can create a culture, cast in the founder’s own image and reflecting the founder’s own values, priorities, and vision of the future. Thus, a founder’s own perspective can be transformed into a shared legacy that will survive death or departure from the institution – a personal form of organizational immortality (Martin et al. 1985: 99).
‘Founder-centred research’ (Alvesson 1993: 81) can be criticised for offering variations on a theme, ‘descriptively portraying founders as the prime movers behind historical events or prescriptively urging leaders to articulate a vision and create a culture’ (Martin et al. 1985: 100). The assumption that founders have a strong influence on organizational cultures is explained by Martin et al. in terms of two social cognition biases: salience, which ’causes leaders to figure prominently in people’s memories of events’; and attribution, which ‘suggests that people may have only minimal awareness of the situational determinants of a leader’s behavior’ (1985: 99-101). However, the invocation of generalized social psychological theories to explain the prevalence of stories that privilege founders obviates the need for research into the history of a specific organization to show how a particular individual has come to be privileged in its history. As with Schein’s (1985) use of social psychological theories of leadership, with Martin et al. (1985), the case study becomes a mere illustration of the general phenomena of salience and attribution.
Organizational Symbolism and Interpretive History
The turn to organizational symbolism was associated with increasing disillusionment with quantitative methods in organization studies, which encouraged researchers to separate themselves from the phenomena that made up organizational life and spend limited time – if any – in organizations to collect their data (Trice and Beyer 1993: 31-32; Alvesson and Berg 1992: 22).
Following Geertz (1993), organizational symbolists advocate ‘thick’ descriptions of organizations, involving in-depth qualitative case studies, as opposed to ‘thin’ descriptions based on a few interviews with managers (Alvesson and Berg 1992: 200; Alvesson 1993:119). It is argued that in-depth case studies can ‘seldom be replicated’ (Ott 1989: 105). This is because ethnographic research is the product of a relationship between the researcher, the research community, and the actors in the organization being studied, and the role of the researcher ‘in such a relationship, cannot be a passive one’ (Turner 1988:114). Organizational symbolists maintain that ‘detached objectivity in organizational research is largely a myth’ (Ott 1989: 101), and that a genuine ‘social science perspective is an interpretive framework that is subjectively imposed on the process of collecting and analyzing cultural data’ (Martin 1992: 12, emphasis in original). The recognition that ‘the person’ of the researcher is ‘part of the interpretive process’ (Schultz 1995: 95) results in a subjective style of writing whereby the author is necessarily present in some sense (cf. White 1987: 3). Ultimately, this can lead to autobiography rather than ethnography, where the interest is in capturing the author’s unique experience of a culture, rather than a reliable description of it.
An interpretive approach to history makes objectivity problematic by recognizing that historical research entails ‘a piecing together of contextual “facts” selected by the historian to present a narrative idea or argument’ (Barrett and Srivasta 1991: 244). However, the interpretivism of organizational symbolism results in a position of such extreme subjectivism and relativism that historical research is almost ruled out:
‘Events in an organization’s history are raw material that members of a culture can mould into a form that both reflects and reconstitutes the culture itself. Underlying this view is the recognition that both cultures and organizational histories are socially constructed. Far from being objective descriptions, accounts of key events in an organization’s history reflect differential attention, selective perception, and incomplete recall. As organizational members arrive at mutually acceptable interpretations of events, distortions and omissions multiply. By the time accounts have ossified in the form of organizational stories, legends and sagas, a new reality has been socially constructed.’ (Martin et al. 1985: 103)
In effect, this denies the possibility of studying the history of an organization in order to find the sources of its culture, since the sources are continually redefined in retrospect by actors’ reconstructions.
In the methodological manifestos for organizational symbolism, archival searches are listed as ‘fundamental data-gathering tools’ for researching culture (Ott 1989: 99-127; Schultz 1995: 19). However, ethnographers are likely to excuse their neglect of historical research on the grounds that ethnography is so time-consuming that they do not have time for archival research. Ethnographers place great importance on the amount of time they spend in the field (Van Maanen 1988; Geertz 1988), which is where they hone their hard won ‘craft skills’ (Turner 1988: 121). However, the preference in organizational culture studies for using interviews (e.g. Martin 1992: 23) or observation (Van Maanen 1988) as opposed to archival research requires explanation.
After acknowledging the possible uses of organizational archives, Ott warns that ‘official organizational publications such as brochures, annual reports, and press releases … typically only reflect what a team of executives and public relations people want to convey publicly’ (1989: 109-110). This reveals a misconception about the nature of company archives, which often consist of an unruly collection of documents that has barely been catalogued, let alone carefully edited for public relations purposes.
Van Maanen believes that ethnographers ‘face the problem that their texts … taken from the field must first be constructed’, whereas the texts used by historians, like those of literary critics, come ‘prepackaged’ (1988: 76). Faced with the introduction of literary theory into their discipline, though, historians make the point that their sources are not the same as literary texts (Evans 1997:110), since historical texts have to be constructed before they can be deconstructed (Spiegel 1997: 196). Business archives, in the broadest sense, are anything but prepackaged. One of the most difficult tasks in historical research is locating and delimiting the sources to be used. Besides which, interview transcripts, field notes and historical documents can, arguably, be analyzed using similar techniques (Silverman 1993).
Organizational symbolism appears to have fallen into the ‘folkloristic trap’ (Alvesson and Berg 1992: 62). Having borrowed the concept of culture from anthropology (Smircich 1983: 339; Trice and Beyer 1993: 4), where it was applied to ‘small and closed societies’ (Alvesson and Berg 1992: 62), organizational symbolists seem to feel that modern business organizations ought to be researched, as though they are illiterate tribes which possess only myths and sagas conveyed by word of mouth. It almost seems that organizational culture is defined as that which is unwritten, or that writing is subordinated to speech by organizational symbolists in the same way as argued by Derrida (1976) in the work of Levi-Strauss.
