Using history to explore routines

Today’s blog has been written by Alistair Mutch from Nottingham Business School, who has recently explored the role of historical research in organizational routines. If you enjoyed reading this, and have some ideas or content you would like to blog about, let us know!

Stephanie, Dan & Christina

Using history to explore routines

By Alistair Mutch

At a symposium on historical approaches to management research at Oxford in September 2015 a very good question was asked about the feasibility of historical investigations of practice. This was in the context of a widespread shift to looking at practices, such as organizational routines, from a processual perspective. This focuses on the dynamic nature of such routines, examining them from the inside. It follows that to do this, intensive research methods, such as ethnography, are favoured. Where does this leave history?
If we conceptualise routines in this manner, then quite clearly history, even oral history, is going to struggle. However, as I argue in a recent article in Organization Studies (doi: 10.1177/0170840616634134), there are downsides to the focus on change and process. One is that we lose a sense of the ‘routineness’ of routines. Another is that they become detached from the broader context which supplies the parameters within which action takes place. For these reasons, I suggest, history has a role. It is rare to get first hand descriptions of practices. We are much more likely to have the traces of practices, traces which are particularly valuable when they appear in documents which were produced as a routine part of operations. What a practice lens does is to encourage us to pay attention to the mundane and taken-for-granted, to the evidence that is overlooked when our focus is on events and organizations. I explore the nature of one routine, the visitation of local churches, in three different times and contexts: fifteenth-century Catholic Italy, eighteenth-century Anglican England and eighteenth-century Presbyterian Scotland.
The latter is particularly blessed with extensive record survivals. Access to these through digital imaging and the use of analysis tools like spreadsheets makes it easier than ever before to do extensive comparative work. For my book on eighteenth-century Scotland, for example, I examined some 1,800 accounting balances across 80 parishes to be able to show that in only a tiny number of cases were balances negative at the annual reconciliation. This becomes significant when contrasted to what we know of England, where over half of such balances were negative. This says something about the organizational forms and practices that characterised each church.
I hope that this article addresses some of the concerns about investigating practices using historical methods. It might also show how historical work can contribute to contemporary debates in organizational theory.


  • Alistair Mutch, ‘Bringing history into the study of routines: contextualizing performance’, Organization Studies, 2016, doi: 10.1177/0170840616634134.
  • Alistair Mutch, Religion and National Identity: Governing Scottish Presbyterianism in the Eighteenth Century, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015.