My Observations About The 2023 BHC

17 03 2023

Sadly, I wasn’t able to get to the 2023 Business History Conference in Detroit as the dates clashed with some teaching commitments. Next week is my last week of teaching at the University of Liverpool as I am about start work at the University of Birmingham’s Business School. With everything going on, the logistics of a flying visit to Detroit were just too complicated. However, I do have paper on the programme of the BHC, which will be delivered by my excellent co-author Emily Buchnea of Newcastle Business School, abstract below. I also have some observations about some patterns I’ve observed in the BHC conference programme that I would like to share.   

  1. Changes in theoretical orientation of the management theorist who attend the BHC. When I first started attending the BHC, most of the management scholars who attended were people who used theory taken from transaction-cost economics (think of Williamson, 1975) and whose working model of the world overlapped with that of Chandler. For instance, I encountered Richard N. Langlois at my very first BHC. Richard is going to be at the 2023 BHC to present a paper, which is great. However, I also see management academics who use different theoretical frames at this conference, such as Andrew Hargadon, University of California, Davis and Andrew Nelson, University of Oregon. This greater theoretical diversity is probably a good thing. (I supposed I would say that, as I tend to be a theoretical magpie, as I strongly believe in borrowing and combining theory from widely separated fields of social science).  
  2. The presence of the Canadian Business History Association (CBHA).

This year, the CBHA will be represented at the BHC in a serious way for the first time. (In the past, the CBHA sponsored a nice reception that was em-ceed by the late Chris Kobrak but it didn’t sponsor panels by researchers). At this year’s BHC, the CBHA is sponsoring a panel (details below). I think that this development should be welcomed by all business historians and not just those with a strong interest in Canadian topics. In recent years, the number of Canadians attending the BHC, the premier conference for academic research in business history on the North American continent, has declined. The number of Canadians presenting at the BHC has fallen even though the organization devoted to promoting research on Canadian business history has acquired substantial resources to cover the expenses of presenters. One would have thought that this funding would have incentivized Canadian scholars to attend the BHC, thereby reversing the decline in the representation of Canadian historical topics at the BHC. The CBHA recently completed a major fundraising drive that netted C$2m. It seems that this money is now being used to more effectively incentivize Canadian academics to attend the BHC and to engage with the interdisciplinary community of business historians who attend that conference. I’m encouraged to see this trend, as the business history of Canada is a massively under-researched, and important, topic.

Session a: Global Capitalisms and Commodities, Part 1
Founders A (3)
Sponsored by the Canadian Business History Association Contact: Donica Belisle,

Chair: Laurent Beduneau-Wang, Mohammed VI Polytechnic University
Discussant: The Audience

M. Stephen Salmon, Canadian Business History Association
““Buffalo is also a strategic point”: The Imperial Economic Conference of 1932 and the Canadian Great Lakes Grain Trade” 
Kashia Arnold, University of California, Santa Barbara
“Who Depends on the Global Economy?: Silk, Power, and Nationalist Narratives in the Global Pacific” 
Rob Konkel, Yale University
“How to Build a Bloc: Strategic Minerals and Interwar Quests for Autonomy and Autarky” 

A Family Firm Narrates Its History in War and Peace: Jardine Matheson And Its Histories

Presenting author Andrew Smith. Co-authors: Ian Jones (University of York Management School), Nick Wong (Northumbria University), Emily Buchnea (Northumbria University). Jardine Matheson remains an important conglomerate in the Asia-Pacific region. It continues to be controlled by the Keswicks, a British family. The firm traces its origins back to Jardine, Matheson & Co., a firm established in 1832 and which acquired great wealth importing opium into China. It later diversified into a range of less controversial industries. The firm, which now generates a majority of its profits in Greater China, has long been adept at managing political risk. This ability to manage political risks helps to explain why it has survived such cataclysmic events as the Second World War, the Maoist period, and decolonization. Since the 1930s, the firm and its controlling family have invested significant resources in preserving historical documents and narrating the firm’s history. The company has commissioned a succession of official histories, the first of which was published in 1934. Our focus is on understanding how the firm’s depiction of its own history has changed over time and how these changes reflected both shifts in its operating environment and changes in the overall strategy of the firm. In comparing different versions of the firm’s official history, we observed marked differences in how the firm’s history, particularly its controversial early period, is discussed. To learn more about the how the firm and its own family have narrated its past, we undertook a systemic comparison of the commissioned histories produced by the firm. Moreover, we used internal correspondence materials in the Jardine Matheson corporate archive to observe internal conversations within the firm about which materials should and should not be included in the official histories. Our findings should interest historians who study international business in the Asia-Pacific region and the growing number of management scholars interested in how family firms use historical narratives.



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