Peter Miskell: Content & Practice of Business History

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.

Peter Miskell, Henley Business School, UK

 

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Book review: History & Profit

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.

To continue reading, click here.

Book review: Empire of Cotton

Cross-posted from the Imperial and Global Forum:

Empire of Cotton: A Global History, by Sven Beckert (2015)

 Edward Watson
University of Texas at Austin

Cross-posted from Not Even Past

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.

To read more go here.

Born digital sources & historical research

Political History in the Digital Age: The challenges of archiving and analysing born digital sources.

Helen+McCarthy+5bcredit+Jonathan+Ring5dThe 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.

To continue reading go to the LSE blog.

 

New article on MOH

History Research in Management and Organization Studies

Editors’ Picks: History Research in Management and Organization Studies

Edited by Gabrielle Durepos and Albert J Mills

Introduction

This Editors’ Picks provides an occasion to celebrate the momentum that doing history research in management and organization studies (MOS) has gained since the calls for more history in the early 1990s (Zald, 1993, 1996; Kieser, 1994; Üsdiken and Kieser, 2004). Organization is an especially appropriate venue to do so given the dedication of the journal to disseminating critically oriented scholarship. The initial calls for more history work in MOS suggested, in varying ways (empirical, epistemological) and degrees, that doing history could act as a vehicle for critique. Indeed the articles selected for this Editors’ Picks are not only evidence of the growing momentum for more history in MOS but each in its own vein engenders history as a vehicle for critique. The theme is exemplified well by Cooke (1999) who provides a critical reconstruction of the Management of Change literature with a focus on redressing the silences surrounding the role of the ideological left in the disciplines’ own accounts of its past. In his assertion that all management and organization theory is shaped by past processes and are nonetheless viewed through a political lens formed by contemporary concerns, Cooke calls for greater awareness in the historical construction of representations of management and organization theory. Though Cooke (1999) does not use the terms ‘critical history,’ his article teaches us that a ‘critical history’ (as envisioned today) might imply acknowledging the historicity of management theory as a precondition for taking responsibility to change its (self- )representations that are uncontested, naturalized and un-reflexive.

To read the full introduction, please click here.

Thinking Historically

A big thank you to our readers from the editorial team at OHN. Have a merry christmas and a happy new year. We leave you with an interesting and curious read, cross-posted from “War on the Rocks” – Enjoy!

THINKING HISTORICALLY: A GUIDE FOR STRATEGY AND STATECRAFT

NOVEMBER 17, 2016

Editor’s Note: This is adapted from the 12th Annual Alvin H Bernstein Lecture at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, delivered by the author on November 10.

 On November 22nd, 2011, The New York Times published a short Errol Morris op-doc, “Umbrella Man,” to mark the 48thanniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas. In the six and a half minute video, Morris employs his Interrotron camera to create his trademark intimacy while interviewing Josiah “Tink” Thompson, author of a book on the famous Zapruder film titled Six Seconds in Dallas. Backed by a haunting score arranged by minimalist composer Arvo Part and spliced with snippets of video from the fateful day, Thompson tells the mysterious story of a shadowy figure called the “umbrella man.”

Who was the umbrella man? During the Zapruder and other films and photographs from that fateful day in Dallas, an upright figure can be seen standing on the so-called grassy knoll, holding an open black umbrella, moments before the assassin’s bullets are fired into the president’s motorcade. The image is arresting: The weather in Dallas was sunny and warm.

The sight of a lone man under the umbrella would have been disconcerting even if Kennedy’s murder had not taken place right in front of the man seconds later. As Thompson says: “In all of Dallas, there appears to be exactly one person standing under an open black umbrella …. Can anyone come up with a non-sinister explanation for this?”

Writing in The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” series in December 1967, writer John Updike suggested the mystery surrounding who the umbrella man was and what he was doing on the grassy knoll “dangles around history’s neck like a fetish.” None of the authorities — the Dallas police, the Secret Service, the FBI, or the Warren Commission — ever located or even identified him or could explain his baffling appearance…

 

More on this: http://warontherocks.com/2016/11/thinking-historically-a-guide-for-strategy-and-statecraft/

 

Review: The Impossible Necessity of History

Crossposted from: http://howardaldrich.org/2016/05/the-impossible-necessity-of-history/

Howard Aldrich reviews Ged Martin’s “Past Futures”

In terms of data, three problems confront anyone turning to the historical record for evidence about what “happened in the past.” First, throughout most of human history, very little that happened was permanently documented. Hugely significant events went unrecorded or noted with incomplete details using fragile techniques and materials, which disintegrated, burned, and were lost forever. Second, only a minuscule fraction of the population has ever been in a position to actually have their actions recorded. Much of what we do know about the past concerns that vanishingly small segment of the population some have recently labeled the 1%: elites who had the luxury of employing others to document what they did or the resources to create semi-permanent records using materials such as stone or parchment. The vast majority of the population engaged in activities that are now essentially invisible to us, although forensic anthropology and archaeology are pretty good at working with the few artifacts we can find. Third, more problematic is the tendency of those people who did leave records behind to engage in hyperbole, self-aggrandizement, and untrustworthy accounts of the role they actually played in historical events. Although the rise of modern digital technology would seem to have improved matters greatly, Martin argues that the problem still exists, but now on a grander scale. It is simply impossible to know everything that happened in the past.

