Handbooks of Research Methods in Management series
Edited by Keith Townsend, Rebecca Loudoun and David Lewin
Chapter 8: Doing historical research in human resource management: with some reflections on an academic career
Not many human resource management (HRM) scholars nowadays think of adopting a historical approach. Yet there are close affinities between interpretive sociology, using qualitative social science methods and the usual historical approach (see Patmore, 1998). Both share the sense that people make society and focus on what Weber termed “actors’ social meanings”. The main argument of this chapter is twofold: 1. history is worth doing and possible to do within the HRM field, and I use my own career as an illustration of this, but 2. history has a distinctive method of its own, which must be learned and respected, even if this can be combined with other social science approaches. All historians recognise that understanding and interpreting the past is a complex and uncertain process (see Carr, 1961 ; Evans, 1997; Hobsbawm, 1997). Marwick (2001, pp. xiii, 33) distinguishes between The Past, as what actually happened and History, as what historians research and write about that past: “What historians do is produce knowledge about the past”. Reflection on the writing of history is termed historiography, and this is where the major methodological debates take place. In Marwick’s view, the “collective enterprise” of professional, academic history “challenges and deflates myths” about the past, many of which are misleading and dangerous. Most history is essentially qualitative, in social science terms, because its mission is to understand better how people thought and behaved in the past. This reflects the discipline’s traditional academic home in the humanities.
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