September saw the 9th edition of the European Business History Association’s biannual doctoral summer school, held in the Italian city of Ancona. This year I was fortunate to be attending myself and, having heard the endorsements of previous alumni, was looking forward to a week of stimulating content, some late summer sun, and of course the famous food of the Marche region. The summer school, in its third year in Ancona, was being hosted by the Università Politecnica delle Marche, whose picturesque Economics department was to be our home for the week.
Along with their annual congress, the school constitutes the EBHA’s main effort in their aim to develop the academic discipline of business history. The school seeks to attract talented junior historians and social scientists to the broad scope of business history, encouraging further study of the history of organizations, markets and the people impacted by them. The school, fundamentally international in nature, has developed a reputation for facilitating long lasting friendships within the field and providing a safe, friendly, but ultimately rigorous atmosphere within which to promote and engage with doctoral research.
After introductions, the school was opened by Andrea Schneider, who lead a session on heritage and storytelling through the lens of German corporate history. In dealing with these concepts, we discussed their diverse uses and features, not only amongst researchers but also by companies themselves. We finished by deliberating some of the ongoing challenges and opportunities of business historic research, particularly in relation to digitalization and the changing nature of sources. We then had a thought-provoking presentation from Grietjie Verhoef on business history within Africa, discussing the challenges of the Chandlerian perspective within the context of Africa, as well as the continent’s distinct development trajectory and the factors that impact upon it. We finished by identifying some key aspects of business in Africa, along with possible research agendas for the future.
Harold James initiated proceedings on the second day with a lecture on the nature of capitalism. Here, he engaged in a stimulating analysis of the dominant perspectives of capitalism, as well as a number of assumptions and institutions we’ve come to take for granted. After lunch, Abe de Jong ran a session on business history methods, which developed on our own uses of business history to show the diverse schema of motivations and contexts within which it’s pursued. Through a process of categorizing personal statements about our work, Abe argued that at least five distinct types of business history research existed within the school’s cohort alone! Following this, the faculty ran an informative and lively round table on publishing, which covered the various roles, processes and traditions that exist within the journal environment.
The third day was opened with a session on business history and management research, led by Ludovic Cailluet. Here, the focus was on understanding the differences between the mainstream of management research and that of business history, covering the expectations, characteristics, and preferences of both. Jeffrey Fear’s afternoon session on the integration of history and business in taught programmes provided a wider platform of discussing the teaching aspect of academic careers. He highlighted the value that can be gained by using historical cases within the management school curriculum, as well as concepts of a more economic or commercial nature within the history department. Andrea Colli finished the afternoon with a talk on multimedia case studies. Although widely inspiring, the audience was particularly impressed with his example of an in-house video production for a case study of Venice as a commercial center. Dinners were always a fine affair, but this evening was particularly special. Venturing out of Ancona en masse, we traveled up the hillside overlooking the Adriatic to a secluded and scenic restaurant, where a excellent meal was had by all.
Deviating from the chronology briefly, it would be remiss of me not to mention the student presentations, which formed much of the week’s schedule. I was personally very impressed, not only by the presentations themselves, but also the engaging discussions which consistently followed them. The reach and impact of business history is something that was been made especially clear to me over the week, and it was interesting to talk with students and faculty from outside the business school environment. Amongst the topics discussed: the history of the South African Stock Exchange, 20th Century Dutch ship building, and the Berlin inter-war fashion industry. This, however, notes just a few of the areas we covered, not to mention the diverse approaches to business history used in researching them. Talking to me after to summer school, EBHA president Ludovic Cailluet, said “ I really enjoyed the diversity of perspectives and the richness of research being developed by these PhD students as much as the informality of the interactions.”
The final day started with a session from Marten Boon about geography and business history. Here, Marten drew on Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis and the Chicago case to highlight the interrelationship between industrial clusters and the rural ‘nature’ we tend to juxtapose it with. He then provided a summary of his own work on the Rhine region’s oil infrastructure development, highlighting both his fascinating research and the innovative resources drawn upon in conducting it. On the final afternoon, we headed across town to the Biblioteca Amatori, where Franco Amatori gave an impactful talk on the nature of a history of capitalism. Following this, the students and faculty were treated to a reception at the Biblioteca to mark the culmination of the school’s 9th iteration. The discussions continued well into the evening, and eventually spilled out into the city’s Piazza del Plebiscito, where a convivial time was had discussing life, research, and much in-between.
On behalf of all the students, I would like to thank the EBHA, the faculty, and the organizing team (particularly Veronica Binda and Roberto Giulianelli) for their investment in making this school such a success. Not only was it an incredibly valuable experience, but a hugely enjoyable one too. I am confident many friendships have been forged and that we, the students, will take much from the week into our research and wider careers.
NB – The EBHA Facebook page has a number of posts relating to the school along with photographs of the week’s events. https://www.facebook.com/EuropeanBusinessHistoryAssociation/