I am always intrigued to read about the amazing things in corporate archives, and a while back I received another excellent newsletter from Barclays Group Archives. To my delight, one of the items dealt with the BBC’s Gentleman Jack, a fascinating show that fictionalized the Life & Loves of Anne Lister . It turns out, the archivists helped the production company recreate the historic setting of nineteenth century banking:
Readers may have been enthralled, as we were, by the recent BBC TV drama Gentleman Jack, based on the life and diaries of Anne Lister (1791-1840) of Shibden Hall, Halifax.
Early in 2018, we were contacted by a TV production company with a request for props and background information giving a picture of early 19th century country banking, especially in West Yorkshire. This led to a full day’s visit by the team’s graphic designer to see what we have.
Evidence for what a country bank would have looked like at that period is surprisingly scarce, but a humorous drawing by Jonathan Backhouse dated 1829 (below), of his manager’s office in a comparable banking house at Durham shows the simple furniture and likely layout. Items such as ledgers, coin scales, bank notes, cheques, fire buckets, and a clerk’s high desk were all useful as models for the props.
The ‘scheming banker’ of the TV series, Christopher Rawson, who becomes Anne’s arch-enemy, is not based directly (we hope) on one of our predecessors in Halifax.
Our main predecessor bank in the town was the Halifax Commercial Banking Co. which evolved from various partnerships, including Rawsons, Rhodes & Briggs. The banknotes used in the TV series borrowed designs from notes featuring a sheep issued by this bank, and a beehive from the Kendal Bank.”
Those struggling to understand how Boris Johnson helped win the 2016 Brexit referendum before becoming prime minister should consider how myth functions in politics.
Throughout his career, Johnson has deployed a type of myth referred to by the philosopher Hans Blumenberg as “prefiguration”: relating emotionally charged events from a country’s past to issues in its present.
Blumenberg was born in 1920 to a Catholic father and a German Jewish mother. Because of this background, he was banned by the Nazis from studying at German universities. After the war, despite this persecution, he became one of Germany’s most prominent philosophers.
In 1979, Blumenberg published a book entitled Work on Myth, in which he claims that myths provide humans with a way of coping with anxieties arising from their environments. Confronted by threats such as thunder and lightning, for example, humans gave these forces names and personalities, making them familiar and approachable.
Myth is seen by Blumenberg as helping humans to orient themselves in threatening surroundings. It is not the opposite of reason, as many thinkers of the Enlightenment argued, but serves the pragmatic function of making humans feel at home in the world. It therefore needs to be taken seriously.
The stories we tell
When Blumenberg’s book appeared in 1979, some reviewers saw it as offering a curiously positive view of myth, which allegedly failed to examine the role played by myth in Nazi politics.
But in 2012, I discovered a letter to Blumenberg written by one of those reviewers. In reply, Blumenberg mentioned that Work on Myth was “missing a chapter that was already present in the manuscript, but which
completely and utterly spoiled my taste for the book. I held it back.
After I am gone, one may do with it what one wants.”
As the literary critic Erich Auerbach shows in his essay Figura, the term prefiguration comes from Biblical scholarship, and refers to how events or characters in the Old Testament may prefigure those in the New. In 1 Corinthians 15:22, for example, Adam in the Old Testament is seen to prefigure Christ in the New. When seen in retrospect, the first figure seems to anticipate and legitimise the second.
On a more basic level, prefiguration aids orientation by providing a precedent from the past that seems to reduce the complexity of the present. One of Blumenberg’s examples comes from the Yom Kippur War of 1973. When deciding when to invade Israel, the Egyptian and Syrian armies are said to have chosen the tenth day of Ramadan, not only because it coincided with the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, but also due to Muhammad having begun his preparations for the Battle of Badr on this day in the year 624. Here prefiguration invokes a mythic sense of repetition: the date of an important battle in the history of Islam was seen as auspicious.
