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Multiple Futures for Business History: Building on Recent Debates and Suggestions

The purpose of this session is to take stock of the recent debates about the future(s) of business history, where scholars from within the discipline and others from its outside have made many suggestions regarding a wide range of –supposedly– new topics, a re-configuration of relationships to other academic disciplines, and an expansion of the methodological and theoretical foundations of their research. While seeking to identify possible ways forward, the session also aims to re-examine the discipline’s own past, proposing to go beyond the widely used juxtaposition of a Chandlerian and post Chandlerian period as well as its limited, often US-centric geographical focus – instead trying to go back to the historical schools of economics and sociology in the 19th century, examining various mechanisms and paths of causation, looking beyond the firm (of whatever size and activity) to other levels of analysis, and trace the multiple paths of these research endeavors and their intellectual and institutional foundations both within the US and elsewhere. The session builds on a worldwide surge of interest in and debates about the study of business history over the past decade or so, which has animated panel discussions at many conferences and programmatic articles and books, not only in the US and Western Europe but also in Japan. This has included:
(i) a re-writing or questioning of conventional accounts from the perspective of other academic disciplines and their theoretical and methodological bases, e.g. Lamoureaux, Raff, and Temin (2003) based on transaction-cost and information-asymmetry in economics, Hansen (2012) drawing on narrative and cultural (postmodern) history, or Kipping and Üsdiken (2014) pointing to the variety of research in organization and management studies using historical data or including the “past” in their theorizing.
(ii) attempts to explain the particular challenges when working with historical sources and codify the methods used to analyze them for those not having gone to the apprenticeship-like training as historians (Decker 2013; Lipartito 2014; Kipping, Wadwhani and Bucheli 2014); combined with somewhat provocative suggestions on using more hypothesis testing in business history (de Jong, Higgins, and van Driel 2015), countered by others, arguing for plurality in methodological approaches (Decker, Kipping & Wadhwani, 2015).
(iii) suggestions for prospective topics worthwhile for business historians to research, some more open (e.g. Friedman and Jones 2011) others more prescriptive (e.g. Scranton and Fridenson 2013) – and most of them still moored to a Chandlerian heritage, even when rejecting it; with yet others suggesting how those outside business history, and in particular management scholars, might benefit from more historical reflexivity and closer interaction with historians – and not only business historians (e.g. Hassard, Rowlinson and Decker 2014; Wadhwani and Bucheli 2014).

Organizer(s)

  • Matthias Kipping Schulich School of Business mkipping@schulich.yorku.ca
  • Takafumi Kurosawa Kyoto University kurosawa@econ.kyoto-u.ac.jp
  • Christina Lubinski Copenhagen Business School cl.mpp@cbs.dk
  • Daniel Wadhwani University of the Pacific dwadhwani@pacific.edu

Session members

  • Marcelo Bucheli, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • Eric Godelier, Ecole Polytechnique
  • Per Hansen, Copenhagen Business School
  • Geoffrey Jones, Harvard Business School
  • Kenneth Lipartito, Florida International University
  • Peter M Miskell, Henley Business School at University of Reading
  • Mads Mordhorst, Copenhagen Business School
  • Andrew Popp, University of Liverpool Management School
  • Daniel Raff, The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania
  • Sebastian Teupe, University of Bayreuth
  • JoAnne Yates, MIT Sloan School of Management

Discussant(s)

Papers

Panel abstract

The purpose of this session is to take stock of recent debates about the future(s) of business history. Scholars from within the discipline and others from outside have made many suggestions regarding the study of a wide range of new topics, a re-configuration of relationships to other academic disciplines, and an expansion of the methodological and theoretical foundations of their research. We examine these new directions in a wide-ranging discussion with the audience. The session includes two panels. The first considers the diverse and changing audiences for business history and how these are reached. The second addresses the state of intellectual exchanges with related fields, including economics, sociology, social theory, political science, cultural studies, and entrepreneurship.

