Hooked on Classics

by Christopher Grey

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.

This blog post has originally appeared on Chris Grey's blog and has been syndicated here with his kind permission. Chris is a fantastic author and researcher, and his work is what got Dmitrijs into organization studies in the first place, so do check him out in the unlikely case that you haven't yet! One of his books, A Very Short, Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap Book About Studying Organizations first published by Sage in 2005, is now in its third edition and has been translated into Chinese, Portuguese, Russian and Swedish.