For Blumenberg, prefiguration lends mythical legitimacy to decisions that lack rational justification. Hitler’s ruinous comparisons between himself and figures such as Frederick the Great and Napoleon are the central case study used by Blumenberg to illustrate this theory.
How Boris deploys it
Johnson understands prefiguration. He knows the most significant episode in recent British history is victory over Germany in World War II, and that its “sacred” protagonist is Winston Churchill. Johnson’s Churchill biography of 2014 is a study in prefiguration, in which he presents himself as the heir to Churchill’s legacy. In it, Johnson wrote that among Churchill’s many sayings “a text will be found to … validate some course of action – and that text will be brandished in a semi-religious way, as though the project had been posthumously hallowed by Churchill the sage and wartime leader.”
During the Brexit campaign, Johnson made precisely this rhetorical move. The European Union, he wrote in the Telegraph newspaper in May 2016, is an attempt to create a European superstate “just as Hitler did”. By contrast, Churchill’s “vision for Britain was not subsumed within a European superstate”.
These irresponsible comparisons between the EU and Nazi Germany were criticised at the time, even by some of Johnson’s fellow Tories. But the message cut through. Rational arguments for remaining in the EU were trounced by the campaign to “Take Back Control”. When combined with Johnson’s references to Churchill and World War II, this slogan allowed Leave to command the emotional terrain of political myth, reminding voters of their nation’s heyday, when the British Empire was still intact.
The mastermind of that campaign, Dominic Cummings, is now leading the team in 10 Downing Street. As a potential election looms, this raises troubling questions for Johnson’s opponents. Is rational argument enough to defeat political myth? Or must Remain also come up with a captivating myth to communicate the rational grounds for staying in the EU if that is to ever happen? Are rationality and myth even compatible?
Considering these problems requires an appreciation of the rhetorical power of political myth, and in this Blumenberg can help us.
Yep. Those dreaded words when you get the email back from the journal. R and R. Anything but Rest and Relaxation. Groan. In essence, the message says We have considered your paper and we have decided that – well it’s just not going to cut it. At this point. However, we see enough in it to give you another shot. But only one. And (to steal Ru Paul’s words) Don’t **** it up.
Before we take a break for the holidays, I thought I share some potential Christmas reading with you. I am proud to announce that Business History published advance online a new Perspectives Article that I had the pleasure to edit:
This piece reviews and evaluates both the research on history by CSR scholars, and the historical research on CSR issues (mostly by business historians) and draws a number of important issues. Its a great piece and it makes some important observations about the future opportunities for research in the field.
Here is the abstract:
The integration of historical reasoning and corporate social responsibility (CSR) theorising has recently received remarkable cross-disciplinary attention by business historians and CSR scholars. But has there been a meaningful interdisciplinary conversation? Motivated by this question that presumes significant limitations in the current integration, I survey existing research for the purpose of sketching and shaping historical CSR studies, ie an umbrella that brings together diverse approaches to history and CSR theorising. Drawing from the recent efforts to establish historical methodologies in organisation studies, I first reconcile discrepant disciplinary and field-level traditions to create a meaningful intellectual space for both camps. Secondly, I provide a synthesis of the history of CSR from three different meta-theoretical perspectives in the context of three maturing knowledge clusters. To bridge past and future work, I finally set a research agenda arising from current research and drawing on different sets of assumptions about history and CSR.
Happy holidays and see you bright and fresh in the New Year!
Mitch Larson very kindly reviewed our article in Business History: “Clio in the Business School: Historical Approaches in Strategy, International Business and Entrepreneurship”, which the publishers have made available for free for a time: Business History, 59(6): 904-27
Recently Martin Parker (Bristol) has taken to the airwaves promoting the idea of bulldozing the business school. In sharp contrast, Andrew Perchard, Niall MacKenzie, Stephanie Decker, and Giovanni Favero make a compelling case for certain disciplines in the management sciences to open themselves to alternative methodological and epistemological approaches. They argue that the fields of strategy, international business, and entrepreneurship have not embraced historically-oriented research to the same extent as other fields within business and management studies. The authors also admit that many scholars conducting historical business research have not made a sufficiently solid case about the robustness of their historical methodology(s) or data to convince other social scientists about the validity of their claims. Drawing upon an impressive range of previous works to develop their discussion, the paper attempts to reconcile these discrepancies to highlight how a more explicit articulation of the historian’s process could overcome the concerns of ‘mainstream’ management scholars regarding theorization and methodology in these three fields specifically and in management studies generally.
