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date: 16 October 2019

Introduction

Abstract and Keywords

This book provides a state-of-the-art survey of research in business history. Business historians study the historical evolution of business systems, entrepreneurs, and firms, as well as their interaction with their political, economic, and social environment. They address issues of central concern to researchers in management studies and business administration, as well as economics, sociology, and other social sciences; and to historians. Business historians employ a range of qualitative and quantitative methodologies, but all share a belief in the importance of understanding change over time. While the prevalence of quantitative methodologies and the consequent need for large datasets has contributed to an overwhelming focus on the United States in many areas of management research, this book demonstrates how far business history has developed into a truly international and comparative field, and how much it has to gain by embracing a more fully global perspective.

Keywords: business history, business systems, entrepreneurs, firms, global perspective

This Handbook provides a state‐of‐the‐art survey of research in business history. Business historians study the historical evolution of business systems, entrepreneurs, and firms, as well as their interaction with their political, economic, and social environment. They address issues of central concern to researchers in management studies and business administration, as well as economics, sociology, and other social sciences, and to historians. They employ a range of qualitative and quantitative methodologies, but all share a belief in the importance of understanding change over time.

As the chapters in this Handbook show, this research domain is wide‐ranging, dynamic, and has generated compelling empirical data, which sometimes confirms and sometimes contests widely held views in management and the social sciences. However, much of this research is presented in specialist journals and in books, a form of publication which business historians—like other historians—regard as essential for understanding complex issues, but which most management and social science researchers seldom read. As a result, business history research is often overlooked, even by scholars who assert that “history matters” or emphasize the importance of path dependencies. This Handbook seeks to liberate this research, by presenting it in a form that researchers in other disciplines can discover and access.

For many years by far the most recognized scholar in business history was Alfred D. Chandler Jr. Although business history had been written for several decades before Chandler began publishing in the late 1950s and 1960s, he is rightly (p. 2) regarded as the founder of the modern subject. Chandler was so influential not only because he undertook first‐rate historical research, but also because he advanced a number of general propositions which exercised enormous influence on a generation of management researchers. In three major studies, each dealing with the growth of big business in manufacturing since the nineteenth century and its role in the growth of the United States as the world's largest economy, Chandler identified the role of organization building and professional management in the performance of firms. Chandler (1962), in a study which considers the growth of the multidivisional organization during the first half of the twentieth century, argued that new organizational structures result from changes in the strategic direction of firms. Chandler (1977), which examined the rise of large‐scale business in the United States before 1940, explored why professional managers replaced markets in co‐coordinating goods and services. Chandler (1990), which made a comparison between the United States, Great Britain, and Germany, showed how firms that made a three‐pronged investment in production, distribution, and management were able to become first‐movers in many industries.

The influence of Chandler's insights and research is acknowledged in many essays in this volume. Some essays are focused on the central themes in Chandler's work, such as the growth of big business (Cassis) and innovation (Graham). However the chapters in the Handbook also demonstrate how far contemporary business history has moved beyond the Chandlerian paradigm, with its focus on large manufacturing firms, mass production, mass distribution, and corporate R&D; its presentation of the US case as a normative, even teleological model of business development; and its explanation of the rise of the modern managerial enterprise as a functional response to the imperatives of markets and technologies.

The chapters in this Handbook demonstrate how research agendas have changed and broadened. There is much more research on forms of business enterprise beyond the large, vertically integrated, horizontally diversified, professionally managed corporation. These include industrial districts and clusters (Zeitlin), family enterprises (Colli and Rose), business groups (Fruin), and entrepreneurial start‐ups (Jones and Wadhwani). There is also much more emphasis on the porous and variable boundaries of the firm (many of whose “core” functions such as finance, research, or human resource management may be wholly or partially externalized) in different national, sectoral, and historical contexts, as well as on the reciprocal interactions between business enterprises and their cultural and political environment. There has also been a distinct shift in chronological focus. While the hundred years between 1850 and 1950 were central to Chandler's work, the Handbook essays report extensive research conducted on the business history of the second half of the twentieth century. This was an era during which, for example, large diversified and integrated firms were replaced in part by markets or networks, while the global pre‐eminence of US‐based firms was challenged in many sectors.

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Even where the focus remains Chandlerian, addressing big business, mass distribution, or corporate R&D, the Handbook chapters demonstrate how recent scholarship has greatly qualified if not overturned altogether some of the key claims of the Chandlerian paradigm, concerning the national and sectoral incidence of large managerial enterprises, the origins and effectiveness of the multidivisional form, and the centrality of internal “paths of learning” to technological innovation. Business historians have not converged on a full‐fledged alternative to the Chandlerian paradigm, but the field has nonetheless evolved over the past generation in a much more open and pluralistic direction.

The Handbook shows that the growth of comparative research has been an important driver of changing scholarly agendas. While the prevalence of quantitative methodologies and the consequent need for large datasets has contributed to an overwhelming focus on the United States in many areas of management research, the chapters in this Handbook demonstrate how far business history has developed into a truly international and comparative field, and how much it has to gain by embracing a more fully global perspective. Most business historians still work primarily within their own national frameworks. This provides one important obstacle to accessing the literature, which is often written in languages other than English. However, as the following chapters show, the leading scholars in the field are increasingly capable of drawing sophisticated, fine‐grained comparisons across different countries and regions, at least among the advanced industrialized economies of North America, Western Europe, and East Asia. A number of the contributors to this Handbook examine the cross‐border activities and strategies of firms, states, business associations, cartels, entrepreneurial diaspora, and other transnational actors. Their international and comparative perspective raises new questions about national trajectories of business development, and enables business historians to contribute actively to current debates in adjacent fields such as comparative political economy and global history.