Instead of carrying out archival research, organizational symbolists focus on contemporary ‘verbal symbols’ of culture: myths, sagas, stories and legends (Schultz 1995: 82-88; Ott 1989:112). These are representations of a history that cannot be known (Berg 1985: 288). The history of an organizational culture is seen as consisting of ‘historical residues’ that can be uncovered by a ‘thorough examination of a culture’ in the present (Trice and Beyer 1993: 6). This is supported by the ‘strong belief’ among ethnographers
‘that it is possible to analyze groups from an ahistorical perspective. The history that counts is, according to this view, embedded in the daily practices and symbolic life of the group studied and hence will be taken into account naturally.’ (Van Maanen 1988: 72)
Organizational symbolists have much in common with those sociologists who start from the position that problems of meaning and understanding in history are best overcome by ‘indepth, qualitative interviewing’. This view restricts research to the relatively recent past because ‘dead people tell no tales’ (Kendrick et al. 1990: 3). An alternative position is to distinguish remembered history from the history of the historians. Remembered history lives in the present through memory, which is ‘the after-life of history’. Unless a distinction is made between them, the history of historians can become subsumed by memory. As Winterson puts :it, in a novel that is very much concerned with history and memory, ‘everyone remembers things that never happened. And it is common knowledge, that people often forget things which did. Either we are all fantasists and liars or the past has nothing definite in it’ (1990: 92).
The prevailing view in organizational symbolism appears to be that if ‘the real is as imagined as the imaginary’ (Geertz 1980: 136) then, at any point in time, the ‘real’ history of an organization is what its members imagine it to be.
A number of studies (e.g. Martin et al. 1983) have emphasized the importance of ‘the living history of a company’ (Alvesson and Berg 1992: 15). Schultz (1995), along with Alvesson and Berg (1992), goes to some lengths to distinguish sagas from myths. Sagas constitute the ‘living (or narrated) history’ of a company (Alvesson and Berg 1992: 81-82) and ‘refer to actual events in the organization’s history’ (Schultz 1995: 88). In contrast, myth consists of ‘fundamental but erroneous, or at any rate dubious and untested assumptions about the character of reality’, and does not ‘necessarily have any links with the “real” history of the company’ (Alvesson and Berg 1992: 81-82). While sagas and myths appear to us to be empty categories, the attempt to make a distinction between them suggests confusion in organizational culture studies about the nature of history.
Up until now, we have used the term ‘history’ ambiguously. Philosophers of history have recognized this ambiguity ever since Hegel wrote that: ‘the term History unites the objective with the subjective side … it comprehends not less what has happened, than the narration of what has happened. (quoted in White 1987: 12; cf. Callinicos 1995: 2)
Contemporary philosophers of history recognize that ‘historians seek to reconstruct the past by studying its traces’ (Callinicos 1995: 65). This usually involves a ‘sleight of hand’ to hide ‘the fact that all history is the study, not of past events that are gone forever from perception, but rather of the “traces” of those events distilled into documents and monuments, on the one side, and the praxis of present social formations on the other. These “traces” are the raw materials of the historian’s discourse, rather than the events themselves’ (White 1987: 102).
The narrated history of an organization can only be referred to by way of textual artefacts. Organization members may well refer to events that are not supported by such textual traces, be they minutes of meetings or published company histories, but this does not mean to say that organization members refer to events which are mythical, in terms of being imaginary or magical, as opposed to real, in the sense that they could or did happen. Besides which, we contend that almost all the stories of founders and the like are interpretations of events that are well supported by an abundance of documentary traces.
Verification, Verisimilitude and Narrative in Organizational Symbolism
Case studies of organizational culture often neglect history in order to disguise the identity of organizations (e.g. Martin 1992; Watson 1994). Revealing the unique narrative history of an organization would jeopardize the anonymity that is frequently promised to informants (Schultz 1995: 19). It would also undermine the tendency to generalize from ethnographies. An anonymous actor can be presented as typical and ‘timeless’ rather than ‘a character of some particular historically situated organizational and occupational world existing at the time of the study’ (Van Maanen 1988: 65). For example, Watson uses a pseudonym, ‘ZTC Ryland’, for a case study of an organization which he presents as ‘a fairly mainstream British company with many of the problems generally besetting manufacturing companies in Britain’ (1994: 4). Anonymity means that an ethnographer is not answerable to organization members, if only because he or she would ‘hate any of them to read what I had written’ (Roy, quoted in Beynon 1988: 29).
Anonymity adds to the problem of ‘verification’ in ethnography, which Geertz identifies. Geertz acknowledges that there is a sense in which ethnography is fiction (1993: 15). However, instead of facilitating verification through copious footnotes referring to traceable sources, as is required of historians (Evans 1997:127), the conventions of ethnography call for verisimilitude, ‘the look of truth’, and many ethnographers are convinced that the best way to achieve this is to demonstrate their own immersion in a culture (Geertz 1988: 3). As Hatch puts it, ‘no amount of talk about culture will substitute for the direct experience of studying a culture’ (1997: 236). The emphasis on the unrepeatable experience of the ethnographer, combined with the conventions of verisimilitude and anonymity, all work against the construction of verifiable narratives for historically specific, named organizations.
Organizational symbolists seem to view narrative with suspicion. They share the ‘impositionalist’ objection to history, which claims ‘that recounting the past in the form of a story inevitably imposes a false narrative structure upon it’ (Norman 1991: 122). For organizational symbolists, narrative is associated with founder-centred corporate culturism (Alvesson and Berg 1992: 49). In their scepticism towards narrative, organizational symbolists can be likened to those social historians who eschew narrative. The most celebrated example of an ethnographic approach to social history must be Le Roy Ladurie’s (1980) structural analysis of everyday life in a mediaeval village.