1st half

1. Business History and Economic History

Geoffrey Jones (Harvard Business School)

Business history grew out of economic history, but during the middle decades of the twentieth century the two disciplines went separate ways. In the United States the split was methodological, as economic history adopted formal modelling and quantitative methods. In Japan the split was ideological, with many economic historians adopting Marxist views while business historians were pro-capitalist. In most of Europe the divorce was far less complete, although the institutionalization of business history in journals, associations and conferences created separate academic communities. Business historians were right to assert that entrepreneurs and firms were important, but the separation from economic history encouraged studies which were often not related to broader economic and political contexts. Meanwhile economic historians engaged in debates, such as that about the Great Divergence, with little consideration of the role of business enterprises. Both sides have lost out, and at a time when small disciplines face marginalization, it...

Business history grew out of economic history, but during the middle decades of the twentieth century the two disciplines went separate ways. In the United States the split was methodological, as economic history adopted formal modelling and quantitative methods. In Japan the split was ideological, with many economic historians adopting Marxist views while business historians were pro-capitalist. In most of Europe the divorce was far less complete, although the institutionalization of business history in journals, associations and conferences created separate academic communities. Business historians were right to assert that entrepreneurs and firms were important, but the separation from economic history encouraged studies which were often not related to broader economic and political contexts. Meanwhile economic historians engaged in debates, such as that about the Great Divergence, with little consideration of the role of business enterprises. Both sides have lost out, and at a time when small disciplines face marginalization, it is time to greatly strengthen the relationship between business and economic history.

2. Business History and Economics

Daniel Raff (The Wharton School and NBER)

Firms that run out of money eventually have to stop operating. Firms in competitive markets can continue operating but don’t make much money—competition sees to that.  Firms that find ways to generate value to customers but avoid facing head-to-head competition can make lots of money; and if the means of avoidance can be sustained over time, they can over time make a great deal of money indeed. Textbook microeconomics is focused on the first two of these claims.  Businesses and business school students are more interested in the third.  Conventional theory starts from general assumptions, history from specific fact sets, and appreciative theory from salient examples of history.  Closely observed examples of history are of particular interest because of the ways that the capabilities of firms and the ways embedded executives come to make decisions both often differ so greatly from what conventional theory might suggest.  There is a lot of pragmatic value to be...

Firms that run out of money eventually have to stop operating. Firms in competitive markets can continue operating but don’t make much money—competition sees to that.  Firms that find ways to generate value to customers but avoid facing head-to-head competition can make lots of money; and if the means of avoidance can be sustained over time, they can over time make a great deal of money indeed. Textbook microeconomics is focused on the first two of these claims.  Businesses and business school students are more interested in the third.  Conventional theory starts from general assumptions, history from specific fact sets, and appreciative theory from salient examples of history.  Closely observed examples of history are of particular interest because of the ways that the capabilities of firms and the ways embedded executives come to make decisions both often differ so greatly from what conventional theory might suggest.  There is a lot of pragmatic value to be gleaned from appreciative theory researched and developed in a thoughtful, patient, and forward-looking (rather than Whiggish) way.    

3. Business History and Political Economy

Marcelo Bucheli (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, US) Takafumi Kurosawa (Kyoto University, Japan)

This session discusses the benefits of bringing the political economy into the historical analysis of firm strategy.  The session aims to develop a debate around ways by which business historians can analyze not only how the political environment shape firm strategy and internal structure, but also how firms (through individual or collective action) shape the political environment.  The classic studies on the growth of American firms by Alfred Chandler have long been criticized for ignoring the important role the government played in creating the right conditions for firms to grow or how large firms influenced the creation and enforcement of the rules affecting their operations.  The session shows the benefits of considering non-US experiences for our understanding of the relationship between the state and private firms as well as the wealth of toolkits provided by political science. 

This session discusses the benefits of bringing the political economy into the historical analysis of firm strategy.  The session aims to develop a debate around ways by which business historians can analyze not only how the political environment shape firm strategy and internal structure, but also how firms (through individual or collective action) shape the political environment.  The classic studies on the growth of American firms by Alfred Chandler have long been criticized for ignoring the important role the government played in creating the right conditions for firms to grow or how large firms influenced the creation and enforcement of the rules affecting their operations.  The session shows the benefits of considering non-US experiences for our understanding of the relationship between the state and private firms as well as the wealth of toolkits provided by political science. 

