Quick Takes About The World Congress of Business History

8 09 2021

Observations About the Programme of the World Congress of Business History

Even though it is a virtual conference and won’t be taking place in the lovely city of Nagoya, I’m looking forward to attending the WCBH in a few days time. I’m not presenting any papers there, but several of my co-authors will be presenting and I plan to show for their sessions, of course, and as many of the other sessions my time zone and other commitments permit.

I’m going to share some observations about patterns I’ve observed in the programme.

First, I think that the decision to make Deirdre McCloskey a keynote speaker was an inspired choice. Professor McCloskey is a distinguished historical researcher whose outputs span a wide range of research methodologies, qualitative and quantitative. She is the author of two dozen books and four hundred or so articles on subjects ranging from statistical theory to literary criticism, is a retired professor of economics, and, by courtesy, of History, English, and communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Educated in economics and economic history at Harvard, she was a tenured member of the famous Chicago School of economics, 1968-1980, when it was inventing among other subjects, modern financial economics and quantitative economic history. Her early writings were on British economic history, opposed to the studies of entrepreneurship emanating from the Harvard School of Business. But after many decades she has come to understand the human creativity that made for modern economic growth, and therefore to criticize the machinery she once thought explained it. Holder of eleven honorary degrees and numerous book prizes, she taught for many years in France and Greece at the EDAMBA summer school on management theory and practice.

In her recent work, McCloskey has advanced a theory of economic-historical causation that could, in my view, provide the basis of the new master narrative or framework that the discipline of business history needs now that the Chandlerian framework that formerly gave coherence to the field of business history but which has ceased to be used by most business historians (see here and here) and business-history adjacent strategy scholars, international business academics, and economists. McCloskey’s theory of economic history is designed to answer the ultra-important question of why did the industrial capitalism and modern economic growth emerge when and where it did (north-western Europe a few centuries ago) rather than elsewhere or at another time. Various answers to this question have emerged: economists who are fond of the rational-actor model stressed the causal importance of the development of political institutions that protected entrepreneurs’ property rights, while Joel Mokyr and his friends point our attention to the sharing of practical knowledge that was part of the Enlightened economy. Still others focus on the forces that made England a relatively high-wage, cheap energy economy. McCloskey’s answer in Bourgeois Dignity posits for a thriving capitalist economy to emerge in  country, its culture needs to give respect to commerce and to business people. For most of human history, trade and commerce were denigrated as dirty. Many traditional cultures were decidedly anti-business (e.g. in the status system of Tokugawa Japan, merchants ranked below the samurai and the peasants and just above the untouchables). McCloskey argues that when the culture of a society changes so that it is more sympathetic to business people, that’s when you start to see the emergence of a thriving capitalist economy.

Let me be clear: McCloskey isn’t arguing that we need a culture in which everything every business person does to make a profit is respected and lauded (she acknowledges that businessmen sometimes do crappy things). However, her theory of historical causation is that if we want prosperity, we need a culture that is broadly respectful towards businesspeople.  It seems to me that this theory of historical causation, which clearly has implications for present-day issues such as the depiction of business people in popular culture, could be a good one for the business history community to adopt as a unifying framework. I think that it ticks all of the right boxes, as it is a theory that can be applied empirically to a range of different countries and temporal periods (unlike the Chandlerian paradigm, which only really helps us to make sense of post-1850 business history) and can be applied in qualitative, quantitative, and mixed method research.  

My second main observation about the programme of the WCBH is that is, unsurprisingly, delightfully international. I don’t just mean that the programme is international in the sense that there are presenters from many countries there. That’s true of the Academy of Management, where more than half of the presenters are academics with non-US institutional affiliations. What I mean is that the paper topics are themselves very international and display an awareness of national context in understanding case studies. I find that at the Academy of Management one ends up listening to many papers that happen to be by non-American academics but which are either based on US data or which are based on data from another country but in which national context is only incidentally relevant to the authors’ main point.

My third observation is that I am very pleased that there are so many Chinese business historians who are part of the conference. I see business historians with the following institutional affiliations: School of Government, Peking University; Xiamen University; Tianjin University; Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences). I know that engagement with the now large community of Chinese business historians is controversial with some business historians in the Western democracies, particularly those who live in the UK, a country that is fully signed up to New Cold War. Some business historians argue that we shouldn’t really interact with Chinese business historians, let alone attend business history conferences in mainland China, on moral grounds related to China’s  domestic policies. They effectively want us to treat business historians in the PRC in the same way academics in apartheid South Africa were treated in the 1980s. Others have argued that while engaging with business historians in mainland China is ethically permissible, it’s basically  a waste of time since a scholar working in the confines of “social science with Chinese characteristics” is unlikely to produce research with much value to us. Essentially, these people are saying that a business historian who attends a Chinese business history conference is going to get as little from attending as a Western geneticist who attended a biology conference in the Soviet Union during the dark days of Lysenko-ism. I profoundly disagree with both arguments. I see lots of excellent work being done by Chinese business historians, including scholars who work in PRC universities. Moreover, when one attends any social-scientific conference, one is bound to encounter a certain amount of highly dubious, ideologically-driven research (think of the low-quality Anglo-American research highlighted by the Grievance Studies Hoax) that wastes your time. During the Trump Presidency, otherwise great paper presentations by US academics would often by marred by a ritualistic denunciation of Trump that wasted a minute or two at the start. My attitude to this ritual was “Listen, nobody here likes Trump but I didn’t fly here to listen to you do a third-rate copy of Rachel Maddow. Let’s hear about your research.” My point is that a certain amount of time-wastage due to ideology is just par for the course when one attends any academic conference, regardless of where the social scientists in question are from.  


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