Connecting the Histories of International Business and “Otherization”: What Business History Can Offer International Business Scholars Who Want to Become Relevant Again

30 03 2017

Andrew Smith: This is the abstract of the paper I will be presenting today at a pre-conference workshop here at the Business History Conference. 

Judging by the content of the leading journals in their field, International Business (IB) scholars have paid little attention to how the imagined communities of race, faith, and ethnicity influence the strategies of multinational firms. In recent years, the terms “othering” and “otherization,” which were previously used postcolonialist academics, have become part of the lexicon of political commentators on both sides of the Atlantic. The Oxford English Dictionary identified “otherize”.  Otherization is the process by which a racial, religious, or ethnic group is deemed to be exotic, alien, and interior to the observer. In March 2016, National Public Radio in the United States noted that this word was being by analysts to describe a particular presidential campaign’s methods of representing those who are perceived to be outside the national community.  These development have profound implications f or multinational firms, particularly those with multicultural global workforces.  Indeed, the managers of the world’s leading corporations appear to be increasingly worried about the rise of populism and xenophobia. Multicultural global capitalism appears to be under attack. Otherization and xenophobia, terms whose use was once confined to left-wing academics and activists, is now being used in debates about the future of global capitalism.  Business people are aware that there has been a change in the mind-set of many voters, consumers, and policymakers.


Historians will note that the process of otherization is nothing new and the level of ‘otherization’ in the world is not a fixed constant but a variable that changes over time. To become relevant again, IB scholars should become more historical. By becoming more historical, I mean that IB scholars should both take advantage of historical empirical data for theory testing and development and should engage with such issues as otherization, two themes that are very important to scholars in history departments.  In my  paper, I call on historians of international business to do for the Otherization of racial, ethnic, and religious groups  what international business historians are starting to do for warfare: to combine serious archival research and IB theory so as to produce scholarly works that can inform managerial concerns in the present. My paper will sketch several  ways in which historians of international business can develop our understanding how the shifts in mindsets associated with Otherization have influenced how commercial activity across the imagined borders of races and civilizations have been conducted. It is my contention that by exploring how such “large-group” identities influenced the operation of international business in the past, we can help IB scholars to think about the impact of Otherization in the present, and possible future.



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