Those who control the past control the future: The dark side of rhetorical history

Brad Aeon, Kai Lamertz

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal Articlepeer-review

14 Citations (Scopus)


What is the impact of rhetorical history on employees? We address this question by interviewing 29 workers in two organizations. Our critical interpretation of the findings suggests that managers willfully craft historical narratives to regulate workers’ identity and, ultimately, advance the organization’s agenda. Managers achieve this by peddling historical narratives that instill certain logics in workers. These logics, in turn, influence workers’ identification and involvement with the organization. The first logic, reflected glory, exploits the idea that what is historical is prestigious and coaxes workers into basking in their organization’s historical glory through identification. The second logic, preservation, exploits the idea that what is historical must be preserved and urges workers to be involved in their work to stave off the demise of the organization’s legacy. We further contend that organizations reinforce these logics using narrative resources—concepts that lend historical narratives more persuasiveness—such as place or longevity. Nevertheless, workers do not remain passive. While some engage in traditional resistance tactics, others leverage their collective memory as a counter-narrative to the organization’s narratives. While much has been said about the strategic uses of rhetorical history, we conclude by discussing its limitations and hitherto overlooked moral implications.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)575-593
Number of pages19
JournalOrganization Studies
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Apr. 2021


  • identification
  • involvement
  • resistance
  • rhetorical history


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