CFP: From Public Interest to Private Profit: The Changing Political and Social Legitimacy of International Business

6 11 2015

AS: This CFP for a workshop at Toronto’s Rotman School of Management should interest many of my readers. Most of the attendees will be business historians and political economy scholars. We have been told that paper abstracts and CVs should be sent the local organizer, Prof. Chris Kobrak. The other main organizer is Dr William Pettigrew at Kent, who currently holds a large Leverhulme Trust grant to support his very interesting project on the Global Determinants of the English Constitution.

From Public Interest to Private Profit: The Changing Political and Social Legitimacy of International Business

Corporations started their lives as social, political, as well as commercial entities. Organizations like guilds and municipalities concentrated on the local government of economic activity. From the later middle ages, Europeans began to use corporations to stimulate and govern international commerce. Organizations like the Hanseatic League and the Merchant Adventurers Company began to adapt the corporation’s traditional concern with the exercise of local authority to the challenges of pursuing international sources of profit. By the nineteenth century, corporations became less accountable to the societies and states that had once legitimated their privileges and became more self-consciously economic, private, and financial organizations. Since then, many interests have attempted to reintroduce the social purpose of corporations. This has happened with different emphases across geographical and cultural contexts. In continental European countries, for example, the social remit of corporations has proven more durable than in Anglo-Saxon countries. Family businesses with paternalistic policies have emphasized the social dimension of their activities. Over the past two decades, corporate social responsibility has become the latest manifestation of this historic attempt to restore the social role of business. Throughout these developments multinationals have played a special role, because of their size and due to their multicultural social and political impact.

This long-term narrative of the erosion of the local and social dimensions of the corporation suggests a number of important questions.

  1. What role did the internationalization of the corporation play in altering the balance of the three historic dimensions of corporations – the social, political, and commercial?
  1. How did the development of market theories of international commerce in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries work alongside this internationalization to further detach corporations from their social and political roots?
  1. Why has the social purpose of corporations become so different in different social contexts?

Funded by a grant from the Leverhulme Trust in the UK, and hosted by the Centre for the Political Economies of International Commerce (PEIC) at the University of Kent, UK, and the Business History Group at the Rotman School of Business, this two-day conference in Toronto on 5 and 6 May, 2016 will bring historians, business historians, management scholars, and business practitioners together to discuss these and other questions within a long timeframe and within a cross-disciplinary framework.

Between the seventeenth century and the present, the corporation evolved from a society for government into a profit-seeking entity. How should we understand that history and what is its significance for the 21st century world? A longitudinal history of the multinational corporation not only informs present day businesses about the development of the corporate entity, but also sheds light on its relationships with state authority and public society, offers new insights into the corporation’s broader historical significance, and suggests how its current social and economic roles and responsibilities might develop in the future. Tracing the history of the trading corporation from its sixteenth and seventeenth century genesis through to the present day provides a long-term perspective on the changes and continuities within corporate life as well as some of the pressing policy questions that business historians are well placed to answer: how might the corporation rediscover its social purpose; how feasible is a cross-cultural consensus on the moral and social rationales of transnational businesses; how can global commercial concerns consider their local societal obligations?

This conference will offer an interdisciplinary forum in which to discuss these arenas of corporate life and their change over time. The conversation will offer members of the business community the opportunity to place present day corporate activity into an instructive historical context and to discuss how corporate actors in the past addressed challenges and problems parallel to those facing corporations today. Representatives of corporations will offer their experience about international business to assist the scholarly understanding of how corporations operate and how present day issues and concerns can inform understandings of the past.

The event will include a keynote lecture, an opening panel from business practitioners in which the present-day challenges facing international corporations are discussed. The first day of the conference will focus on the period: 1600-1850. The second day will focus on 1850 to the present day. The conference will end with a summative panel session in which business practitioners reflect on the place of present day corporations in their five-century history.

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