Post-Modernism and History in Organizational Culture Studies
The reluctance of organizational symbolists to research and write verifiable historical narratives is reinforced by the influence of post-modernism. For the most part, in organization studies, it has been theorists with a background in organizational symbolism who have been ‘inspired by postmodernism’ (Alvesson and Berg 1992: 216-217). In common with organizational symbolism, post-modernism is associated with the introduction into organizational culture studies of disciplines such as linguistics, psychoanalysis, anthropology, literary criticism, and history (Turner 1990: 87). As with the concept of culture, post-modernism is difficult to define (Gephart et al. 1996: 1), and critics complain about the lack of definition. It is probably best thought of as an umbrella term for various discussions concerning ‘language, culture, the subject, rationality, and writing’ (Alvesson 1995: 1048). These discussions constitute a ‘textual turn’ in organization studies that is particularly pertinent to ethnographic studies of organizational culture (Alvesson 1995: 1067). Ethnographers are increasingly concerned with the craft of writing about culture as much as the craft of researching it (Van Maanen 1988), although there is a fear that endless reflection on what makes an ethnography look like an ethnography will distract ethnographers from carrying out fieldwork (Geertz 1988). While post-modernism ‘runs the risk of being accused of wanting to turn all social science into literary criticism’ (Alvesson 1995: 1067), we would caution against using this as an excuse to avoid critical reflection.
The more ‘skeptical’ (Rosenau 1992: 15)or ‘hard’ (Alvesson and Berg 1992: 225) versions of post-modernism associated with gurus such as Lyotard (1984), and especially Baudrillard (1992), would appear to spell the end of organizational culture studies, just as they herald the end of history (Rosenau 1992). If it is pointless looking for patterns and meaning in history, then it must be equally futile to interpret the world in terms of organizations, cultures and symbols (Alvesson and Berg 1992: 225).
It is the ‘softer’ (Alvesson and Berg 1992: 225), or ‘affirmative’ (Rosenau 1992) forms of post-modernism, and especially Foucault’s (Burrell 1988), that have been taken up in organizational culture studies and history alike (Rosenau 1992: 162). Foucault’s (1972) influence underlines the realization that concepts such as ‘organization’ and ‘culture’ refer not to objects but to linguistic constructs. Attention to discourse suggests that even if researchers who are interested in ‘culture’ do not appear to ‘have very much in common’ (Alvesson 1993: 2), organizational culture studies can still be considered as part of the same ‘discursive formation’. As Jeffcutt argues, ‘the apparently contradictory positions’ of corporate culture and organizational symbolism share ‘the “classic norms” of interpretation’ which place ‘the social scientific author in a privileged and pivotal position in the production of knowledge’ (1994: 252-255). The analysis of discourse inspired by Foucault is often combined with a notion of deconstruction derived from Derrida (1976), but the word ‘deconstruction’ has been so widely used, and probably abused, that we prefer to let authors give their own interpretation of it.
Many historians feel that Foucault was more of a philosopher than a historian (Evans 1997: 82; cf. Foucault 1972: 205-206), or even that he was ‘anti-historical’ (Munslow 1997:120). Foucault acknowledges that his own version of ‘archaeological history’ could be seen as ‘a betrayal’ or ‘negation of history’ (1972: 190, 138, 173). His writing consists of a flood of utterances which avoid narrative and his authority rests on a highly self-conscious style rather than ‘factual evidence or rigor of argument’ (White 1987: 105-106). It is this deliberately obscure style that finds favour in organizational culture studies and which exasperates those of us schooled in Anglo-Saxon empiricism. Even so, unlike the more sceptical post-modernists, Foucault accepts ‘the need to study the evidence in the archive’ (Munslow 1997: 126), and he carried out serious archival research for many of his major works. His last two books (1986, 1988) have even been described as ‘straight’ history (White 1987: 140), although few of Foucault’s acolytes in organizational culture studies have followed him into ‘the archive’ (Foucault 1972:126-131). The only exception we have found is Boje’s (1995) account of Walt Disney.
Historical Deconstruction in Organizational Culture Studies
Disney is a favourite for discourse analysis (Smoodin 1994) since, unlike most industrial enterprises, it can be characterized as a ‘storytelling organization’ (Boje 1995). Boje claims to deconstruct the storics told about Walt Disney by Walt Disney Enterprises:
‘To deconstruct is to actually analyze the relations between the dualities in stories … to show the ambiguity embedded in them and to show the storytelling practices used to discipline particular meanings. Only collecting the happy side of Disney organization stories, as do the official biographies, and only telling the dark side of Disney stories are both rather one-sided ways to analyze Disney story-telling. My approach was to look at multiple variations of the Disney stories to show how each version covered up a great deal of ambiguity.’ (Boje 1995: 1007)
Boje contrasts the ‘official Disney stories’, which ‘privilege Walt as the sole founder’, with the unofficial accounts, which emphasize the contribution of the other two founding partners, Roy Disney and Ub Iwerks, who also devoted most of their lives to building the ‘Magic Kingdom’ (1995: 1011).
Boje’s writing on Disney is certainly historical, but it reads very differently to conventional history. For one thing, there is a long theoretical introduction and conclusion, replete with references to post-modem philosophers, as well as an explicit dramaturgical ‘metaphor of the storytelling organization’ (1995: 998). Although Boje is at pains to convince the reader that he immersed himself in archival material, he does not do so by detailing his sources in extensive footnotes, as is expected of historians.(1) This is partly because the archive he consulted consists of ‘Disney’s ample supply of audio and video tapes’ (1995: 1005) rather than company reports and publications. This suggests a preference for the spoken word over the written word, a characteristic of organizational symbolism, albeit that the speech is on pre-recorded cassettes. Boje converted this material into a text in much the same way as ethnographers compile interview transcripts and fieldnotes. He claims to eschew what he sees as a ‘very narrow empirical approach’ in order to deconstruct the ‘texts of Disney history assembled by other authors’ (1995: 1006). In other words, he counterposes his own experience of watching hours of video or listening to audio cassettes to the narratives found in written histories of Disney. Boje demonstrates that an historical deconstruction of corporate culture can be written in accordance with the conventions of organizational symbolism and post-modernism in organizational culture studies, but this militates against meeting the requirements for a verifiable historical narrative.
Organizational Culture in Business History
Business historians increasingly seem to believe that ‘greater attention to culture can help the practice of business history’ (Lipartito 1995: 5; Godley and Westall 1996). Business history has been defined as ‘the systematic study of individual firms on the basis of their business records’ (Tosh 1991: 95), but business historians have complained about the lack of an appropriate theory that requires or justifies their historical research (Coleman 1987a: 151). They have usually expected to find useful theoretical constructs in either organizational sociology, or more commonly, economics (Galambos 1977: 32; Diehl-Taylor 1997), but in their search for theoretical relevance, business historians are increasingly prepared to look further afield for inspiration (Scranton and Horowitz 1997). Culture appears attractive to business historians, but the conventions of business history make it difficult for them to embrace the concept from organizational culture studies. To understand this, we need first to examine the relationship between business historians and economic theory before proceeding to explore the implications of post-modernism and deconstruction for business history. Since business is seen as an economic phenomenon, business historians are expected to draw from economic theory, and economists are anxious to supply a model of culture.
Business History and Economic Models of Culture
The relationship between business history and economic theory has been fraught (Chandler 1988a, 1988b; Hyde 1977). As an academic pursuit, business history developed as a branch of economic history (Wilson 1995: 1; Tosh 1991: 95) and economic historians (e.g. Coleman 1969; Wilson 1954) have written many of the classic company histories. However, as business historians know only too well, the neoclassical theory of the firm is ‘not a theory of the firm at all’ (Hannah 1984: 223; Coleman 1987a: 151). It treats the firm as a ‘black box’ (Sawyer 1979: 9; Penrose 1959: 13), and extreme evolutionary versions of market selection (e.g. Alchian 1950) make case studies of purposive behaviour in individual firms redundant (Hannah 1976: 6, 1984: 220).
Some economic historians, such as North, have abandoned the view that efficiency always prevails and admitted the importance of ‘path dependence’, which ‘means that history matters’ and the past does not neatly predict the present (1990: 98-100). This serves to bring economics into line with most of the rest of social theory, where it is recognized that human society has time and space dimensions (Giddens 1986). Lipartito, a business historian, equates path dependence with culture. He maintains that, ‘introducing history, is already a half-step toward a more cultural model’ (1995: 8, 17). It is clearly an advance on economic theories that explain business organization ‘not by history but by logic’ (Williamson 1985: 324). Path dependence explicitly allows for the importance of culture and ideology, but North (1990: 12-13, 37, 111) retains game theory as a ‘foil’ to determine whether actors’ subjective models were effective in improving economic performance. Economists are increasingly prepared to invoke a concept of culture derived from game theory as a residual variable to explain differences in economic performance between firms and nations that are otherwise similarly endowed.
As business historians, Godley and Westall (1996: 5) have welcomed the game-theoretic model of corporate culture advanced by Casson (1996), so it is worth considering the implications for business history of Casson’s imperialistic proclamation that economists can ‘supply a unifying framework of analysis for social science as a whole’ in relation to ‘the cultural determinants of economic performance’ (1996: 49). Casson declares his purpose to be ‘in the best traditions of economics … to abstract from detail, to discard the peripheral, and to provide a simple account of the essential elements’ (1996: 49; cf. Friedman 1953). This implies that if narrative case histories are to be written at all, then they should illustrate the story lines derived from economists’ models. The narrative would have to correspond to the prisoner’s dilemma or some other permutation of game theory expressed in the form of a story for the benefit of the less technically gifted historians. In spite of economists’ protests to the contrary, the business historians’ role in this relationship would be a subordinate one. They would become the economists”research assistants’ (Lamoreaux et al. 1997: 77), occasionally being allowed to suggest new variables that economists had overlooked (Temin 1997: 283; Hyde 1977: 19). Historians would be required to learn the rudiments of game theory, but the economists would see themselves as the real ‘scientists’ in the relationship and would not expect to trouble themselves with ‘mere description’ (cf. Gould 1991: 97). Business historians have been warned before against selling out to this type of theory:
‘There has long been a notion prevalent in academic circles that a theoretical hypothesis, however shaky its bases, is somehow superior in intellectual quality to a historical finding, however broad and well supported by evidence; and the deduction has followed that historians should study theory, but theorists may be excused from immersing themselves in facts.’ (Cole 1959: xi, quoted by Galambos 1977: 41)
Business historians have expressed the hope that economic theory might allow them to ‘escape from the dullness of mere description’ and make their ‘studies lively and worth-while’ (Hyde 1977: 24). However, in order to make business history more amenable to economic analysis, business historians would be expected to address ‘a consistent set of questions’ and to avoid any temptation to let ‘their varied source material’ shape their narratives (Coleman 1987a: 149). Stylized business history written in accord with the dictates of economic theory would probably have even fewer readers than it has already, and the economic imperialists could celebrate the final demise of narrative histories of the business enterprise (McCloskey 1990: 53). We maintain that the economists’ concept of culture is as antithetical to narrative business history as it is to organizational culture studies that are concerned with the richness of language and meaning. It would be ironic if business historians were to be seduced by formal economic theory just as some economists are recognizing ‘the limits of formalization when language is involved’ and the value of literary criticism for understanding their own ‘culture-bound conversation’ (McCloskey 1994: 81, 101-102).