Last weekend at the Association of Business Historians’ Conference, Peter Miskell (Henley Business School) gave a really insightful talk about the current state of business history. He kindly agreed to share the slides and write up a short summary for the Organizational History Network.
Who are business historians, and what is it that they do? Or more bluntly, what is business history? These are questions that have troubled professional business historians for at least a couple of decades, and to which no clear consensus has yet emerged. In one sense, this doesn’t seem to matter greatly. Business history conferences continue to be relatively well attended, attracting scholars from a range of related disciplines; business history journals are publishing an increasing quantity of articles; and business history related sub-groups are evident within wider scholarly communities such as the Academy of Management, the American Historical Association, and the European Group on Organisation Studies. On this evidence business history is thriving. Yet if pressed to define the intellectual core of the discipline – the central questions it addresses and the methods it uses to tackle them – it is difficult to identify a clear answer on which all can agree. If business historians appear to lack an agreed sense of intellectual mission, they also lack a common institutional home. Those of us who may have the confidence to self-identify as business historians at social gatherings are not, as a rule, employed in departments of business history. Within our workplaces we are often lone scholars, and in many cases our identity as business historians co-exists with (or is subordinate to) another disciplinary identity. In this sense business history is not an academic disciplines on a par with, say, economics or psychology or communication studies. It is a sub-discipline, but it is not entirely clear (even among its practitioners) what it is a sub-discipline of.
Rather than attempting to identify the core intellectual identity of business history, or to outline a grand vision of how the (sub-)discipline should develop in the coming years, perhaps it would be more useful to pause and take stock of what the business community actually looks like. Where is it that business historians actually work? Who pays their (our) salaries? What are the institutional ‘rules of the game’ within which they (we) work?
In attempting to address these questions I decided to set myself the simple task of finding out which academic departments business historians are affiliated to. Academic departments in universities, I would argue, constitute the key institutional structures within which most intellectual disciplines function. Different academic disciplines have their own institutional norms and conventions, which are typically learned and reinforced within academic departments through mechanisms such as recruitment practices, mentoring, tenure and promotion systems. In most cases the health (and viability) of these departments is measured by their ability to attract students. (There are some countries where departments are also explicitly measured on the quality of their research outputs, but these provide indications of reputation or prestige rather than of financial viability). Departments which fail to attract a sufficient volume of students are at risk of closure or merger, as exemplified by the fate of many departments of economic history in the UK. This means that business historians (like most academics) ultimately make a living through their teaching rather than their research. And since there are very few students applying to study business history degrees (and thus no departments of business history), this in turn means one of two things for business historians: either they need to teach business history in such a way as to make it relevant and interesting to students whose primary focus is elsewhere; or they need to teach subject matter that would not normally be regarded as business history at all (which might be marketing, entrepreneurship, strategy, or perhaps 19th century literature, or 20th century European history). The types of academic departments within which business historians find themselves may be more a matter of necessity than of choice. Mapping out the institutional contexts within which business historians work is an important step in understanding the nature of the discipline, and the challenges (and opportunities) with which it is presented.
The way I have chosen to do this is by collecting data on every article published in the three leading business history journals during the five year period from 2013-2017. In each case the first-named author has been identified, along with their home institution, their academic department, as well as information about the article itself (period, sector and geographical focus of the study). Not all of the authors identified this way would identify themselves primarily as business historians (though much the same could be said of many people who attend business history conferences). By looking at those individuals who have taken the trouble to submit their research to the main business history journals, and whose work has been accepted after a process of peer review, we at least have access to a community of scholars who have shown a willingness to engage in ideas and debates that are of interest to business historians.
