Is Business History Now Sexy?

7 04 2013

For the longest while, business history was deeply unfashionable in North American history departments. Indeed, many of the people doing research on business history migrated to other disciplines. That’s changing, as the New York Times reports on page A1 of today’s city edition. See here.

After decades of “history from below,” focusing on women, minorities and other marginalized people seizing their destiny, a new generation of scholars is increasingly turning to what, strangely, risked becoming the most marginalized group of all: the bosses, bankers and brokers who run the economy.

Even before 2008, classes dealing with the history of capitalism were starting to make their way back into the curriculum. The GFC accelerated this trend for a number of reasons, the most important of which, I think, the frequency with which journalists and policymakers compared the crisis to the 1929 stock market crash.

The article discusses the growing community of scholars who teach history majors about the history of business. Photographs of Julia Ott, Stephen Mihm, and Bethany Moreton are included.  These historians are members of the Business History Conference. Many scholars today identify with the label “history of capitalism” rather than “business history” and approach the study of the past with a set of assumptions very different from that of traditional  business history associated with Alfred Chandler. Fairly typical of the new type of business history is Bethany Moreton’s fascinating book To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise (Harvard University Press, 2009).This book is a cultural history of Wal-Mart that shows how evangelical Protestantism was used to justify the free market and to attack the cultural and political foundations of the New Deal. It’s about an alliance of Deep South entrepreneurs, largely female evangelical employees, and free-market ideologues. Moreton’s research combines an interest in business history with the study of gender and religion. It is also decidedly non-celebratory, in sharp contrast to some earlier works in the field.  Indeed, the book’s page on the HUP website notes that “The author has assigned her royalties and subsidiary earnings to Interfaith Worker Justice and its local affiliate in Athens, GA, the Economic Justice Coalition.” 

Business history, which has the company as its basic unit of analysis, should not be confused with econometric history, which is both far more quantitative and interested in macro developments. (I’m currently at the Economic History Society Conference and have been listening to presentations by both econometric historians as well as narrative business historians. It is fascinating watching the two groups in dialogue). However, my impression is that economic history is increasingly important in economics departments.   Business history of a type is also being re-integrated into the curriculum of many management schools. The Rotman School of Business in Toronto has committed to nurturing Canadian business history.

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