Objectivity and Narrative in Business History
As with organizational culture studies (Ott 1989), the foundations for business history are in-depth case studies (Chandler 1984) that can take years to complete. There are no logical stopping points to data collection (Turner 1988:110) for either type of research, and researchers often develop long-term relationships with a particular work group, organization, industry, or archive, which they return to again and again (e.g. Martin 1992; Church 1979, 1996). However, while qualitative case studies are seen as the most appropriate methodology for organizational culture studies (Ott 1989), business historians find it difficult to provide any theoretical justification for writing narrative company histories. Coleman contends that they face a dilemma:
‘Business history, by definition, must use the records of business companies. The only way that business historians can normally get access to those records, however, is to be commissioned to write company histories.’
Once a business historian has been commissioned to write a company history,
‘The fact remains that however scholarly, accurate, fair, objective and serious that company history is, its content is necessarily shaped by the need for the author to give his client something approaching what he wants. And what he normally wants is a narrative history of Snooks & Co., warts and all maybe, but still recognisably Snooks, not a comparison of Snooks with other companies, and not an analysis of how Snooks’ business behaviour supports or refutes the theories of X, Y, or Z.’ (Coleman 1987a: 142; Hyde 1977: 15)
Coleman (1987b: 140) seems to blame corporate sponsorship for the sad fate of most multi-volume commissioned company histories which ‘sit in their well-bound splendour on the shelves of university libraries, untouched by historians, ignored by economists, unnoticed by the general reading public. Even many business historians appear normally to use the books of their colleagues only for reference’ (Galambos 1977: 29). However, if business historians with an economic orientation see narrative company history as ‘mere compilation’ (Coleman 1987a: 149), then it is hardly surprising that the historical narratives they write remain unread. The problem with business history being written by economic historians is not so much that their narratives are constrained by corporate sponsorship, but that they can see no reason for writing narratives other than being commissioned to do so.
A few researchers in organization studies have followed Chandler’s (1962: 380) advice that only case studies based on the ‘internal business documents and letters’ of companies can reveal the process of organizational innovation. They have managed to secure access to company records in order to carry out a series of company case studies (e.g. Smith et al. 1990; Whipp and Clark 1986) without corporate sponsorship. Whipp and Clark’s (1986) study of innovations in work organization at Rover combines anonymity for interviewees with liberal citation from company documents, including the directors’ minutes, in order to construct a detailed narrative of the company’s recent history which is far from uncritical. This indicates that the ‘problem of access to private business records’ (Coleman 1987a: 149) can be overcome if there is a theoretical reason for doing so.
If economic historians are indifferent about writing narrative history, then it is a puzzle as to why they have so often been commissioned to write company histories. Notwithstanding the argument that ‘corporate sponsorship usually means the loss of a critical stance’, business historians remain convinced that ‘good history is good business’ (Ryant 1988: 563). They claim that history can help managers by ‘getting things, events, and facts into shared memory’ (Tedlow 1986: 82); ‘histories can also encourage investor interest and, not insignificantly, spark employee pride’ (Campion 1987); and ‘some delighted companies find their corporate culture reinforced by the historical record’ (Hannah 1986). However, business historians have been keen to distance themselves from the ‘old-style’ company histories which were ‘long on self-laudation but short on objectivity’ (Campion 1987: 32). These are dismissed as an embarrassing legacy from the time when ‘the writing of company histories was seen as a form of inferior journalistic hackwork’ (Coleman 1987a: 145).
Business historians (Coleman 1987b: 141) are well aware of the Marxist view that ‘the rich and powerful have encouraged hagiography, not critical investigation’ (Beynon 1988: 23), and crude attempts to make history ‘useful’ to companies (Smith and Steadman 1981: 173) have been derided by organizational symbolists (Alvesson and Berg 1992: 99). As a result, companies commissioning an official history have been advised that ‘book reviewers and the general reader are inherently sceptical about the objectivity and balance in “management-sanctioned” corporate histories; if yours does not even strive for that objectivity, it will be a failure’ (Campion 1987: 31; Hannah 1986). The cultural requirements of companies commissioning a history are probably well served by historians who profess a self-effacing objectivity, as many economic historians do. If a company history were perceived to be subjective or ideological as a result of it being commissioned, then it would fail to fulfil a company’s aspirations for an objective, definitive history (Schiller 1989: 7).
Even if they avoid ‘the fallacy of total objectivity in history’, most business historians probably see themselves, like Coleman, as ‘neutralists’, in the sense that they try to avoid making overt moral judgements about the past (1987b: 64, 145). Their declared stance is usually something like ‘critical empiricism’ (Jeremy 1990: 5), but the professed objectivity of business historians cuts them off from considering the problems of meaning and subjectivity that are raised by organizational culture studies. Objectivity obscures the relationship between the historian and an organization. Business historians might concede that they would not write narrative company histories were it not for being commissioned to do so, but they rarely reflect on how the commissioning relationship affects the actual narratives they produce.
From an analytical perspective, the ‘warts and all’ approach to business history (Coleman 1969: viii) can be criticized on the grounds that ‘the implication that failures are reported as well as successes’ requires an objective benchmark for defining success and failure (Tucker 1977: 45). An interpretive approach to business history would require reflection on the subjective meanings of success and failure for both historical actors and the historian. The concept of culture implies an interpretive approach to business history that should move it away from deterministic explanations of corporate success and failure towards an emphasis on the meanings and interpretations of actors that help to constitute organizations over time.