I do not pretend that the methodology employed here constitutes a comprehensive census of business history around the world. The exclusive focus on English language journals is one obvious limitation, the focus on journal articles rather than books is another. But the trends which emerge are, I think, important ones. I hope the slides that accompany this post, at least provide some empirical evidence in relation to claims and assertions that are often made about business history, and the institutional contexts within which it is conducted. I plan to work this up into a paper for publication (perhaps in one of the three journals referred to here), but in the meantime would be very happy to receive any thoughts or comments from those who are interested.
As your Friday read you may want to consider the excellent book by Sebastian Brunger: Geschichte und Gewinn. Der Umgang deutscher Konzerne mit ihrer NS-Vergangenheit [History and Profit. How German corporations dealt with their NS past]. And if you don’t read German, Business History has online advance published an English language review of the book:
In August 1948, former I.G. Farben manager Fritz ter Meer had just been sentenced to seven years in prison for the concern’s use of concentration camp inmates in Auschwitz. Nonetheless, ter Meer’s conclusion was self-confident and resolute: ‘We have led the most severe point of the prosecution – the alleged alliance with Hitler and preparation of a war of aggression – so neatly ad absurdum, that this part of the verdict brings a clear exoneration for I.G. Farben, the German industry and the German people.’11. Original quotation: p. 93.View all notes By that, ter Meer had set the tone for German industry’s interpretation of their past for the following decades.
Geschichte und Gewinn (‘History and Profit’) is the revised version of the author’s doctoral thesis, submitted at Humboldt University in Berlin in 2015. It has a twofold perspective. On the one side, he analyses how German businesses after 1945 dealt with their role during the ‘Third Reich’. He shows how the narratives both reflected and influenced broader trends in German society’s struggle with the past. The main focus is on four industrial giants whose history has been at the centre of fierce public debate at different times between 1945 and today: Deutsche Bank, Daimler-Benz, Degussa and the I.G. Farben-successor Bayer. On the other side, Brünger puts the focus on the development of business history as an academic discipline, which he understands as deeply intertwined with those debates. He shows how the genre of business histories developed from mere apologetic festschriften, often written by employees of the companies themselves, towards an academic discipline, which strives for a broader theoretical and methodological foundation as well as a critical distance from its object of research.
Sven Beckert places cotton at the center of his colossal history of modern capitalism, arguing that the growth of the industry was the “launching pad for the broader Industrial Revolution.” Beckert follows cotton through a staggering spatial and chronological scope. Spanning five thousand years of cotton’s history, with a particular focus on the seventeenth to twentieth centuries, Empire of Cotton is a tale of the spread of industrialization and the rise of modern global capitalism. Through emphasizing the international nature of the cotton industry, Beckert exemplifies how history of the commodity and global history are ideally suited to each other. Produced over the course of ten years and with a transnational breadth of archive material, Empire of Cotton is a bold, ambitious work that confronts challenges that many historians could only dream of attempting. The result is a popular history that is largely successful in attaining the desirable combination of being both rigorous and entertaining.
The vast bulk of source material for historical research is still paper-based. But this is bound to change. Dr Helen McCarthy considers the lessons from the Mile End Institute’s conference on Contemporary Political History in the Digital Age. The specific challenges of using a ‘born digital source’ is an area that requires considerable attention. For political historians, the advent of ‘e-government’ and personal digital archives, and the many formats and artefacts involved, is thrilling but also intimidating.
Historians like digging around in archives.
The materiality of the primary source is part of the allure of historical research: rummaging through dust-covered files, turning the decomposing pages of thick-bound volumes, removing rusty paperclips, perusing bundles tied with ancient string – it’s all part of the voyage of discovery into the past which drew most of us to our careers as historians.