The Roots of Uncertainty in Organization Theory: A Historical Constructivist Analysis

Yehouda Shenhav*, Ely Weitz

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This study examines the rise of discourse on uncertainty in organization theory during the period 1879-1932. It offers qualitative analyses that are based on primary data collected from the American Machinist and the Engineering Magazine, central sources of documentation of management during this period. Introducing a social-constructivist approach to the empirical study of organizations, we argue that discourse on 'uncertainty' has its roots in the technical sphere of industrial America. With time, elements of the concept were 'translated' (metaphors, analogies, and paradigms) from the technical field to the management of organizations, thereby creating homologies between previously unrelated entities. Furthermore, claims to organizational reality depend, not only on metaphors and analogies borrowed from the technical realm, but also on the presence of an enabling social context. In this study, the context consists of (a) a network of mechanical engineers which diffused the concept, (b) the cultural spirit of the Progressive Era, and (c) the politics of labor unrest. We argue that the concept of uncertainty may be regarded as socially constructed knowledge that was created in a unique historical context and enacted by organizational actors and management theorists. The implications of this approach for contemporary organization theory are discussed.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)373-401
Number of pages29
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 2000


  • Genealogical analysis
  • History of organization theory
  • Managerial ideology
  • Mechanical engineering and management
  • Organizational uncertainty


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