The wide‐ranging topics and approaches covered by this Handbook reflect the fact that business history, as both a body of literature and a community of academic researchers, has both a narrow and a broad definition. The narrower definition includes researchers who conduct primary archival research, although using a plurality of sources and methods, on the history of business enterprises, who belong to the professional business history societies now established in many countries, and publish in the “core” business history journals, including Business History, Business History Review, Enterprises et Histoire, Enterprise & Society, Japan Business History Review, and Zeitschrift für Unternehmensgeschichte. The broader definition comprises scholars from a variety of social science disciplines (including management studies) who study the historical development of business (sometimes doing original archival research of their own, and sometimes bringing new theoretical perspectives and conceptual frameworks to bear on existing research).

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These two circles interact and enrich the field, which remains open to multiple methodologies and new questions, without falling under the spell of crippling orthodoxies which constrain research agendas. This is evident in the four opening chapters of the Handbook on the relationship between business history and other adjacent disciplines (history, neo‐classical economics, evolutionary/institutional economics, and management), as well as in many of the more thematic chapters that explore key issues in contemporary political economy and/or management debates, including corporate governance (Herrigel), entrepreneurship (Jones and Wadhwani), industrial districts (Zeitlin), finance (Lescure), business interest associations (Lanzalaco), and skill formation and training (Thelen).

The “open architecture” of business history as a discipline means that it is unusually well‐placed to participate in vigorous two‐way exchanges with scholars in adjacent fields. On the one hand, careful empirical research by business historians can effectively challenge or qualify many of the “stylized facts” on which influential theoretical analyses in the social sciences sometimes rest. Corporate governance and financial systems are particularly striking examples, as few if any of the typological frameworks influential in the comparative literature (insiders vs. outsiders, stakeholders vs. stockholders, banks vs. capital markets, common vs. civil law) can account persuasively for the range of variation observed by historians over long time periods within and across countries. On the other hand, comparative social‐scientific analyses suggest new questions for business historians, concerning the morphology and explanation of cross‐national differences in the organization of business interest associations, the development of vocational education and training systems, and other similar issues which have not hitherto figured prominently in national historiographies.

The organization of this volume reflects and embodies these broad trends in the field. Part I examines the central methodological approaches and theoretical debates within business history, while situating them in terms of its complex, overlapping relationship to other adjacent fields. Part II surveys a variety of forms of business organization and emphasizes the diversity of routes to economic efficiency and business success in different times and contexts. Part III focuses on a series of key functional activities of business enterprise (including some that are often neglected in the narrower business history literature such as design and engineering and accounting systems), analyzing the variety of institutional mechanisms through which these have been performed inside and outside the firm itself. Part IV considers the changing relationship between firms and their wider social, cultural, and political contexts, stressing the reciprocal interactions between enterprise and society.

No single volume can be fully comprehensive. There are topics to which the editors would have liked to devote greater coverage. These include the regulatory role of the state, for example through antitrust/competition, industrial, and (p. 5) environmental policy, which is addressed in the chapters by Millward on business and the state and by Fear on cartels among others, but which merits more extensive comparative analysis.

There are two serious omissions caused by the inability of the commissioned authors to complete chapters due to other obligations. We had hoped to include a chapter on the role of gender in business by Mary Yeager. This is an important research area which is highlighted in a number of chapters, including Fridenson, Colli and Rose, Jones and Wadhwani, and Lipartito, but which deserves a full‐scale chapter of its own in which the largely national studies to date could be placed in a systematic comparative context. Kwolek‐Folland (1998) provides a pioneering historical overview of women in business in the United States, while Yeager (1999) provides an edited collection of studies from around the world.

The editors had also hoped to include essays on business history in developing countries, but this goal was abandoned after C. K. Lai was unable to complete his essay on the business history of the Chinese‐speaking world. The literature on the history of business beyond the United States, Western Europe, and Japan is not extensive, but it is growing. Both Canada and Australia have quite extensive business history literatures which are rarely incorporated into wider narratives (Taylor and Baskerville 1994; Fleming et al. 2004). The literature on developing countries is scarcer, and also overlooked. Monolingual English speakers are often simply unaware of the increasingly rich literature in Spanish on Latin America and in Chinese on East Asia. Family firms and business groups feature extensively in much of this literature, as do relations with governments and the historical impact of imperialism. A number of chapters in this Handbook, however, do extend their thematic analyses beyond the industrialized world to cover the colonial, post‐colonial, and emerging markets in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. For further information, there are valuable surveys of the business history literature on China by Faure (2006), on India by Tripathi (2004), and on Latin America by Barbero (2003). Tignor (2007) discusses the limited research undertaken as yet on the business history of Africa.

References

Barbero, María Ines (2003). “Business History in Latin America: Issues and Debates”, in F. Amatori and G. Jones (eds.), Business History around the World. New York: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Chandler, A. D. (1962). Strategy and Structure: Chapters in the History of the American Industrial Enterprise. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.Find this resource:

—— (1977). The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.Find this resource:

—— (1990). Scale and Scope. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.Find this resource:

(p. 6) Faure, D. (2006). China and Capitalism: A History of Business Enterprise in Modern China. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.Find this resource:

Fleming, G., Merrett, D., and Ville, S. (2004). The Big End of Town: Big Business and Corporate Leadership in Twentieth‐Century Australia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Kwolek‐Folland, A. (1998). Incorporating Women: A History of Women and Business in the United States. New York: Twayne.Find this resource:

Taylor, G. D., and Baskerville, P. A. (1994). A Concise History of Business in Canada. Toronto: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Tignor, R. L. (2007). “The Business Firm in Africa”. Business History Review, 81/1, p. 87–110.Find this resource:

Tripathi, D. (2004). The Oxford History of Indian Business. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Yeager, M. (ed.) (1999). Women in Business. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.Find this resource: