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.

New article: Routines & History

At OHN we are very pleased to announce that Alistair Mutch, one of our long time EGOS Standing Working Group 8 participants, has published an insightful piece in Organization Studies recently (now available via Advance Online). In the acknowledgements he particularly credits this stream as having helped him develop the ideas presented in his article. It’s great to see research from the track getting published. Personally I can only agree with Alistair’s sentiment that SWG8 has been very influential and supportive for me in developing my research, and it is truly a shame that 2016 will be last year of the Standing Working Group. Nevertheless, hopefully we will be seeing a series of single year tracks on history, starting at Copenhagen 2017!

Bringing History into the Study of Routines: Contextualizing Performance

Alistair Mutch


The focus on routines as ‘generative systems’ often portrays them as patterns of action relatively divorced from their context. History can help to supply a deeper and richer context, showing how routines are connected to broader structural and cultural factors. But it also shows that routines themselves have a history. This is explored using the illustration of the history of one particular organizational routine, that of the visitation of local organizational units by central church bodies, in three times and places: 15th century Italy, 18th century England and 18th century Scotland. This illustration shows that similar routines can be found but these are given very different inflections by the broader social, cultural and political context. Attention is drawn in particular to the differential involvement of lay actors and the implications for broader impacts. The case is made for analytical narratives of emergence of routines which can reconnect organizational routines both with their own history and with their broader context.