4. Business History and Entrepreneurship

R. Daniel Wadhwani (University of the Pacific, Stockton, US)

Research on entrepreneurship remains fragmented in business history. A lack of conceptual clarity inhibits comparisons between studies and dialogue among scholars. To address these issues, we propose to reinvent entrepreneurial history as a research field. We define “new entrepreneurial history” as the study of the creative processes that propel economic change. Rather than putting actors, hierarchies, or institutions at the center of the analysis, we focus explicitly on three distinct entrepreneurial processes as primary objects of study: envisioning and valuing opportunities, allocating and reconfiguring resources, and legitimizing novelty. We elaborate on the historiography, premises, and potential contributions of new entrepreneurial history.

Research on entrepreneurship remains fragmented in business history. A lack of conceptual clarity inhibits comparisons between studies and dialogue among scholars. To address these issues, we propose to reinvent entrepreneurial history as a research field. We define “new entrepreneurial history” as the study of the creative processes that propel economic change. Rather than putting actors, hierarchies, or institutions at the center of the analysis, we focus explicitly on three distinct entrepreneurial processes as primary objects of study: envisioning and valuing opportunities, allocating and reconfiguring resources, and legitimizing novelty. We elaborate on the historiography, premises, and potential contributions of new entrepreneurial history.

5. Business History and Cultural History

Andrew Popp (University of Liverpool)

It is perhaps only a slight exaggeration to claim that business history and cultural history have long existed in a state of reciprocal ignorance and skepticism. To many historians, cultural history is a proxy for postmodernism and the dissolution of the material. For many cultural historians, business historians are rank positivists, all too firmly bogged down in the material. It does not help that business history, like it’s cousins in economics, economic history, and business and management studies, has a tendency, when it does discuss culture to commodify or objectify it, turning into something that is possessed or not possessed. Of course, these are all caricatures, and there are notable exceptions, such as business historian Per Hansen, but they contain enough truth to be recognizable. This contribution, drawing on a major project to write a cultural history of business, will consider the prospects for integrating business and cultural history.

It is perhaps only a slight exaggeration to claim that business history and cultural history have long existed in a state of reciprocal ignorance and skepticism. To many historians, cultural history is a proxy for postmodernism and the dissolution of the material. For many cultural historians, business historians are rank positivists, all too firmly bogged down in the material. It does not help that business history, like it’s cousins in economics, economic history, and business and management studies, has a tendency, when it does discuss culture to commodify or objectify it, turning into something that is possessed or not possessed. Of course, these are all caricatures, and there are notable exceptions, such as business historian Per Hansen, but they contain enough truth to be recognizable. This contribution, drawing on a major project to write a cultural history of business, will consider the prospects for integrating business and cultural history.

6. Business History and Social Ontology

Kenneth Lipartito (Florida International University, Miami, US)

We study a wide variety of social entities:  firms, corporations, banks, markets, financial instruments, organizations of many types.  But of what are these entities comprised?  What constitutes them?  How do they come into being and what holds them together?  These are the sorts of questions asked by theories of social ontology.  By investigating the facts and compositions of the things we are concerned with, we can better understand how to explain them and where to look for the causal mechanisms that allow them to interact with and affect the world.  A more rigorous engagement with social ontology thus promises to provide more precise and useful descriptions of the economic phenomena we concern ourselves with as well as insight into the related questions of causation.    

We study a wide variety of social entities:  firms, corporations, banks, markets, financial instruments, organizations of many types.  But of what are these entities comprised?  What constitutes them?  How do they come into being and what holds them together?  These are the sorts of questions asked by theories of social ontology.  By investigating the facts and compositions of the things we are concerned with, we can better understand how to explain them and where to look for the causal mechanisms that allow them to interact with and affect the world.  A more rigorous engagement with social ontology thus promises to provide more precise and useful descriptions of the economic phenomena we concern ourselves with as well as insight into the related questions of causation.    

