A Modest Proposal

12 01 2022

In the past, my fellow business historians have discussed the pros and cons of universities offering degrees and/or individual courses with “Business History” in the name. (The alternative to offering such courses and modules is to incorporate business history into other courses and modules). Recent changes in the education market and technology have created the opportunity for a new way of teaching business history.

Let me explain what I mean. Microcredentials, which are very short online courses that give you a badge you can post on LinkedIn, are increasingly important in higher education, especially in the Asian markets. The ILO itself has observed the growing importance of microcredentials. Doing a very short course on Python or the basics of accounting or whatever sends great signals to employers (for one thing, it shows that you can learn independently). Most of us are familiar with the short certificate courses offered by universities and firms such as Microsoft and Bloomberg. Software packages such as Badgr makes it easier to deliver microcredentials, thus driving down barriers to entry. We might consider ways of creating business-history microcourses that professionals with an interest in business history could do. If delivered by senior scholars and a reputable non-profit organization, they could boost the profile/legitimacy of business history. I also see zero risk of such credentials stealing student demand away from traditional ways of teaching business history.

If delivered by senior scholars and a reputable non-profit organization, they could boost the profile/legitimacy of business history. More importantly, those of us who are university teachers could incorporate them into our classes by making them assignments to our students. Some academics already do something, similar for instance the replaced a mid-term exam with the requirement that the students complete MS Office certificate by the end of the semester. A similar online certificate on the basics of business history might increase the total volume of business history being taught worldwide and would make it easier for us to teach business history at a more advanced level. Such micro credential courses might be closely associated with existing online resources, such as the excellent Business History initiative of the Gies College of Business, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

I just thought I would throw this idea out there.

Opportunities to Do Generously Funded PhDs in Business History

6 01 2022

Historical Tensions between International Business and National Taxation: A Challenge for
Europe Today

Annual funding amount: 31,034 Euros pa pro rata to cover fees/stipend. Archival and project travel funds available

A team of business historians from the University of Bayreuth (Germany), Erasmus
University (Rotterdam), Charles University (Prague), and Coventry University (UK), are being
funded by the VolkswagenStiftung for a project that aims to analyse the historical dynamic
of the conflict of interest in relation to taxation between nation states and multi-national
enterprise (MNE). The historical cases examined in the project aim to reveal the complexity
of multi-layered interaction between states and MNE, and the long historical pathdependence of MNE and their global network of specialists.

Coventry University and Erasmus University are now inviting applications from suitablyqualified graduates for fully-funded PhD studentships – one to be held at each university – to
join the team in May 2022 and start work on the project. The successful candidates will
receive comprehensive research training including technical, personal and professional
skills. In addition, the studentships include funding and support for participation, together
with the project’s other PhD students, in various European PhD education programmes,
such as summer schools and courses.

The Coventry University PhD project comprises a case study of BP in the course of the
twentieth century. Against a background of international ideological ruptures (First World
War, 1930s Great Depression, Second World War, de-colonisation, the coming of the Iron
Curtain and fall of the Berlin Wall), the CU project will also focus on the nationalisation
policies of the postwar Labour government, and the progressive privatization of BP from
1979 under Thatcher.

For further details please contact Professor Neil Forbes n.forbes@coventry.ac.uk

The Erasmus University PhD project comprises a case study of the Anglo-Dutch Unilever
since the merger in 1930. Against a background of major international ruptures (1930s
Great Depression, Second World War, de-colonisation, the coming of the Iron Curtain and
fall of the Berlin Wall) this project will focus on Unilever’s connections to other
multinational companies in the UK and the Netherlands and particularly its relations with
the Dutch and British governments. Command of the Dutch and English languages is a

For further details please contact Professor Ben Wubs wubs@eshcc.eur.nl

Please note that the annual salary implied by this annual funding fee is considerably higher than what one would normally get as an ESRC funded PhD student at a UK university.

Application deadline is 24 January 2022. Full details available here.

