Some Big Unanswered Questions in Business History

3 05 2021

The business historian Peter Scott published the following on social media

“I am interested in what the BH [business history] community considers the most important business/economic history questions that we haven’t yet answered. I am not talking about emerging areas/new perspectives, but important questions for which there are major data or methodological problems to providing answers. Any examples would be much appreciated.”

This is an excellent post, as it deals with empirical questions in BH for which we don’t yet have answers. It seems, to me at least, that following business-historical questions are the ones that most desperately needs answering:

  1. To what extent were decisions by British managers responsible for the slowdown in UK productivity growth relative to Germany and the United States that began in the late 1890s and which is visible in the data produced by Nick Crafts, Stephen Broadberry, etc? The Chandlerian explanation is that British firms were wedded to family capitalism longer than their German and American rivals. Alternative explanations include the hypothesis that the main culprit is educational malpractice:  British business families spent too much money educating their sons in Latin and not enough in chemistry and the other subjects associated with the Second Industrial Revolution. This question involves qualitative business historians using firm-level data in corporate archives to help to answer an empirical answer that our colleagues in the field of economic history cannot answer using their preferred research methods?
  2. To what extent was the achievement by 1950 of leadership positions in most industries by US firms a function of factors other than the favourable geographical position of the United States, which insulated American firms from the most devastating effects of the two world wars? In his rejoinder to the claims of Chandler, Les Hannah argued that the real reason US firms overtook British firms in technological prowess had nothing to do with the trends perceived by Chandler and everything to do with the fact the US, unlike the UK, wasn’t bombed and otherwise devastated during the world wars.
  3. How did decisions taken within British firms cause and respond to the putative Engels’s Pause of the nineteenth century? The Engels’s Pause was a period of about a generation in which working-class living standards stagnated even though GDP per capita and TFP continued to increase. There is intense interest today in this Pause because it appears to be similar to the experience of the United States since about 1980.
  4. Which firms took the lead in developing the global factories associated with the Global Value Chain Revolution of the 1980s and 1990s? Answering this question would involve using largely qualitative methods and firm-level data to deepen our understanding of the unbundling pattern that the economist Richard Baldwin identifies as the Global Value Chain Revolution?
  5. To what extent did managerial decisions contribute to the post-1973 growth slowdown in the United States? Explaining the growth slowdown is literally a trillion dollar question and any business historian who can make a credible contribution to the debate about what caused it and what can be done to solve it would, in my view, be well rewarded in professional terms.

Please note that I am aware that these questions have a very narrow North Atlantic economies comparative focus. I’m certain that business historians who formulated research questions about the so-called Great Divergence would also be doing very important work and would be justly rewarded by the academic labour market. Similarly, I’m aware that these questions all relate to the last 150 or so years and that research questions on older topics, such as the long-term roots of the British Industrial Revolution or the role of the Scientific Revolution in the Great Divergence would also be important.


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