Does Africa Need Business History? What About Canada?

16 05 2013

That’s the title of a new post by Dr Stephanie Decker over on the NEP-HIS blog. Decker points out that Africa has been particularly under-studied by business historians, in part because of a shortage of archival materials. Decker writes:

With perhaps the exception of South Africa, it is difficult for students of African business to write an archivally based history of business without traveling internationally.

Johannesburg’s CBD

Decker’s post got me thinking about other topics, regions, and countries that are understudied by business historians. Many, but not all, of these countries are in the developing world. I suspect that if we were to do a bibliometric survey of business-historical literature and then compare it to, say, the populations of various countries, we would find that Britain and the United States have been reasonably well studied. (Obviously there is plenty of additional valuable work to be done. No country’s business history will ever be exhaustively researched). Africa, on the other hand, is clearly under-studied. I’m not certain how Canada would fit into this picture. Canada’s population is roughly half that of the UK but the number of historians of Canadian business in proportionately small. Canada lacks organizations similar to the UK’s Business Archives Council and the Association of Business Historians. [Recently a small organization of Canadian business historians was launched. It is a great initiative  but it is much smaller in scale than the ABH]. In the UK, substantial numbers of business historians are trained at the Universities of Glasgow and Reading. There aren’t equivalent programmes in Canada. As a result, there are just a handful of scholars working on Canadian business history.  The existing state of affairs is hard to justify, given that Canada is a rich country with lots of universities, lots of historians, and a great network of archives.

All of this raises the question of what business history is good for. Why is it important for a society to know about its economic past? How does Joe Taxpayer, the person who pays for all of this research, benefit from the study of business history?

Personally, I think that business history is very important. It can inform public policy, improve decision-making within firms, and advance our overall understanding of how societies have evolved. It is valuable in developed countries and is probably even more important in nations that are still in the process of developing their institutions.

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