Culture provides a theme for company histories, but the commissioning relationship works against an interpretive approach and reinforces the tendency to endorse the stories surrounding founders in the same way as does corporate culturism. For example, Broehl (1992) makes corporate values the central thread in his history of Cargill, the largest privately held company in the United States. Broehl maintains that ‘the Company’s dominant values were shaped and expressed over its first hundred years by Cargill’s family presidents’ (1992: 845). Cheape (1985) was one of the first business historians to invoke the concept of culture in his history of Norton, the American grinding wheel manufacturing company. In contrast to Broehl, he explains how Norton’s ‘heritage was not due to personality, but to deeply held values institutionalized in its structure and strategy and perpetuated in the selection and training of its top people’ (ibid.: 358-359). Cheape subordinates personality and culture to structures and institutions, whereas Broehl emphasizes the role of salient individual actors as creators of culture, but both reinforce a view of corporate culture as unitary and historically continuous.
Business History and Post-Modernism
Business historians have been slow to respond to the ‘postmodern challenge’, and when they have responded to it, they have assumed that it can be easily accommodated (Lipartito 1995: 7; Godley and Westall 1996: 3). This is complacent, given that the ‘relativism and scepticism’ associated with post-modernism has caused such controversy in social history (Joyce 1997: 342), just as it has in organizational culture studies. The ‘linguistic turn’ in social history paralleled the rise of organizational symbolism. Both were influenced by anthropologists, such as Geertz (1993), and both raised many of the issues that have come to be associated with post-modernism. These issues have induced a ‘sense of crisis’ in history as a discipline, even though there is ‘widespread complacency among practising historians’ (Evans 1997: 4), including most business historians.
To some extent, the complacency in business history results :from its premodern character (cf. Boje 1995). With the exception of the neo-institutionalists (e.g. Chandler 1977), business historians have generally eschewed the metanarratives that characterize modernism (cf. Hannah 1984: 219). However, neither the advocates (Munslow 1997: 107-108) nor the more sophisticated critics (Evans 1997: 171) of post-modernism in history see it as a call for a return from the general to the particular in the form of premodern, disengaged, self-contained, narrative history. Like many other historians (Jenkins 1991: 75), business historians have been cut off from wider debates in the social sciences by their ideological distaste for theory. One of their own leading lights has castigated business historians for being ‘”inveterate empiricists”, obsessed with setting the record straight, telling the story as it really was’ (Hannah 1984: 219).
Two of the major influences on post-modernism in history have been White and Foucault (Munslow 1997). White is associated with the stream in postmodernism that ‘is informed by a programmatic, if ironic, commitment to the return to narrative as one of its enabling presuppositions’ (1987: xi). Post-modernism has shifted the emphasis away from seeing archival research as the historian’s craft towards a view that it is the conventions and customs of writing that constitute the craft of history (White 1995: 243). Parallel to organizational culture studies, there is a fear that postmodernism will turn history into endless interpretation of interpretation, or ‘a discourse of discourses’ (Foucault 1972: 205) at the expense of original research (Evans 1997: 98). Nevertheless, even critics accept that the post-modernists’ attention to history as a form of literature has reinstated ‘good writing as legitimate historical practice’ (Evans 1997: 244). Schama, author of one of the most outstanding self-conscious historical narratives (1989), certainly accepts White’s (1995: 240) suggestion ‘that there might be a “fictional” element in the historian’s text, however much he or she has tried to avoid it’. White, on the other hand, has incurred the wrath of self-proclaimed ‘professional’ historians, such as Marwick (1995), who sees postmodernism as a ‘menace to serious historical study’ (White 1995: 233). Marwick argues that the postmodernists do not understand what historians actually do, which is to systematically analyze the primary sources, because they only ever join historians ‘at the writing up stage’ (1995: 12, 19). Many business historians might be expected to line up against post-modernism with the likes of Marwick, who reckons that the practise of history is about ‘not getting it wrong’ (1995: 9).
It would be a truism to describe most business history as ‘bourgeois ideology’ (cf. Jenkins 1997: 14). The more telling criticism is that it is not self consciously bourgeois, or anything else. As a result, it is difficult to see how business history can be reconciled with the post-modernists’ argument that writing history is inevitably ideological (Munslow 1997: 12). Business historians have consistently tried to distance themselves from ‘two sorts of propaganda’ (Wilson 1954: v; Chandler 1988a: 296). They see ‘self serving celebrations or sensational exposes’ as merely ‘two sides of the same worn coin’ (Smith and Steadman 1981: 164). Post-modernists, though, are particularly sceptical towards historians who claim that by taking a nonideological, ‘balanced’ perspective they are able to weigh up the arguments from opposing extremes (Jenkins 1991: 35-36).
Dellheim (1986: 10) was one of the first business historians to recognize that ‘the concept of corporate culture has important implications for the historian’, and that studying culture confronts academic historians with ethical issues that they are not used to dealing with. In particular ‘there is the political concern that a historical approach to culture is bound to support the status quo’ (1986: 16). Postmodernists have called for historians to become more ‘reflexive’ in dealing with such issues, that is, to develop their own self-consciously held position on history and to be in control of their own discourse (Jenkins 1991). If business historians, were to become more reflexive, though, they might risk being perceived by companies as subjective or ideological, which could make commissions and access more difficult to negotiate. They would have to abandon the claims to objectivity that have allowed them to construct what post-modernists would call totalizing narratives which ‘gloss over differences in other accounts’ (Boje 1995: 1022-1024), and displace all other partial views of the past (Jenkins 1991: 1, 17).
