Proposal preview

Transnational business encounters in the twentieth century: informal company networks, cartels and business interest associations compared

“People of the same trade seldom meet together,” wrote Adam Smith in 1776, “Even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” The literature on cartels, both at national and international levels, has been prolix in showing that Smith was often right. Conspiracy and cartels are not, however, the only possible motivation for or the only possible result of national or transnational encounters among businessmen. The notion of encounter is here—purposely—loosely defined as channels through which economic elites and companies exchange information and coordinate with each other, fulfilling a mixture of economic, political and social purposes. Such encounters can occur in different spaces and can take different forms, which can sometimes be informal, such as clubs and sociable or philanthropic events and which can be based on family networks. They can also, of course, show themselves in more formal business associations or cartels among firms and businessmen.

The aim of this session is to investigate the different forms transnational encounters took among business elites in the 20th century. Unlike national business networks, their transnational counterparts remain a little-known aspect of the global economy. As a case in point, transnational business associations remain a sort of terra incognita—although the extended literature on business associations founded in relation to the process of European integration around the 1950s sheds light on important dimensions of the phenomenon. Important associations such as the International Chamber of Commerce and the International Organization of Industrial Employers (both founded in the aftermath of World War I and still active today) have been very little studied.

The different contributors to this panel investigate specific types of encounter—international business interest associations, cartels, family networks, transnational infrastructures, informal clubs or associations as well as networks among boards of directors. All of these contributions investigate the formation and the persistence of different types of encounters for firms and businessmen who use different channels of communication. What was the difference between national and transnational encounters? Did all types of encounters develop during the same period? What was the impact of specific events (wars) on different types of transnational encounters? Did some type of encounters have a broader geographical scope than others? Were they all centered on the same regions (Europe, the USA) or were some more global in scope? What was their contribution to the different waves of globalization during the 20th century? What was the role of specific sectors such as the financial sector?

The comparison of different case studies will help to assess, along time and in different contexts, the contribution of these diverse transnational business networks to the functioning and development of the global economy.


  • Neil Rollings, University of Glasgow,,
  • Pierre Eichenberger, University of Zurich,,

Session members

  • Irene Anastasiadou, Technical University of Berlin,
  • Marco Bertilorenzi , Paris I Panthéon Sorbonne,
  • Thomas David, University of Lausanne,
  • Simone Derix, University of Bielefeld,
  • Pierre Eichenberger, University of Zurich,
  • Stéphanie Ginalski, Universitiy of Lausanne,
  • Susie Pak, St. John’s University,
  • Jonathan Robins, Michigan Technological University,
  • Neil Rollings, University of Glasgow,
  • Gerarda Westerhuis , University of Utrecht,
  • Lin-chun WU, National Taiwan Normal University,
  • Felisini Daniela, University of Rome Tor Vergata,

Proposed discussant(s)

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