7. Business History and Law

Sebastian Teupe (University of Bayreuth)

Firms act in tightly regulated legal environments. Yet as new products, production processes, and economic practices emerged that environment has been constantly questioned, undermined, and rebuilt. At the same time, legal innovations challenged established economic practices and opened new opportunities for organizing and funding businesses. Thus, the law has always played an important and multi-faceted role in business history. However, it was hardly ever discussed in a systematic way and there is little interdisciplinary dialogue. Engaging with legal studies can help to develop a much-needed conceptual clarification of the law in business history, i.e. clarifying what the law meant in its historical context and how it actually affected economic actions. At the same time, such an interdisciplinary dialogue may achieve a mutual understanding of central legal terms that still have different meanings for legal scholars and business historians.

Firms act in tightly regulated legal environments. Yet as new products, production processes, and economic practices emerged that environment has been constantly questioned, undermined, and rebuilt. At the same time, legal innovations challenged established economic practices and opened new opportunities for organizing and funding businesses. Thus, the law has always played an important and multi-faceted role in business history. However, it was hardly ever discussed in a systematic way and there is little interdisciplinary dialogue. Engaging with legal studies can help to develop a much-needed conceptual clarification of the law in business history, i.e. clarifying what the law meant in its historical context and how it actually affected economic actions. At the same time, such an interdisciplinary dialogue may achieve a mutual understanding of central legal terms that still have different meanings for legal scholars and business historians.

2nd half

1.Business Historians and their Audiences

Peter Miskell (Henley Business School, University of Reading, UK)

Where do business historians actually work? Who pays their salaries? Who do they get paid to teach? The answers to these questions have the potential to profoundly influence how business historians conceive of their audiences, which in turn has implications for the subject matter they choose to study and the way in which they communicate their findings. Here I examine data on the institutional affiliations of all those who have published in the three leading (English language) business history journals over the last five years. The results point to a fragmented discipline, which has established very different institutional homes in different countries. The implications of this fragmentation are discussed, both in terms of the difficulty in identifying common research questions and methods, and also in the way that business historians seek to engage with wider audiences.

Where do business historians actually work? Who pays their salaries? Who do they get paid to teach? The answers to these questions have the potential to profoundly influence how business historians conceive of their audiences, which in turn has implications for the subject matter they choose to study and the way in which they communicate their findings. Here I examine data on the institutional affiliations of all those who have published in the three leading (English language) business history journals over the last five years. The results point to a fragmented discipline, which has established very different institutional homes in different countries. The implications of this fragmentation are discussed, both in terms of the difficulty in identifying common research questions and methods, and also in the way that business historians seek to engage with wider audiences.

2. Museums in the modern economy

Mads Mordhorst (Copenhagen Business School)

The museums are under change: framework conditions are shifting, funding is under pressure, there is an increasing focus on market value and output, and museums are expected to deal with concerns such as inequality, social cohesion, globalization, de-globalization and competition from new media. Despite these pressures museums have been able to attract more visitors in the past decade but it is, unclear what values different stakeholders like visitors, non-users, municipalities, state, funds attribute to - and gain from - museums.  But what is it for markets that museums compete in?  I will argue that it is the market for identity and that this is a booming market that reflects  a growing demand for identity in the current society.

The museums are under change: framework conditions are shifting, funding is under pressure, there is an increasing focus on market value and output, and museums are expected to deal with concerns such as inequality, social cohesion, globalization, de-globalization and competition from new media. Despite these pressures museums have been able to attract more visitors in the past decade but it is, unclear what values different stakeholders like visitors, non-users, municipalities, state, funds attribute to - and gain from - museums.  But what is it for markets that museums compete in?  I will argue that it is the market for identity and that this is a booming market that reflects  a growing demand for identity in the current society.

