BAM2020 and how history can help us to “Take Race Seriously”

It’s been a great start to the BAM2020 Conference in the Cloud today. A genuinely nice way to start the new academic years, which is nearly upon us (and promises to be a genuinely strange experience at universities everywhere). And as it is 2020, the conference is of course virtual, and consequently in a different format. Individual presentations only take place asynchronously, so I am not clear how much feedback and engagement anyone who has submitted papers will receive, but it is an interesting innovation.

The main conference is now a series of panel discussion around key topics, which so far have been informative and practical (such as “The Art of Reviewing”) as well as timely and topical. The BAM fellows session addressed issues of “Taking Race Seriously”, and highlighted not just what is happening in businesses and other organizations, but also in academia. Prof Nelarine Cornelius emphasised the role that a more critical approach to teaching business and imperial history could play in making our curricula more diverse. She particularly referred to the role of chartered companies, such as the East India company, and merchant venturers as creating the institutions that anchored global trade – an influence that continues to the present day. Including any history in business school curricula, either as standalone modules or within existing ones, is often advocated (particularly when there’s a crisis on) but it is not clear how to engage students in history when this is not what they came to management and business schools for. Mention anything before the year 2000, and enjoy the puzzled look in your students faces (back when you could actually still see them).

When it comes to thinking about how to draw on history to raise awareness for the racist and violent expansion of imperialist powers in the “First Global Economy”, it brings with it a critical and at times subversive view on the very models and approaches that we teach. Whether it is the origins of management ideas in the plantation economy of the antebellum South US (and therefore in the management of slave labour) or a more general reassessment of how we think management ideas were developed – this kind of knowledge challenges what we thing we know about the past as much as the present.

But it also raises the issue that perhaps not enough of this research has taken place and that there is a scarcity of material out there that we can teach our students about. It is not solely WHAT to teach them (although that is an issue as well), but also HOW to link this into the broader curriculum and learning objectives. It is of course one way in which business and management schools could decolonise the curriculum, but finding and integrating such resources is not always easily done. This was particularly highlighted by a very interested talk I chaired for the Business History Collective (on Twitter: @bizhiscol) last week. Profs Leon C Prieto and Simone Phipps talked about their research about the ‘hidden’ pioneers of African-American management thought, focusing on three individuals few management scholars may have heard of, because their contribution to business history and management ideas were ignored in many ways, both at the time and by posterity. You can access a recording of their talk here (you will need to enter this password: 0?bUF83n).

Going forward, we will hopefully see more of this kind of research that we can bring into our teaching. While business and management journals, of course, continue to publish a wide variety of research, there is a noticeable shift in many mainstream journals towards engaging with these issues. See, for example, a recent issue in AMLE featuring articles bringing historical and postcolonial perspectives to bear on management education. Nevertheless, such work still needs to contribute to theory and address the key concerns of journals by making a connection to existing conversations. Tomorrow, BAM2020 will start with our regular Meet the Editors session – again chaired by yours truly. Even if you cannot be there, do make sure you watch the really informative advance video of the editors of BJM, IJMR, EMJ and JMS, which is a great resource to better understand how to get published in these journals. As historical research is becoming more mainstream and the issues with what we think we know about the origins of management practices and thought ever more apparent and controversial, it is important to join these wider conversations.