James G. March and management history: the case of government reorganizations

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Purpose: The purpose of this paper is to examine March and Olsen’s 1983 study of American Government reorganization attempts between 1904 and 1980 in relation to three debates in management history scholarship. Can explorations of the past yield innovative interpretations of the present and future organizational activities? What is the role of multiple perspectives in understanding complex reality? How should management historians react to the differences in power held by various actors in historical scenarios and to the absence of documented evidence of the stances of many traditionally underrepresented groups? Design/methodology/approach: The paper analyzes March and Olsen’s 1983 historical study on federal government reorganizations in relation to twentieth-century political science/public administration scholarship from 1919 to the present showing the unique focus and conclusion of March and Olsen’s work. The paper relates this focus and conclusions to three management questions. Findings: This analysis shows that March and Olsen’s interpretation of American reorganization has had a significant impact on the work of political scientists studying programs that did not exist in 1983; this impact suggests how historical scholarship can invigorate understanding of current programs. The analysis also gives evidence to support March and Olsen’s focus on the importance of considering multiple perspectives to interpret complex realities. The analysis concludes that despite March’s acknowledging the importance of anti-establishment scholarship, March and Olsen’s 1983 work did not explore the role of power differentials or the voices of the oppressed in government reorganizations. Originality/value: The value of this paper is that it seeks to relate March and Olsen’s work to a scholarship domain where it has not often been considered. Management historians lament that their work and concerns have often been considered peripheral by the greater management field. By showing how a major management theorist such as March used historical analysis to further understanding of contemporary organizations the paper heightens the visibility and importance of management history work.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)10-24
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Management History
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 3 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Business, Management and Accounting
  • History


  • Constructivism
  • Critical theory
  • Government reorganizations
  • James G. March
  • Management history


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