Evaluating Historical Research in Business

I started doing research in organizational and business history for no other reason than I like to try to figure out why things are the way they are. I have no formal training in historical research – I’ve learned what I’ve learned mostly from experience, and from very helpful suggestions from more experienced researchers along the way. But I’m also working within an academic discipline that doesn’t have a strong record of historical research, and that only considers certain kinds of historical research to be legitimate or worthwhile.

That background made me very interested in Jeffrey Smith’s recent article “Writing Media History Articles: Manuscript Standards and Scholarly Objectives”, which was published in Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly. While Smith is specifically discussing research in media history, I found that a lot of the issues he discusses in the article are true for research in business history as well. And many of the issues he identifies resonated with my own experiences of trying to get research in business history published in academic journals.

Smith states that scholarly research papers based on historical research are often difficult for journal reviewers to evaluate, because these papers may not follow the expected structure of academic articles. Historical research papers may be structured more as narratives or as interpretations of events, rather than as explanations of how data analysis answered a question or solved a problem. However, Smith argues, historical research can still be evaluated using essentially the same criteria that are used to evaluate more traditionally structured research articles.

  • Theoretical and conceptual perspectives. As Smith says, this criterion could be stated more bluntly as “So what?” Why is it important to know about this subject, or to understand it in a different way? I struggle with this in my own historical research, because, to be honest, sometimes my answer is “Because it’s fun for me to learn more about this”. For example, working on this article was really enjoyable because I got to watch a lot of professional wrestling and read a lot about it. But that’s not a good enough reason for someone else to be interested in the subject. So I turned my focus from “it’s fun to watch professional wrestling” to “how did this unique form of performance evolve?” And that led me to look at the history of one wrestling company – and I then ended up exploring how that history has been constructed from multiple sources and often conflicting information, and how the company itself has managed its own version of its history.
Sampo Hall, at Webster's Corners in Maple Ridge, BC. It was built in 1915 as a community hall for the Finnish settlers in the area, and a Workers' Sports Association of Canada club was headquartered here as well. (credit: own photo)

Sampo Hall, at Webster’s Corners in Maple Ridge, BC. The hall was built in 1915 as a community hall for the area’s Finnish settlers, and in the late 1930s a Workers’ Sports Association of Canada (WSAC) club was based here. My research on the history of the WSAC looks at how it provided alternatives to leisure activities sponsored by employers. (credit: own photo)

  • Question(s) and answer(s). No matter what form an article takes, it still has to leave the reader knowing something that they didn’t know before. In historical research, the question doesn’t have to be as rigorously structured as a hypothesis in a scientific experiment – and usually it can’t be structured that way – but there has to be something unanswered or unknown that the research addresses. And the answer or conclusion has to be supported by the evidence presented in the article.
  • Evidence and methodology. I’ve found that this can be a particular challenge in historical research, because sometimes the methodology and evidence is “this is what I could find about the topic”. There could be evidence that you overlooked, or evidence which has gone missing over time – and that evidence could be really important in answering your question. When I was collecting information for this article, over the course of almost three years I visited four different archives and spent a couple of weeks reading microfilms of newspapers from the 1930s. But even with that amount of research I know that I don’t know everything there is to know about this organization. Some of its records were destroyed, some of its officers were terrible record-keepers and really bad accountants, and some of its member organizations conducted their business in Finnish (the records are there; I just can’t read them). Writing around this and still producing a coherent and meaningful narrative was sometimes very tough. And sometimes academic journal reviewers have trouble accepting research that’s admittedly not perfect, but is as perfect as it can be under the circumstances.
  • Quality of presentation. Writing about historical research, like writing about any kind of academic research, needs to be clear, concise, logically organized, and carefully edited. I put a great deal of importance on good writing, but I must admit that “concise” is something I have a hard time with when writing about history. You have to draw the boundaries around your story somewhere, and you have to be able to tell when information is critical to the story – and you need to resist the temptation to include information just because it’s funny, or different, or quirky. Sometimes those little bits of information are what make the story come alive, but sometimes they only get in the way.

Reading Smith’s article reminded me of the challenges of doing historical research in business – especially research that doesn’t follow the “company line” or that questions the origins of dominant models or theories of business. But it also made me think about why historical research is a relatively small part of the research that’s conducted in business schools. And I think it’s for many of the same reasons that Smith identifies as challenges for historical research in journalism: that business history can be “too fluid to grasp, and too complex to summarize”.

But Smith has presented a strong explanation of how historical research can be evaluated by same standards that are used to judge other kinds of academic research – and he shows that can be done without compromising the qualities that make historical research different, and without forcing it into a format or structure that would reduce its contributions. This is a really useful framework for thinking about historical research in business, and I know it’s going to be useful to me in my own work.

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