Thoughts from the Archives: They’re not all that dusty

Every organisation has a past and engages with it in some way. Click on the ‘History’ tab on an organisations website, for instance, and you can usually read about its foundation and the progress that has been made since then. Yet while organisations talk about their history and organisational theorists draw from these histories to construct theories, this often done in a way that historians would not recognize as history at all. History and management are often seen as opposed: organisational theory reduces history to ‘story-telling’, while historians are suspicious of management’s emphasis on universality and theory. The broad aim of my project is therefore to analyse whether there is potential for organisational theory and a critical approach to history encompassed by postmodernism to be reconciled despite these differences. My goal is to find out how to write a postmodernist history of an organisation and what the implications could be for organisational practice and theory.

To break down this task, I will focus on whether and how organisational archives should or can be adapted to allow for a postmodernist analysis. Usually when I tell people I am studying organisational archives over the summer, the conversation ends there. However, archives are interesting as they provide important evidence required for historical analysis and offer the chance to implement an increased awareness of history at an individual organisational level. My research will take place at Transition St Andrews, who have very kindly granted me access to their archives. Studying what they are storing and how it can be used to construct alternative narratives is particularly interesting due to huge range of activities and people involved. Their projects range from organising the bike pool to zero waste initiatives, the community gardens, and much more. My plan is to categorise what is available in the archives, conduct interviews with Transition staff to discover their rationale for archiving and write an alternative narrative based on what I find. From this, I will then create recommendations for Transition to adapt their archiving practices to facilitate the writing of new narratives. While the plan seemed neat on paper, this was what I saw in the archives this morning:

After finding, among other things, an inflatable palm tree and an axe, I realized the realities of social science research were both messier and more exciting than I had anticipated. The biggest challenge now is figuring out what to prioritise, as the scale of the collections means it is impossible to survey everything in as much detail as I had hoped. Following the leadership weekend, I am also very aware of the ethical implications of my research. Constantly being vigilant about not disturbing the organisation and ensuring anonymity is sometimes difficult, butultimately necessary for a high quality piece of research. After a week of desk research and months of ethical approval paperwork, however, I can’t wait to get stuck in!

As a joint honours Modern History and Management student, the Laidlaw Internship has been a fantastic opportunity to discover the possibilities for links between both disciplines. I initially applied because the flexibility of the Laidlaw Scholarship would allow me to pursue my research interests in a way that a dissertation would not. Having to work with a supervisor from each school and balance both perspectives can at times be a challenge. Aspects that may be straightforward in a single subject, such as deciding on appropriate terminology, have become the topic of many conversations and emails, as meanings can vary hugely between a history and management context. Already, however, this has made more aware of the assumptions that are often taken for granted in both disciplines. Additionally, it has opened my eyes to the possibilities for research each discipline to influence the other and the importance of having the appropriate channels to facilitate this. If you are considering the Laidlaw Internship as a joint honours (or really any) student, I would definitely recommend it as a unique opportunity to develop your degree.

Best of luck to all the other interns, I can’t wait to read about your projects!

Nathalie

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