Constitutive Historicism in Barry Eichengreen’s Hall of Mirrors The Great Depression, The Great Recession, and the Uses-and Misuses-of History

21 04 2015

As readers of this blog are aware, I am very interested in how the constitutive historicism approach can be applied in management research (for an earlier blog post, see here). Constitutive historicism involves investigation how economic actors’ perceptions of their own place in historical time shape their strategies.  In other words, you look at the lessons others have derived from their reading of history. In a paper I delivered at the British Academy of Management last year and in some follow up papers I have advocated the application of this approach to a wide range of management-school research topics. Of course, I’m not the only one calling for this approach: see Wadhwani and Jones (2014) in Organizations in Time for a discussion of how we can use constitutive historicism to understand entrepreneurial decision-making.

I’m almost finished Barry Eichengreen’s great new book  Hall of Mirrors: The Great Depression, The Great Recession, and the Uses-and Misuses-of History. This book is filled with interesting information about interwar economic history, the recent global financial crisis and is therefore a must-read for anyone who teaches about these topics. Moreover, the quality of the writing is delightfully superior and should please anyone who appreciates a sardonic turn of phrase. The really interesting thing about the book, however, is that it is replete with comments about how actors’ perceptions of the past shaped their actions in the present, for better or for worse. Needless to say, Ben Bernanke, the economic historian turned Fed chair, appears frequently in the pages of this book.

Constitutive Historicism and the Staffordshire Potteries

11 02 2015

Frequent readers of this blog will be aware that I’m interested in constitutive historicism, which involves the investigation how economic actors’ perceptions of their own places in historical time shape their strategies. The term constitutive historicism comes from an 2014 paper by Dan Wadhwani and  Geoff Jones that suggests an entire new research agenda for scholars of entrepreneurship and other management topics.  In the course of illustrating what constitutive historicism research would look like in practice, Wadhwani and Jones note that “two entrepreneurs presented with a similar objective situation may interpret them in very different ways based on their historical understanding of the ways events have unfolded and the possible directions they may take in the future.”

My interest in constitutive historicism meant that I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that BBC Radio 4 has an entire programme devoted to public history (i.e., how non-historians engage with the past through museums and other heritage sites, Hollywood films, etc). The name of the programme is Making History. Heritage tourism is a big industry in the UK and many of the segments on the show appear to deal with that sort of thing.

I was particularly interested in a segment of this week’s Making History show that deals with recent developments the Potteries District in Staffordshire. This part of England will be known to overseas readers mainly because it was the home of Josiah Wedgwood, the entrepreneur who helped to industrialise the production of pottery in that region. (Wedgwood receives extensive coverage in Creating Modern Capitalism, a business history textbook used in many North American universities). At one point, Staffordshire was a busy hive of pottery production: kilns worked 24/7 the local area’s distinctive clay into goods exported to distant countries.

While the potteries industry of Staffordshire is now a shadow of its former self, at least judged by the size of its workforce, some potters are still active there.  Indeed, there has been a move to repurpose old pottery factories not as museums of pottery (there is already one) but as living commercial enterprises. Judging from the interviews with potters that were broadcast by Making History, it appears that many of the entrepreneurs who are attempting to build on Staffordshire’s heritage in pottery are inspired by the local area’s history. Indeed, the region’s heritage appears to have influenced the decision of one ceramic artist to relocate to Staffordshire from London.

This short report on a radio programme is obviously very different from an academic research paper. It nevertheless reinforced my view that the constitutive historicism approaching towards understanding entrepreneurial behaviour is a promising one.

The segment about the Potteries appeared at the end of the show.  You can download it as a podcast.

There is a small LinkedIn group for academics interested in researching constitutive historicism.


Wadhwani, R. D., & Jones, G. (2014). Schumpeter’s Plea: Historical Reasoning in Entrepreneurship Theory and Research. Organizations in time. History, theory, methods, 192-216.