Organizations in Time: Paradox and History
A special issue on history and paradoxes would be the first opportunity to start a dialogue between paradox theory and historical research on organizations. Paradox theory has developed in management studies over the last 25 years as an analytical lens with which to understand tensions and conflicting objectives persisting in organizations’ life over time. However, historical organization studies have yet to join the conversation. The theoretical definition of paradoxes as interdependent contradictions enduring for an extended period is grist for the mill of historical organization studies’ scholarship. The study of paradoxes in business history is a promising research avenue.
The intersection between paradox theory and historical perspectives follows the trend towards a growing rapprochement between organization studies and history, as stressed by Mairi Maclean et al. (2021), the most recent in a growing cohort of literature on the topic. Looking at paradoxes in organizational history as a theme makes Business History the perfect academic outlet for this endeavour, an innovation that will bring together a varied and above all interesting set of papers. The guest editors are aware of the challenges posed by the novelty of the topic. This is why the call for papers remains purposefully generic and wide-ranging, rather than focusing on a set of rather specific issues and questions. Such an approach, we think, will be the best way to curate a varied and engaging group of papers. On the other hand, the logistics leading to the final submission of the manuscripts to Business History’s peer-review process provides several opportunities for presenting and discussing the papers. Finally, the guest editors come from both history and management studies, emphasizing the intended interdisciplinary dialogue.
Paradox theory and organization studies
Organizations historically face increased internal and contextual complexity, with pluralistic goals and contradictory stakeholder expectations and objectives, as they co-evolve with their environments. Paradox theory focuses on processes dynamically maintaining equilibrium between multiple nested tensions (Jarzabkowski et al. 2013; Le and Bednarek 2017; Smith & Lewis 2011). Several strands in organization and management studies have adopted a paradox lens over the years, for example, corporate sustainability (Hahn et al. 2015), innovation (Andriopoulos and Lewis 2009; Maclean et al. 2020), employment and the changing nature of work (Mazmanian et al. 2013), partnerships (Bednarek et al. 2017; Sharma and Bansal 2017), and healthcare (Gastaldi et al. 2018). Also, addressing important societal challenges (e.g., climate change, pandemics, poverty) require organizational actors to navigate among multiple tensions inherent to the interest of several stakeholders (Jarzabkowski et al 2019) which are often far from equilibrium.
Recent state-of-the-art articles on paradox theory recognize its importance and potential for understanding complex problems (Smith et al. 2017) but also its potential limits (Cunha and Putman 2019). Some studies emphasize the need to reinforce a systems perspective, attentive to perceived and latent tensions (Schad and Bansal 2018); others challenge researchers to elect specific dimensions in studying organizational paradoxes, especially to focus on time in process studies (Putman et al. 2016).
Business history and paradoxes: terra incognita?
Notwithstanding this invitation to consider time and processes as a fundamental approach for understanding tensions and complexity in organizational studies, historical analyses have rarely featured in paradox theory. Paradoxes have been used in business history as a rhetorical device – “after all, a paradox is an educated person’s delight”, as Charles Hoffer (2008) wrote. They have been used less frequently as heuristics tool for understanding interwoven contradictions over a long period (Silva and Neves 2020). As business history has rarely addressed the prospects opened up by paradox theory, the contribution of historically oriented studies to paradox theory remained absent from scholarship, even after Putman (2016) and her co-authors’ emphasis. Nevertheless, history is a field of study where paradoxes abound. Four examples illustrate this claim, constituting potential research strands.
1) The first relies on the definition of paradox as tensions persisting over time (Smith and Lewis 2011; Putman et al. 2016). In this sense, historical studies, particularly the historical analysis of organizations, are a vast ground for the study of paradoxes. The exacerbation of complexity and paradoxes is inherent to the temporal dimension, much more than in cross-sectional analyses. A historical perspective, turning latent into salient paradoxes, may foster the analytical effort, contributing to theory development. Historical studies disclose unlikely paradoxes, like the ones revealed by the beauty industry (Jones 2010) or the business history of the environment. In this last case, the rise in environmental-protection awareness since the 1960s went along with a deterioration of environmental standards (Bergquist 2019; Boon 2019; Jones 2017). Latent paradoxes are particularly revealing when ambivalent boundaries in business practices and organisations exist, as the relation between profit and non-profit organizations (Herrero and Buckley 2020; Roddy et al. 2019; Ware 1989); hybrid and mixed organisations (Adams 2003; Menzani and Zamagni 2010; Wadhwani et al. 2017); competition and cooperation (Zeitlin 2008; Jones 1993; Colvin 2018; Jenksen-Eriksen 2020); institutions, government and business (Abbate 2001; Campbell-Kelly and Garcia-Swartz 2013; Lin 2006; Sluyterman 2015); and entrepreneurial philanthropy (Harvey et al. 2019).