The History of Business and Philanthropy

5 01 2022

Wednesday January 26th, 2021

Correct time: 5:00 pm EST 10:00pm GMT

It is generally understood that the prime function of any business enterprise is to generate profits; its central responsibility is to shareholders. The idea that business owners should also seek to perform social tasks is regarded as an ancillary activity. Historical evidence suggests that not all business leaders or organizations have been content simply to perform a commercial role in society. Numerous industrialists and entrepreneurs throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century made significant contributions to their local communities. The early efforts of socially responsible business leaders and companies are well documented. The character of corporate philanthropy has continued to evolve since the 19th Century along with changes in industry, society and the economy. From public service-minded business owners giving to church charities and pet projects, corporate philanthropy today takes on many forms, even as a broadly encompassing corporate social responsibility strategy. This panel will present and discuss the historical, contemporary, and future role of business and business leaders in the area of philanthropy.


Patricia Hardy is the CEO of The Tunnelwood Group, a strategic planning and consulting firm located in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Patricia is the former Director of Development at The University of Winnipeg and served as National Campaign Director of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. She is the author of A History of Philanthropy in Canada.

Steven Ayer is the President of Common Good Strategies. Steve has deep experience in strategy and insights. He has worked in analytics, research, and marketing and sales roles in the charitable sector. He also has experience as a senior researcher for Imagine Canada where he has authored numerous publications on social impact and revenue strategies for nonprofits. Most recently he led the research and writing of Toronto’s Vital Signs report for the Toronto Foundation.

Professor Charles Harvey is Professor of Business History and Management and Director of the Centre for Research on Entrepreneurship, Wealth and Philanthropy at the Newcastle University Business School.  His current research interests include entrepreneurship and philanthropy, business elites, and historical organization studies.  He has published extensively on these topics.

Attendees will need to register to attend. All registered participants will be given Zoom login information on January 25th.  

Call for applications BHC Doctoral Colloquium in Business History 2022 Mexico City

17 09 2021

Call for applications Dissertation Colloquium 2022 Mexico City [Venue is still undecided]

The BHC Doctoral Colloquium in Business History will be held on April 6th and 7th, 2022. We are strongly hoping to meet in Mexico, but because of the pandemic, it remains possible that this prestigious workshop for Ph.D. students could be held remotely via Zoom. Therefore, until the last moment, and depending on variants and cases in Mexico, we will keep the possibility of moving to a full online DC by February 2022 (TBC). We will also schedule a few professional development sessions at different times, which will be held remotely.

Typically limited to ten students, the colloquium is open to doctoral candidates pursuing dissertation research within the broad field of business history from any relevant discipline (e.g., from economic sociology, political science, cultural anthropology, or management, as well as history). Most participants are in year 3 or 4 or their degree program. However, in some instances, applicants at a later stage make a compelling case that their thesis research had evolved in ways that led them to see the advantages of an intensive engagement with business history.

We welcome proposals from students working within any thematic area of business history. See link for past examples and past participants.

Participants work intensively with a distinguished group of BHC-affiliated scholars (including the incoming BHC president), discussing dissertation proposals, relevant literatures and research strategies, and career trajectories.

Applications are due by Friday, December 10, 2021, via email to Carol Lockman (clockman@Hagley.org). Questions about the colloquium should be sent to its director, Prof. Eric Godelier (eric.godelier@polytechnique.edu). Applicants will receive notification of the selection committee’s decisions by Monday, January 17, 2022. If they travel to Mexico, all participants will receive a stipend that partially defrays travel costs to the annual meeting.

Colloquium participants have a choice of pre-circulating one of the following:

  • a 15-page dissertation prospectus or updated overview of the dissertation research plan; or
  • a draft dissertation chapter, along with a one-page dissertation outline/description. 

Participants should choose the option that they feel will most assist them at this stage in their research and writing. We will need either your prospectus/overview or your chapter draft and outline by April 1. Those will then be posted on a Colloquium webpage on the BHC website and shared with all participants to read them in advance.

The Colloquium director is Eric Godelier, Professor of Business History, Ecole Polytechnique (France). Interested students may direct inquiries to him at eric.godelier@polytechnique.edu

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.  