Business History and the Deconstruction of Corporate Culture
In contrast to White, Foucault was condescending towards narrative history (1972: 144). Foucault is more closely identified with ‘deconstructionist history’ (Munslow 1997). Historians have interpreted deconstruction to mean reading texts ‘against the grain’ (Evans 1997: 143) through a process of ‘peeling-back’ so as to seek out ‘that which is repressed in the text (primary or secondary) – not only what is hidden from the naive reader, but also what is hidden from the intentions of author(s)’ (Munslow 1997: 102). Deconstruction is far removed from history as ‘one damned thing after another’, since it is accepted that sources can only be read ‘against the grain’ by using theory generated in the present (Evans 1997: 30, 83).
The object of most business history is still to ‘fill in the gaps’ in knowledge (cf. Evans 1997: 21) by producing a history of, say, Snooks& Co., if a history of the company has not been written before, or if it was written a long time ago by a journalistic hack. There is little in the way of reflection on how or why such narratives take a particular form, even though there are obvious similarities between them. For example, the canon of British business history (Coleman 1987a: 143; 1987b: 139) consists of the sort of ‘multi-volume and “authoritative” synoptic history’ that some historians would see as ‘out of date’ now that deconstruction has put an end to ‘definitive history’ (Evans 1997: 175). Foucault’s aphorism, ‘history is that which transforms documents into monuments’ (1972: 7), applies to all-too-many of the monumental company histories. There are detailed critical histories that seek to undermine the popular mythology of corporations, such as Delamarter’s history of IBM (1986). These are a welcome antidote to uncritical corporate culturism, but debunking an organization’s myths (cf. McCraw 1986: 86) is not the same as deconstructing the narratives of business historians.
One way to read company histories against the grain is suggested by social historians’ research on national cultures. It turns out that many apparently ancient national ‘traditions’, such as the ceremonies of the British monarchy, ‘are often quite recent in origin and sometimes invented’ (Hobsbawm 1983: 2). Historians have coined a term that could apply to corporate cultures:
‘”Invented tradition” is taken to mean a set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past. In fact, where possible, they normally attempt to establish continuity with a suitable historic past … insofar as there is such reference to a historic past. The peculiarity of “invented” traditions is that the continuity with it is largely factitious.’ (Hobsbawm 1983: 1-2).
Modern corporate identities emerged around the same time as many modern national identities, during the nineteenth century (Olins 1989). If corporate cultures can be interpreted as having a historical unity and continuity that was constructed in retrospect, then the best place to start to deconstruct them is the official company histories in which their continuity is enshrined (Rowlinson and Hassard 1993). The danger in this line of research is that it goes against the ethnographers’ view that at any point in time the ‘real’ history of an organizational culture is what its members imagine it to be. As oral historians have warned, ‘puncturing legends’ by revealing them to be invented runs the risk of failing to recognize that ‘myth is a fundamental component of human thought’ (Samuel and Thompson 1990: 4).
At least one leading business historian has turned to deconstruction. Church (1996) re-examines the role of Lord Nuffield in the development of the British motor industry. The Nuffield organization was the largest producer of cars and commercial vehicles in Britain between 1922 and 1952. Church uses ‘hitherto confidential transcripts’ of the numerous interviews conducted by Nuffield’s official biographers to ‘deconstruct the official account’ of Nuffield as an entrepreneur in ‘the heroic mould’ (1996: 566, 561). Church shows how Nuffield’s influence resulted in a managerial culture where personal animosities were a dominant element. He argues that this ‘corporate culture’ became a hindrance to the Nuffield organization and that Nuffield’s legacy was ‘a culture which inhibited corporate adaptability’ (1996: 582).
Even though Church explicitly refers to deconstruction, his work reads very differently to anything that is normally associated with post-modernism in organizational culture studies. For one thing, he does without a long theoretical introduction and conclusion, and the ‘philosophy of history’ gets only a passing mention (1996: 562). Instead, there are 151 footnotes giving details of sources for verification, and it is in a footnote that Church gives a vital account of how the first official biography of Nuffield was conceived. An economist who was ‘sympathetic to the view that entrepreneurs were central to the economic process’ was chosen as the biographer in order to ‘persuade Nuffield to cooperate’ (1996: 561, note 2). Church takes it as given from corporate culturism that culture is the ‘the most important single factor standing between success and failure’ and that ‘founding entrepreneurs’ are ‘vital’ to the process of creating culture (1996: 565). His historical deconstruction of corporate culture is written in accordance with the requirements for verification in business history, but he does not conform to the conventions of organizational symbolism and postmodernism for critical reflection on the meaning of culture.
Summary and Conclusion
Business historians have been keen to embrace the concept of culture, in the belief that it provides an opportunity for them ‘to be drawn to the centre of the study of management’ (Westall 1996: 21; Dellheim 1986). However, the concept of culture used in business history usually draws more from corporate culturism than from organizational symbolism or postmodernism. Thus, business historians endorse the importance of founders in the creation of cultures, and they see culture as a variable that can predict the efficiency of the firm, a view that is reinforced by the influence of economic theory. In commissioned company histories, corporate culture tends to be treated as unitarily and historically continuous. As in organizational culture studies, business historians make a distinction between history and myth, but they see themselves as helping to manage culture by debunking debilitating organizational myths.
In organizational culture studies, it is acknowledged that culture has a historical dimension, but in corporate culturism, history is only invoked insofar as it provides precedents for the management of culture. Although organizational symbolists claim that ‘there is no one best way to study organizational culture’, they usually imply that interviewing and observation, rather than historical research, are the most appropriate methods (Ott 1989: 106; Hatch 1997). Against this, we would argue that ‘the chosen approach is not a function of what is being studied but represents the preferences of the researcher for how research should be done’ (Carter and Jackson 1997: 5, emphasis in original; cf. Turner 1988: 117). As post-modernists have argued, ‘content is a derivative of style’ (Ankersmit 1997: 285). The choice of research methods reflects the conventions for writing in different discourses, rather than the object of research. Our deconstruction shows how it is the representational styles of organizational interpreters, rather than the intrinsic nature of culture itself, that marginalizes history in organizational culture studies. The conventions of organizational culture studies militate against writing anything resembling a verifiable historical narrative that would satisfy a historian.