2) Paradox research would benefit greatly from the particular context-awareness inherent to historical studies. History, being “the discipline of context”, as Braudel defined it, is host to the emergence of paradoxes. The particular irreducibility of context praised by historians (Hoffer 2008) may be deployed as a creative approach to understand complexity and tensions in emergent processes. The study of entrepreneurship reveals an evident difficulty to overcome the “fallacy of the self-made success” (Laird 2017), where the relation between individual and society, as well as the role of contingency, emerge conspicuously (Jones and Wadhwani 2008; Lamoreaux 2001; Wadhwani and Lubinski 2017). Similar complexity and latent paradoxes may arise in the history of international business. Recent scholarship has emphasised the diversity of business forms (Lopes et al. 2019) and the contradictory agendas and demands faced by multinationals (Decker 2018; Lubinsky and Wadhwani 2020; Verma and Abdelrehim 2017). Another almost uncharted territory is the historical analysis of the analytical tools deployed by entrepreneurs, managers, and organisations for managing ambivalence and paradox, like the ones explored by Andersson (2020) concerning business and environmental challenges.
3) In a third instance, the specific epistemology of history mobilizes an intrinsic paradox. The past is analysed and reinterpreted considering interpretative challenges rooted in the present (Bloch 1949), well synthesized in the statement that “history creates its object”, “every history is a child of its time” (Fèbvre 1952). However, it also influences and shapes the present. In organizations and their memorialization, the past is frequently reified as a source of identity (Rowlinson et al. 2014; Casey 2019; Coraiola et al. 2021) and strategic renewal (Maclean et al. 2014; Miller et al. 2019). Studying the institutionalisation of organisational memory provides another way to conceptualise the complex uses of the past: their potential competition and pendular movements from being an asset to becoming a liability (Decker et al. 2020; Hansen 2006; Lubinski 2018).
4) Finally, any paradox has a heuristic function by pinpointing antithetical or puzzling issues and thus raising an “incitation of insight” (Keyser et al. 2019). When time and context exacerbate complexity, ambivalence and contradictions, an in-depth understanding becomes even more compelling. Exemplary cases may be the study of the psychic distance paradox in international retailing (Hang and Godley 2009) or the Icarus paradox in the movement from market dominance to irrelevance (Lamberg et al. 2019; Rooij 2015).
This diversity of themes does justice to the plasticity of historical analysis to develop studies on long-lasting legacies and paradoxes. It also mobilises multiple methodological perspectives and approaches for this special issue topic, testifying to the variety that business history is as “a multidisciplinary field on its own” (Friedman and Jones 2011).
Research topics for the call for papers
In the quest to further bridge paradox theory and historical analysis, the call for papers aims at creating a fertile ground to advance the historical analysis of organizations by contributing to the discussion of a range of research topics, where organizations, paradoxes and history stand in a variety of crossroads:
1) Paradoxes and the historical analysis of organizations: theory and case studies.
2) Research deploying historical sources and methods to refine and develop paradox theory in business and organization studies.
3) Latent paradoxes in the longue durée in history and in organizations.
4) Historical periods of crisis and disruption as occasions for performative “drama” unveiling persistent and latent paradoxes.
5) Paradoxes as heuristics in the historical analysis of organizations: sparking insight and awareness.
6) The memory of the past in organizations: paradoxes in corporate archives, museums, heritage and the strategic use of history.
7) Historical context, narratives and the interpretation of persistent paradoxes.
1) 2021, 11 October: Abstract submission (max. 500 pages and sent to email@example.com) – please state if you are interested in participating in the Paradox and Plurality Conference, 24 November 2021, in Nova School of Business and Economics (www.novasbe.pt).
2) 2021, 24 November: Paradox and Plurality conference, with a session dedicated to “Organizations in Time: Paradox and History” (Nova School of Business and Economics, Portugal)
3) 2022, 1 September: Submission of manuscripts to the ScholarOne website for peer-review evaluation: https://think.taylorandfrancis.com/special_issues/organizations-time-paradox-history/
4) 2023 April: expected deadline for completion of the peer review process