Kingston on Risk and the Insurance Business in History

6 08 2021

I’m reposting here a recent (well May 2021) EH.Net review of a new edited collection about the business history of insurances. It is great to see so much work being done in this area and that much of this work is informed by different types of theory, albeit theories very different from the sort of paradigms I normally work within.

Jerònia Pons and Robin Pearson, editors, Risk and the Insurance Business in History. Madrid: Fundación Mapfre, 2020. 290 pp. ISBN: 978-84-9844-753-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Chris Kingston, Department of Economics, Amherst College.

The history of insurance, as many authors have noted, has been relatively neglected by historians, including economic historians; but in recent years, with a steady growth of interest from scholars across a range of disciplines, the field has been expanding in geographic, historical and methodological scope.

In June 2019, two leading pioneers in the field, Jerònia Pons (University of Seville) and Robin Pearson (University of Hull) organized an international conference on “Risk and the Insurance Business in History” at the University of Seville. The conference brought together scholars of insurance and risk from a wide variety of academic and professional perspectives, with the explicit goal of creating a forum to encourage interdisciplinary dialogue. For insurance scholars, as this reviewer can attest, it was a rare and valuable opportunity to network, and a remarkably fertile, stimulating and enjoyable gathering. Hats off.

This collection of nine papers presented at the conference, edited by Pons and Pearson, is published with the support of the Mapfre Foundation, which also supported the conference itself. In a valuable and wide-ranging introduction, the editors weave together some of the disparate strands of the fragmented literatures on risk and insurance. Their survey takes in cultural theorists’ studies of how perceptions of risk, liability, and insurance vary across cultures; behavioral economists’ studies of the psychological anomalies that arise in decision-making under uncertainty; and sociologists and legal scholars’ approach to the insurance industry as a source of a kind of governance over risk-taking behavior among the insured. They also emphasize the omnipresent role of “the state” in multiple roles: as a provider of various kinds of insurance, as a source of risk through warfare, and as a fount of regulation that has the potential to constrain or encourage the development of insurance markets, organizations, and practices. The overarching point is to underscore the editors’ motivation for organizing the Seville conference: the diversity of approaches to the study of risk and insurance in history, and their belief in the potential for beneficial collaboration and cross-pollination.

While the quality of the contributions varies, and some might have benefited from more intensive editing, there are several very valuable papers in this collection that stretch the boundaries of the discipline and deserve to be widely read by those interested in insurance history and related fields.

Timothy Alborn tells the fascinating tale of how nineteenth-century British life insurers wrestled with the question of how to insure the lives of missionaries, soldiers and Victorian adventurers as they ventured to remote and frequently pestilential corners of the world and the Empire — areas about which the companies had only very scattered and incomplete information. These companies also made hesitant and frequently racially prejudiced forays into the business of insuring non-white colonial subjects of the Empire, even as it gradually became clear that the “civilized” locals often experienced better health and lower mortality in their native climes than did their European expatriate masters. In contrast, for the late nineteenth century American insurers whose efforts to expand into Latin America are adroitly described by Sharon Ann Murphy, the whole point was to insure the locals. Their efforts were however hampered by agency problems, ultimately collapsing as they abandoned the field to emergent domestic firms in the face of restrictive legislation, political uncertainty, and scandal.

Leonardo Caruana de las Cagigas and André Straus survey the legal development and the increasing role of state regulation of the insurance industry in France and Spain from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century, as new forms of insurance and organizational innovations emerged. Development in Spain generally lagged behind France, enabling Spanish companies and regulators to take advantage of the lessons learned elsewhere, but divergent political histories ensured that paths of development remained distinct. Christofer Stadlin contrasts the development of employer accident and liability insurance as it was shaped by the regulatory environments in Germany and France in the late nineteenth century up until World War I, as seen through the eyes of the Zurich Insurance Company which was active in both markets.

