The invention of transitions: History as a symbolic site for discursive struggles over organizational change

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Studies interested in the discursive use of ‘the past’ often view history as an organizational resource designed to create a shared origin and a common purpose, promoting a sense of continuity and commitment among organizational stakeholders. In this article, I view ‘history’ instead as a symbolic site for discursive struggles between proponents and opponents of organizational change. It shows how organizational actors use ‘traces’ of a collective past in their version of ‘the’ history to win consent for change and to counter competing views. They do so by creating a sense of discontinuity from the past. The case study presented in this article combines a historian’s account of a newspaper’s history with an ethnographic account of the use of history prevalent among newspaper editors. While the historian’s narrative suggests the continuance of some vigorous traditions alongside identity change, the editors narratively construct or ‘invent’ transitions between periods or episodes while disregarding the organization’s traditions in their everyday talk. Storying the past, present and future in terms of a temporal dichotomy and ‘inventing’ transitions departs from existing studies of rhetorical history that tend to highlight invented traditions which establish or reaffirm continuity with the past. The case analysis shows how the editors selectively and strategically deploy history to accomplish or oppose change as part of ongoing negotiations within the editorial staff.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)495-513
Number of pages19
Issue number4
Early online date10 Jun 2014
Publication statusPublished - 2014


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