Pushing the Boundaries: Business History beyond the Discipline.
Keynote Speaker: Professor Andrew Popp (Copenhagen Business School)
29 June – 1 July 2023
Newcastle Business School
Northumbria University Newcastle
In the 2020s, business history remains ‘in an inventive mood, bursting with multiple futures and paths forward’ (Kipping et al., 2016; 19). Having moved on from the 20th century preoccupation with large corporations, business historians now engage with a multiplicity of themes and topics. While the discipline has yet to make a significant impact on the curricula of most business schools, and few schools of history teach the subject, judged from the perspective of the high ranking of its major journals business history has established a highly credible position across the social sciences and humanities. On the other hand, many have questioned whether the discipline has adapted sufficiently to what remains a highly challenging environment for business historians (Scranton and Fridenson, 2013; Wilson et al., 2022). Are we merely preaching to ourselves? Have we engaged with society’s biggest issues, and thereby limited the opportunities of influencing practice in an effective way? Is the preoccupation with the USA, Europe and Japan restricting our understanding of the many paths taken by business in other socio-cultural and political contexts?
In searching for answers to these questions, the conference will assess the extent to which the discipline ought to be more ambitious in developing its research agendas. This builds effectively on the themes of last year’s ABH conference at Strathclyde, when we debated the theme of ‘Turning points and persistent problems’. Crucially, we need to change the attitudes of senior university managers to the subject by demonstrating its considerable relevance to students’ intellectual development, as well as influencing the worlds of practice that rarely consider historical perspectives. Although this will provide business historians with major challenges, achieving these aims will generate much greater credibility and offer rich opportunities for the discipline. Above all, we want the discipline to have a wider impact, whether this be on other disciplines or the various worlds of practice, thereby extending the barriers that have limited business history’s potential to influence the world around us.
What are the areas into which business historians might delve?
– The Worlds of Practice: In recognition of the ways in which ‘uses of the past’ have infiltrated disciplines such as strategy, corporate identity and human resource management, we need to investigate how business historians can work more extensively with practitioners, whether they be policy-makers, corporate executives or archivists. As impact is such an important issue, especially in the UK, business history must respond to the challenge.
– Emerging Markets: we agree with Friedman and Jones (2017; p. 455), who strongly encourage business historians to engage in research projects that encompass economies outside the United States, Western Europe and Japan; ‘the future of business history rests in part on recognizing the centrality of this alternative business history, rather than treating the business history of Africa, Asia, and Latin America as tangential to the central themes of the discipline’. Scranton (2019, 2020) has already made this move, putting into practice what he and Fridenson (2013) noted in Reimagining Business History.
– Sustainability: while Jones and Lubinski (2014; p. 18) made a strenuous appeal for business historians to analyse ‘why some firms become “greener” than others’, apart from the work of Bergquist (2017) and of Jones (2022), relatively little effort has been made to develop this theme and assess the wide sustainability agenda and corporate responses. The forthcoming book by Jones (2022) will no doubt stimulate much wider interest in the role business has played in accommodating the environmental agenda into corporate strategy and performance, focusing especially on the term ‘deep responsibility’.
– Corporate Ethics and Corporate Governance: while there has been extensive work done in these fields, given the extent of corporate misbehaviour and violations of corporate codes it is vital that business historians participate in these debates. For example, the British Academy’s Future of the Corporation project (2021) would benefit from greater historical insights into context and behaviour.
– Gender and Race: again, while the literature on women and racial issues in business have expanded over the course of the last thirty years, these remain significant areas for investigation because of the way they open up our understanding of how business and society interact. This would also link with the decolonization agenda that is now sweeping the world. One might also add that masculinity is another neglected area of study; even though sociologists have written extensively about ‘hegemonic masculinity’ (Connell & Wood, 2005), the business history literature has failed to assess how this influenced the achievement and execution of power.
– Social Science Theory: Following the ‘historic turn’ in organization studies (Clark and Rowlinson, 2004) and the recent surge in interest amongst strategy and international business scholars in the incorporation of historical analysis into research agendas (Perchard et al., 2017), a substantial debate has been occupying a lot of space in prominent journals. Although the methodological issues arising from this work have yet to be resolved, it is essential to assess how business historians can engage with theoretical concepts when conducting research.
Needless to say, there could well be other agendas that need to be incorporated into the ambit of business history, an issue that will no doubt be raised at the conference. The key issue here is finding a place for business history in debating the ‘Big Issues’ that face society, applying our skills and knowledge to finding solutions that are both effective and sustainable. By pursuing this strategy, we might better engage with both the worlds of practice and senior university managers, demonstrating our credibility and relevance to the major debates of our time.
British Academy (2021), Future of the Corporation, British Academy.
Clark, P., & Rowlinson, M. (2004). The treatment of history in organization studies: Towards an ‘historic turn’? Business History, 46(3), 331–352.
Connell, R.W., & Wood, J. (2005). Globalization and business masculinities. Men and Masculinities, 7(4), 347–364.
Friedman, W.A. and Jones, G. (2017). Time for debate. Business History Review, 85 (Spring), pp.1-8.
Jones, G. (2022). The Search for the Deep Responsibility of Business. Boston, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Jones, G. & Lubinski, C. (2014). Making ‘Green Giants’: Environment sustainability in the German chemical industry, 1950s–1980s, Business History, 56(4), pp.1-14.
Kipping, M., Kurosawa, T., & Wadhwani, R. D. (2016). A revisionist historiography of business history: a richer past for a richer future. In J.F. Wilson, S. Toms, A. de Jong, & E. Buchnea (eds.), The Routledge Companion to Business History (pp. 19–35). Routledge.
Perchard, A., MacKenzie, N.G., Decker, S., & Favero, G. (2017). Clio in the business school: Historical approaches in strategy, international business and entrepreneurship. Business History, 59(6), 904–927.
Scranton, P., & Fridenson, P. (2013). Reimagining Business History. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press.
Scranton, P. (2019). Fixing holes in the plan: Maintenance and repair in Poland, 1945–1970. Enterprise et Histoire. 103, pp.54-72.
Scranton, P. (2020). Collaboration, coordination, cooperation and subversive entrepreneurship in Socialist Hungary’, paper given to the Business History Conference.
Wilson, John F. Ian G. Jones, Steven Toms, Anna Tilba, Emily Buchnea and Nicholas Wong (2022), Business History. A Research Overview, Routledge, pp.148.
How to submit a paper or session proposal
The programme committee will consider both individual papers and entire panels. We are keen to encourage both developmental and mature papers. Individual paper proposals should include a one-page (up to 300-word) abstract and brief biographical note. Panel proposals should include a cover letter stating the rationale for the panel and the name of its contact person; one-page (300-word) abstract and author’s CV for each paper; and a list of preferred panel chairs and commentators with contact information. The deadline for submissions is 27 January 2023. Please use the conference e-mail address (below) to submit proposals.
The ABH also welcomes poster proposals from graduate students on all aspects of business history covering a wide range of periods and countries.
Poster presenters will normally be in either the First or Second Year of their PhD. We also strongly encourage those who have previously presented a poster will submit a paper proposal to the main conference in a subsequent year.
Those wishing to be considered for inclusion in the programme must submit an application by 27 January 2023. This should provide:
- Title of your PhD project.
- An abstract (300 words).*
- A current CV.
*The abstract should explain the background to the poster; the questions addressed; the sources and methods employed; and likely conclusions.
Approved posters must be submitted by 1 June 2023.
If you have any questions, please contact the Conference Organisers via: