The way that we remember history is not, in any case, likely to be much affected by the pronouncements of politicians – collective memory simply doesn’t work that way. But the fact that politicians might seek to fight over historical interpretation tells us how important those interpretations are. There’s a line in George Orwell’s novel 1984 to the effect that ‘he who controls the past controls the future’ and it is this that is at stake. Gove’s jingoistic rant is not primarily about the past, it’s about trying to advance a present day agenda. Most directly, it’s a coded way of talking about Germany and the EU; more diffusely about trying to resurrect the pieties of nationalism. In other words, history matters – not just, or even primarily, because of the past but because, as the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur elegantly put it ‘cultures recreate themselves by telling stories about their own past’.In a very minor way that was brought home to me the other day when I was watching a documentary about the BBC music show ‘Top of the Pops’ in 1979. I was watching it because this was the music of my teenage years, but embedded throughout the programme was a narrative about how trade unions were a destructive, reprehensible force. In a general way, the music of the year was set against images of strikes and the election of Thatcher; in a specific way the BBC was depicted as engaging in restrictive, fuddy-duddy practices because of union controls. Of course this wasn’t a programme ‘about’ political history, it was a programme about pop music ‘in the past’. But embedded in it was, precisely, a political history.
Management and organization studies has a very similar relationship with history. On the one hand, it is the most ahistoric of disciplines. There is very little in the way of detailed scholarship on the history of management and organizations or on managerial and organizational thought (it’s true that there is a research sub-genre of business history, but it is not very connected to either the mainstream of the discipline, nor very present in the teaching curriculum). Students tend to be very impatient of case studies that are not of the moment. In this they have wiling accomplices in their teachers, who, as Paul Adler argues in his introduction to an indispensable Handbook have disconnected themselves from classic thought in the field. That is even reflected in the referencing patterns of journal articles. On the other hand, almost everything written about management and organizations is replete with history, albeit of the crudest and most unexamined sort. It is full of what I refer to in the book as “cartoon concepts” (p.104), especially as regards bureaucracy (old, discredited) and post-bureaucracy (new, shiny), but also in terms of its naïve story of an unfolding enlightenment from scientific management (old, nasty) to human relations (new, nice).
This kind of implicit, unexamined history serves – like Gove’s newspaper article – to pursue a particular agenda, primarily that current organizational developments are both inevitable and right. On the other hand, the neglect of history serves to pursue another agenda, primarily that organizations are completely decontextualized and unrelated to the world around them. Almost everything about the historiography of management and organization studies is unsatisfactory either in commission or omission. It remains the great unexplored territory of the subject. At least when someone like Gove pontificates about history it can be seen and understood that this matters for what we do now and in the future. In organization studies that has still to be seen and understood.