Here are some thoughts on the state of business history in the age of Donald Trump
If Donald Trump represents the worst aspects of the United States, the Business History Conference represents the very best. At the BHC, American philanthropy, American academic excellence, and American creativity come together to produce a genuinely impressive annual event that attracts business historians from around the world. It is always inspirational to come to the BHC to see top quality researchers present their findings. In the metrics-focused, over-managed UK higher education sector, the research institutions tend to incentivize volume of publications over creativity in research, normal science over truly innovative research. That’s not the case in the US. It is very healthy hanging around North American academics who manage to combine good research, dedicated teaching, and vibrant non-work lives. The absence of the REF system in North America makes workaholic tendencies less common in the US than the UK sector, in general.
This year, the organizers of the BHC made a decision to hold the conference on the West Coast of the US with a view to encouraging participation by Asian business historians. Business history has always been strong in Japan, but it appears to be growing in importance in mainland Asia as well, as Chinese and other universities develop their research capacity in this area. There was a good contingent of PhD students and academics from Kyoto University, which is an emerging research pole. Kyoto is training up a generation of business historians from mainland Asia, which is very encouraging to see.
I presented three papers at this year’s BHC (actually I presented two of them, with a third being presented by my excellent co-author, Miriam Kaminishi). At a pre-conference PDW workshop, I presented a paper in which I explore how archivally-focused business historians can contribute to the application of the Judgement-Based View to entrepreneurship research. I got great feedback there. On day 1 of the main conference, we presented a research paper at a panel on New Takes on Entrepreneurship.
Chair: Sabine Rau, King’s College London
Discussant: Mary Yeager, University of California, Los Angeles
Mark Casson, University of Reading, Teresa da Silva Lopes, University of York, and Geoffrey Jones, Harvard Business School
International Business Theory and Expatriate Entrepreneurship: Why Explaining the Unconventional Matters
Miriam Kaminishi, Macau University of Science and Technology, and Andrew D. Smith, University of Liverpool
A Postcolonial Reading of Western Representations of Chinese Entrepreneurship in the Treaty Port Period, 1841-1911
On Day 2, I presented another paper at the Varieties of Corporate Governance
Chair: William Hausman, College of William & Mary
Discussant: Chris Kobrak, Rotman School of Management
Sakari Siltala, University of Helsinki
Spheres of Influence: The Finnish Forest Industries Association and the Birth of Pillarisation in Finnish Society at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century
Nandini Chandar, Rider University, Paul Miranti, Rutgers Business School, and Deirdre Collier, Fairrleigh Dickinson University
Finance, Organization, and Democracy at the Bell System: The Case of Bell Telephone Securities, 1921-1935
Andrew Smith, University of Liverpool, Jason Russell, SUNY – Empire State College, and Kevin Tennent,University of York
Rediscovering the Radical Stakeholder Theory of Corporate Governance of Berle and Means
I got very helpful feedback at both panels that will be very useful going forward. I also served as a discussant at an excellent panel on new research on Canadian business history.
Laurence B. Mussio, McMaster University
The Canadian Banking Ascendancy: Power, Authority and Reputation in Canadian Banking, 1895-1929
Thomas Foth, University of Ottawa, and Cheryl S. McWatters, University of Ottawa
Making the Case for Investment in Mental Health in the First Half of the Twentieth Century: Scientific Administration of the Canadian Mental Hospital
Matthew J. Bellamy, Carleton University
From ‘Pilsener’ to ‘Blue’: The Rebranding of Labatt’s Lager, 1962-1970
I should mention that at this year’s BHC, Donald Trump was something of a running joke, which I suppose isn’t surprising since basically all US historians and management academics despise this individual. The BHC presenters come from a variety of philosophical traditions ranging from socialist to libertarian, but pretty much every academic dislikes the hypernationalist and misogynistic presidential candidate who famously declared that he loves the “poorly educated”. Presenters worked humorous references to making America great again, etc, into their talks. For instance, one presenter said that he was planning to “make PowerPoint great again”.
P.S. An added bonus of the conference was that it was located next to a food festival where delegates could sample some of Portland’s amazing street food scene.