3. Business School Academics

JoAnne Yates (MIT Sloan School of Management, Cambridge, MA)

Much scholarly work on contemporary organizations (business and non-profit) occurs in business schools, and business historians can and should inform and contribute to this research. For example, we have much to contribute to the study of organizational change. Research done on this topic is inherently longitudinal—over time—but often the time periods are quite short (typically 6-24 months) in comparison to the time periods studied by historians. Thus business historians can contribute a much longer longitudinal view of change processes. We can also contribute a long view to the study of strategy, entrepreneurship, technological innovation, and many other areas studied by business school academics. Moreover, business schools are an important potential job market for young business historians if they can adapt to this setting and learn to participate in it.

Much scholarly work on contemporary organizations (business and non-profit) occurs in business schools, and business historians can and should inform and contribute to this research. For example, we have much to contribute to the study of organizational change. Research done on this topic is inherently longitudinal—over time—but often the time periods are quite short (typically 6-24 months) in comparison to the time periods studied by historians. Thus business historians can contribute a much longer longitudinal view of change processes. We can also contribute a long view to the study of strategy, entrepreneurship, technological innovation, and many other areas studied by business school academics. Moreover, business schools are an important potential job market for young business historians if they can adapt to this setting and learn to participate in it.

4. Students and Executives

Matthias Kipping (Schulich School of Business, York University, Toronto)

Imagine somebody, who has signed up for an expensive globally reputed Executive MBA program and even before its start is asked to read the 1946 JEH article by Raymond de Roover on “The Medici Bank Organization and Management”. Stunned at first, participants quickly come to see its relevance and value for understanding and managing today’s global organizations – including the parallels in a context of politics, pirates and pestilence. While avoiding the use of the term itself, history and its usefulness can be “sold” to almost any student, when it is connected to the world we live in. This can be done in multiple ways – and particularly easily by using artefacts, from diamond rings to cigarettes, as entry points. Those, who tend to need most convincing are university administrators (outside the history departments). But they are the most relevant, since teaching – not research – drives appointments.

Imagine somebody, who has signed up for an expensive globally reputed Executive MBA program and even before its start is asked to read the 1946 JEH article by Raymond de Roover on “The Medici Bank Organization and Management”. Stunned at first, participants quickly come to see its relevance and value for understanding and managing today’s global organizations – including the parallels in a context of politics, pirates and pestilence. While avoiding the use of the term itself, history and its usefulness can be “sold” to almost any student, when it is connected to the world we live in. This can be done in multiple ways – and particularly easily by using artefacts, from diamond rings to cigarettes, as entry points. Those, who tend to need most convincing are university administrators (outside the history departments). But they are the most relevant, since teaching – not research – drives appointments.

5. Practitioners

Eric Godelier (Ecole Polytechnique, France)

Could Business History – or something they define as History – be useful for Practitioners and management practices? If so, it is interesting to discuss the possibility - and the opportunity – that an historical approach might have in creating management knowledge, especially « workable » know-how This presentation will present at least three possibilities. 1) Business History is a good level to design and implement action-research on the field. Here, BH main interest is to cool down hot present Managerial challenges: management problems, Social tensions or Conflicts, Values and Corporate Culture Design, etc. Through Dialogue, Practitioners become actors of their own History; 2) Using rigorous methodologies and cumulative knowledge, BH is able to visit the Past and find the actual reasons of Todays Practitioners behaviour and representations;3) Thanks to numerous case studies throughout time and business or national cultures, BH is a good provider of useful comparative approaches for...

Could Business History – or something they define as History – be useful for Practitioners and management practices? If so, it is interesting to discuss the possibility - and the opportunity – that an historical approach might have in creating management knowledge, especially « workable » know-how This presentation will present at least three possibilities. 1) Business History is a good level to design and implement action-research on the field. Here, BH main interest is to cool down hot present Managerial challenges: management problems, Social tensions or Conflicts, Values and Corporate Culture Design, etc. Through Dialogue, Practitioners become actors of their own History; 2) Using rigorous methodologies and cumulative knowledge, BH is able to visit the Past and find the actual reasons of Todays Practitioners behaviour and representations;3) Thanks to numerous case studies throughout time and business or national cultures, BH is a good provider of useful comparative approaches for Management.