In terms of model building, contemporary historians are in the unfortunate position of knowing exactly how things turned out. First, scholars are tempted to build their explanations backwards, starting from outcomes and then searching for plausible prior events, continuing back through history until reaching a “satisfactory” explanation. But, they will be working with historical materials left behind from each era by people who had their own theories of why things had happened and structured their documentation accordingly. Second, almost all events have multiple causes.  Prioritizing them and determining how much leverage each exerted on an outcome of interest is nearly impossible, given the data problems mentioned above. Martin compares this task unfavorably to the situation that laboratory scientists work with, which allows them to run multiple experiments, under conditions where they can control many possible causes, and isolate the influence of specific factors. By that test, of course, almost all social science explanations will also fail. Third, and perhaps more important, uncertainty permeates every aspect of human activity, with people facing multiple options at every turn. Even focusing on “decision-making,” as Martin advocates, doesn’t remove the problem of people having only the faintest of ideas concerning what’s going to happen next, given the action they take. Moreover, because we have no way of getting inside the heads of the people who made those important decisions, we can only speculate as to what they were thinking at the time they acted.

The “past futures” of the title refers to the fact that from the perspective of the present, everything in the past could be viewed as the realized futures of people who had little clue as to what was coming next. Today, we are their future, but it is highly unlikely that one any of them foresaw it. In writing history by looking backwards, from the present, it is tempting to make our “known past” part of our explanation by treating it as the intended future of humans who were making decisions about what options to pursue. But of course, lacking clairvoyance, they had no ability to imagine all the possible futures that would unfold. Nonetheless, the temptation to write linear, coherent narratives about why things had to happen the way they did overwhelms most scholars.

But wait, there’s more! Martin also takes historians to task for imposing normative judgments on the actions of historical figures, using contemporary values. The severity of the normative judgment increases, the further back in time the historian travels. He uses the example of people involved in the slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as more contemporary examples. Martin’s point is that such normative judgments cloud the construction of analytic arguments, biasing the selection of cases and causal principles.

Despite the incredibly bleak picture Martin draws of the impossibility of historical analysis, he nonetheless concludes his book with the argument that contemporary social scientists “need” historical analysis. Giving up their quest for comprehensive explanations of historical events, historians can instead simply locate events in time and identify their relationships to one another. They can tentatively indicate which events were more significant than others by making comparisons to possible alternatives, now known because we have the luxury of looking backwards. Abandoning the conceit of the superior present, they can remind us that “each succeeding present is merely provisional, nothing more than a moving line between past and future.”

Discerning readers of my blog post will now recognize why I like this book so much: this is a very evolutionary argument, cognizant of the need for humility in building tentative explanations of social phenomenon. “Past futures” are always explicable, if one is willing to commit the kinds of methodological and analytic fallacies that Martin points out. Don’t go there. He argues that contemporary historiography has plenty to do, without falling into the trap of building “neat and tidy” explanations. Instead, historians can make us aware of our own ethical standpoints and caution us against ransacking the past for justifications of currently favored policies. The future awaits us, but it is probably not the one that we envisioned, nor could we.

Using history to explore routines

Today’s blog has been written by Alistair Mutch from Nottingham Business School, who has recently explored the role of historical research in organizational routines. If you enjoyed reading this, and have some ideas or content you would like to blog about, let us know!

Stephanie, Dan & Christina

Using history to explore routines

By Alistair Mutch

At a symposium on historical approaches to management research at Oxford in September 2015 a very good question was asked about the feasibility of historical investigations of practice. This was in the context of a widespread shift to looking at practices, such as organizational routines, from a processual perspective. This focuses on the dynamic nature of such routines, examining them from the inside. It follows that to do this, intensive research methods, such as ethnography, are favoured. Where does this leave history?
If we conceptualise routines in this manner, then quite clearly history, even oral history, is going to struggle. However, as I argue in a recent article in Organization Studies (doi: 10.1177/0170840616634134), there are downsides to the focus on change and process. One is that we lose a sense of the ‘routineness’ of routines. Another is that they become detached from the broader context which supplies the parameters within which action takes place. For these reasons, I suggest, history has a role. It is rare to get first hand descriptions of practices. We are much more likely to have the traces of practices, traces which are particularly valuable when they appear in documents which were produced as a routine part of operations. What a practice lens does is to encourage us to pay attention to the mundane and taken-for-granted, to the evidence that is overlooked when our focus is on events and organizations. I explore the nature of one routine, the visitation of local churches, in three different times and contexts: fifteenth-century Catholic Italy, eighteenth-century Anglican England and eighteenth-century Presbyterian Scotland.
The latter is particularly blessed with extensive record survivals. Access to these through digital imaging and the use of analysis tools like spreadsheets makes it easier than ever before to do extensive comparative work. For my book on eighteenth-century Scotland, for example, I examined some 1,800 accounting balances across 80 parishes to be able to show that in only a tiny number of cases were balances negative at the annual reconciliation. This becomes significant when contrasted to what we know of England, where over half of such balances were negative. This says something about the organizational forms and practices that characterised each church.
I hope that this article addresses some of the concerns about investigating practices using historical methods. It might also show how historical work can contribute to contemporary debates in organizational theory.

References

  • Alistair Mutch, ‘Bringing history into the study of routines: contextualizing performance’, Organization Studies, 2016, doi: 10.1177/0170840616634134.
  • Alistair Mutch, Religion and National Identity: Governing Scottish Presbyterianism in the Eighteenth Century, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015.