Business historians complain that the concept of culture ‘seems ill-defined and intangible’ (Westall 1996: 25), but in organizational culture studies, it is accepted that culture is a ‘catch-all idea . . . stimulating, productive, yet fuzzy’ (Van Maanen 1988: 3; Smircich 1983: 339). It is economists who insist that essentially contested concepts must be operationalized and made measurable, so if business historians expect a concept of culture that is ‘truly operational’ (Westall 1996: 25), then they will have to rely on economic theory, which reduces culture to a residual variable for comparative purposes. The challenge for business historians is to resist the temptation to disappear into the archive equipped with ‘a check-list’ provided by economists ‘for assessing the economic value of different cultures’ (Godley and Westall 1996: 5). Using the concept of culture from organizational culture studies entails an ongoing engagement with the meaning of the term (Alvesson 1993: 120). This undermines the claims of business historians that they ‘have been conducting cultural analyses without realising it’ (Westall 1996: 43). An engagement with the meaning of culture calls for the sort of critical reflex that has largely been lacking in business history. It should facilitate a ‘linguistic turn’ that will move business history away from economic theory (Lamoreaux et al. 1997: 61). The call for reflexiveness has been reinforced by the influence of postmodernism in both history (Jenkins 1991) and organizational culture studies (Jeffcutt 1994).
In order to see what a linguistic turn might entail, we can examine a question posed by business historians: ‘Can business cultures survive their recognition by participants?’ (Godley and Westall 1996: 7). This implies a conception of culture that exists independently of it being recognized. Conversely, culture can be seen as a ‘linguistic tool’ (Watson 1994: 120) that now constitutes part of the ‘practical consciousness’ (Giddens 1986) of managers who have imbibed the ideology of corporate culturism (Willmott 1993). This suggests that a historical perspective should focus on the presence or absence in managers’ practical consciousness of linguistic constructs resembling corporate culture (cf. Whipp and Clark 1986: 96; Kudo 1996: 248).
There are some parallels between organizational culture studies and business history. Organizational symbolism is almost defined against popular corporate culturism, and similarly academic business historians have been anxious to differentiate their writing from journalistic hagiographies. Unlike quantitative organization studies or analytical economic history, ethnography and business history often involve ongoing relationships with organizations in order to gain access. The difference between them is that whereas interpretive ethnographers are prepared to reflect on their own role in such relationships and how it affects what they write, business historians are constrained by the self-effacing objective stance that is customary for writing a definitive company history.
In both organizational symbolism and business history, there is a suspicion of narrative. Ethnographic writing usually suppresses chronological narrative in order to outline the more stable characteristics of a culture during a particular period. This could be a period in the past, but it is usually an extended present. The expectation of verisimilitude in ethnographies allows anonymity for organizations and gives a greater licence for fiction than the exacting demand for verification that defines narrative history. A leading economic and business historian has posed the question, ‘Who wants analysis when the pleasures of narrative beguile?’ (Coleman 1987b: 145) This implies that narrative is a distraction from serious economic analysis, but it is increasingly being recognized that the models used in economics are just as rhetorical as narratives (McCloskey 1994). The choice is between one form of rhetoric and another.
Historical sociologists (Callinicos 1997: 7) might expect business history to provide the basis for a comparison of competing metanarratives, such as those which explain the rise of the industrial corporation in terms of power (Perrow 1988) or efficiency (Chandler 1988c). It could be inferred that if these metanarratives were taken into account at the outset of research, then superfluous narrative could be avoided and business history need not ‘be as detailed, disparate, diffuse or even as dull as it may often appear’ (Chandler 1988b: 306). Following Lyotard (1984), however, the post-modem condition is defined as ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’. The narrative turn associated with post-modernism implies a more self-conscious concern with style and narrative structure in the construction of company histories, and less attention to the claims of metanarratives.
Deconstruction should provide a reading of the company histories that have already been written, if only in order to reflect on the conventions that have made so many of them virtually unreadable. As for the old-style commissioned company histories and biographies, we do not have to reject them out of hand, as business historians do, or accept them uncritically, as does corporate culturism. Seen as primary instead of secondary sources, they can be interpreted as valuable cultural artefacts in their own right, and they are an obvious starting point for deconstructing the narratives of corporate culture, such as those which privilege the role of founders. As for the major metanarratives of twentieth-century business historiography, which resonate with metaphors such as the visible hand of management (Chandler 1977), these await meta-business history (cf. White 1973) for a deconstruction of their rhetoric (cf. McCloskey 1994) and style.
* We would like to thank the following for their help and suggestions: Nick Bacon, Andrew Brown, Peter Clark, Graeme Currie, as well as Georg Schreyogg and three OS reviewers.
1. This may be due to the constraints of the journal in which Boje’s article appears. Journals such as Organization Studies discourage footnotes, which makes historical writing difficult, since historians often tell ‘the meta-stories’ in the footnotes (McCloskey 1990: 51).
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Michael Rowlinson is a Senior Lecturer in Organization Behaviour at the University of Nottingham Business School. His most recent book, Organisations and Institutions: Perspectives in Economics and Sociology (Macmillan, 1997), deals with the relationship between organizational economics, especially transaction costs, and organization theory, focusing on the relative importance of power and efficiency in explanations for the rise of the modern corporation, the separation of ownership and control, and divisions of labour and hierarchy.
Mailing Address: University of Nottingham Business School, Nottingham NG7 2RD, U.K.
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