This week I have read three articles that have reinforced my beliefs around the role of history – or historical disciplinary understanding – in scholarship. This has also been reinforced through multiple conversations with colleagues on where do we expose graduate students to the history of the discipline.
The first article is the latest by leading organisational studies scholar Stewart Clegg (UTS) published in Journal of Change Management. Entitled ‘Why old social theory might still be useful‘, Clegg argues that we need more sociological understanding of the contemporary market to overcome some of the limitations of orthodox economics. This argument is not about applying the novelty of different great thinkers from the past to the present, rather it is about respecting the intellectual heritage of a discipline. The lack of attention to insights from the past is seen as one of the flaws on the contemporary academy.
In what at first appears to be a very different argument, the second paper is by Julian Birkinshaw, Mark P. Healey, Roy Suddaby and Klaus Weber entitled ‘Debating the future of management research‘ and published in a special issue of Journal of Management Studies celebrating its 50th anniversary. Personally, I will be giving this paper to all of my doctoral researchers and even my colleagues. In the paper, the four contributors outline future directions for management studies, yet a consistent message is that to do so requires an understanding of the history of management studies within the social sciences. As Roy Suddaby argues:
… it also means devoting more time and paying more attention to our own history as a profession. Understanding our own history is important, not only for developing a distinct professional identity – medicine, law, engineering, and most other professions are very attentive to history of their scholarship – but it is critically important to overcome the false belief that our knowledge base is not historically contingent (p. 50).
He goes on to argue:
In contrast to the physical sciences, the object of inquiry are significantly changed as our knowledge diffuses. Not only does this create an ongoing cycle of new knowledge creation and diffusion, it makes our knowledge historically contingent and reinforces the need to understand the history of our scholarship and its effects (p. 50).
The final paper was one that I reviewed for a leading international journal in educational administration. In direct contrast to the above examples this paper did not historically locate its argument in the discipline. A quick scan of the reference list (which I must admit as a reviewer I often do first) revealed only a couple of references beyond research methods texts and the great thinker this paper was bringing to educational administration. As a general rule, I am not a believer that you need a lengthy reference list to produce a substantive argument. However, in failing to locate the general thesis of the paper in educational administration – apart from a couple of tokenistic and forced links – the author/s had overlooked similar debates and dialogues that had taken place in the discipline, not to the mention, the actual journal in question.
There are a number of argument that could be raised in relation to this third paper – many of them taken up by others in relation to academic (see for example Pat Thomson’s blog) – but the point I want to make is to stress the role of historical grounding. Irrespective of how ‘new’ ideas are for the field, I feel that it is vitally important that author/s show how their ideas support, extend or even refute the existing body of work in the field. The only way to do this is to pay attention to the history of the discipline.