Sunday, 8 November 2015

Hooked on classics

Organization studies has a peculiar relationship with history, including its own history. On the one hand, it routinely invokes woefully inadequate claims about history (new eras, unprecedented developments and so on). On the other hand, it makes ludicrous claims about its own history - the narrative of scientific management giving way to human relations theory (discussed in the book) being an obvious example. On the third hand, it ignores and is ignorant of history, so that many a supposedly cutting-edge research paper simply replicates, without any awareness of so doing, things that have been known for decades.
These failures are not, at least as regards the first and second cases, necessarily meaningless. They reflect, in part anyway, the ideological operations of organization studies as a handmaiden of managerialism, suggesting, in the first case, that there is an underlying logic that justifies managerialism and, in the second case, that managerialism is part of a specifically progressive logic. In other words, what is by scholarly standards bad history is not simply understandable in terms of bad scholarship.
But what about the third case? Here I think that there at least four factors in play. One is that those conducting research in organization studies (myself included) are often not trained in that discipline, but in something else, such as economics, sociology, anthropology, or, as in my case, politics. Thus there is less sense of a socialization into a canon than might be the case. That is changing, as more people come through an organization studies training, but that may not make much difference because of the other factors. These are, first, that the notion of a ‘classical canon’ is anathema to the postmodern sensibility that has been influential in recent organization studies, at least in Europe. Second, that because most organization studies takes place in business schools, which are typically culturally in thrall to the new, classic studies are easily dismissed as old hat. And, third, because the pressure to publish supposedly novel contributions – especially ‘theoretical’ contributions – disinclines researchers to seek out or admit to the classical roots of their discipline.
Yet against that background, I have a sense that things are beginning to change. Consider, for example, John Hassard’s (2012) superb analysis of the Hawthorne Studies, adding significant historical flesh to the point in my book (p.41) about the continuities and interconnections between ‘scientific management’ and ‘human relations’. Or Ellen O’Connor’s (2011) re-appropriation of the lost foundations of management and organization studies.
This optimistic sense has been provoked by two things over the last week or so. One was attending a seminar by Paul du Gay where he presented his (2015) paper ‘Organization (Theory) as a Way of Life’, which not only makes out the case for re-considering ‘classical organization theory’, but also mounts a robust challenge to the metaphysical theoreticism of recent organization studies. The other was learning of an initiative by a group of doctoral students in organization studies to read and discuss classic texts. The podcasts of these discussions on the Talking about Organizations website are enthralling and sophisticated dissections of (so far) the writings of Taylor, Fayol and Maslow.
Although, of course, I would not compare my own work with that of those mentioned here, I do see it as having some affinity with what they are doing. I, too, am dismayed by theoreticism and am also seeking to re-connect with classical writings and traditions in organization studies, both in my book on the organization of Bletchley Park (Grey, 2012) and my forthcoming book on secrecy (Costas and Grey, 2016).
I am sure that many other writers, not referenced here, are trying to do something similar. I certainly hope so because although I don’t suppose the first two ways that organization studies relates to history are redeemable, the third surely is.


Costas, J. & Grey, C. (2016) Secrecy at Work. The Hidden Architecture of Organizational Life. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Du Gay, P. (2015) ‘Organization (Theory) as a Way of Life’, Journal of Cultural Economy 8 (4): 399-417.
Grey, C. (2012) Decoding Organization. Bletchley Park, Codebreaking and Organization Studies. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Hassard J. (2012) 'Rethinking the Hawthorne Studies: The Western Electric Research in its Social, Political and Historical Context', Human Relations 65 (11): 1431-1461. 
O’Connor, E. (2011) Creating New Knowledge in Management. Appropriating the Field’s Lost Foundations. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.


  1. Just adding to the great reading list - there is an interesting handbook edited by Adler on the classic foundations. (Pedro Monteiro)

    1. Thanks - yes, agree, a very good collection

  2. Interesting as ever, Chris. I don wonder, however, how much more fuel organization studies have in the tank. At Bath University, Organization Studies have now merged with Strategy (as the junior partner) - I have a strong sense that in the not too distant future organization studies will be nothing more than the title of certain journals, just as happened with Industrial Relations. It will have been swallowed up by Strategy, Leadership and even Marketing!

    1. Thanks. Yes, it's a gloomy possibility and the IR comparison is instructive. I didn't know about the Bath merger, and I wonder if the same thing is happening elsewhere? I suppose there is a sense in which it doesn't matter how it gets labelled since the same ideas and traditions - including classical traditions - will remain important. After all, who now speaks of industrial psychology or industrial sociology or even administrative science? Yet the work is still there to be read. Organization Studies itself supplanted some of these and also I sense that OB and OA are becoming less commonly used than a few years ago.

      So perhaps it does not matter so much. Against that, as I hardly need to say to you, language matters. On a similar theme, I could see management and management education giving way to leadership/education.

      Anyway, I am quite sanguine about the likelihood - or certainty - that all our efforts will end up as the merest footnote to intellectual history: if that.