José García-Ruiz presents a company history of the “bancassurance” relationship between the Spanish Banesto bank and Luyefe, Spain’s leading insurance company for much of the twentieth century, as the closely connected firms navigated a turbulent political landscape and ventured into new areas of business. Mikael Lönnborg, Peter Hedberg and Lars Karlsson describe how the Swedish insurance law of 1948 deliberately favored larger firms under the belief that the industry would become more efficient through economies of scale. Yet the resulting increase in concentration in the Swedish insurance industry failed to yield the hoped-for improvements in consumer welfare.

Other chapters consider the South African regulatory response to the 2008 global financial crisis (Greitjie Verhoef); the evolution of the legal and regulatory framework underpinning the development of fire insurance in nineteenth-century Canada, influenced by both French, British and American precedents (David Gilles and Sébastien Lanctôt); and how the valuation of American insurance companies’ assets was fudged, with the approval of the authorities, to enable them to satisfy solvency requirements during the financial crisis of the early 1930s (Luca Froelicher).

With such a wide breadth in focus, scope, and methodology, it is debatable whether this collection amounts to more than the sum of its parts. Pearson and Pons, seeking for a unifying theme in their introductory essay, draw attention to the congruence in time periods (most contributions deal with the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) and to the influence of state regulation on decision-making by insurance companies; and certainly “the state,” in one way or another, looms large in all of these pieces, as it must in any study of modern insurance. The real significance of the volume is as a milestone for a field of study that is progressing vigorously, and that holds the promise of important and potentially fruitful interdisciplinary research questions that have barely begun to be explored. In this regard at least, the vision of the conference organizers, the editors of this volume, is fully vindicated.

Chris Kingston is the Richard S. Volpert ’56 Professor of Economics at Amherst College. He has published several papers on the history of marine insurance in eighteenth-century Britain and America and is working on a book provisionally entitled In Peril on the Sea: Institutional Change in Marine Insurance, 1720-1844.

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Corporate Social Responsibility, Trust, and Using History to Develop Managers

31 07 2021

On Sunday evening (UK time), I’m going to be presenting my research at the Academy of Management virtual conference as part of a panel on Corporate Social Responsibility, Trust, and Using History to Develop Managers

Effective Strategies to Promote the Teaching of History in Business Schools
Author: Andrew D A Smith; U. of Liverpool
Author: Suwen Chen; U. of Edinburgh business school
Author: John Millar; University of Durham

The recent historic turn in management has seen scholars debate whether, why, and how history can be useful to managers (Wadhwani, Suddaby, Mordhorst, & Popp, 2018; Argyres, De Massis, Foss, Frattini, Jones, & Silverman, 2019). Many business schools, including elite ones in the United States, now include history in the curriculum at the undergraduate, postgraduate, and MBA levels (Friedman & Jones, 2017). Much of the extant research on the place of history in the management school curriculum is informed by the belief that the acquisition of at least some types of historical knowledge is useful because it improves the ability of managers to make decisions. Unfortunately, the existing literature on the teaching of history in business schools does not give us a clear understanding of precisely how and why teaching history would improve the subsequent job performance of management learners. Moreover, we currently lack an understanding of how business-school students and their prospective employers perceive the inclusion of different types of history in the business-school curriculum. This paper remedies these important gaps in the literature. In this paper, we discuss a major initiative to promote the teaching of history to management students in a number of countries. This project is worthy of an extended and systematic study because it has survived a number of market tests and has attracted students in different national contexts. We used interviews with the teachers and students to learn more about why management learners value the course associated with this project. We also offer an explanation as to why this initiative to teach history to management learners has been successful. We then establish broader lessons for the ongoing debate about whether, why, and how history should be taught to future and current business people. We tentatively conclude that student and external stakeholder support for an increase in the amount of historical instruction in management schools will be maximized if curriculum designers focus on the teaching of domain-specific historical knowledge.

view paper (if available)

Who do you trust? Human Relations and Social Embeddedness
Author: Jeffrey Muldoon; Emporia State U.
Author: Laura Singleton; Eckerd College
Author: Richard H. Jonsen; Rowan U.

Our purpose is to compare the thinking of Chester Barnard and Elton Mayo, two of the major figures in the Human Relations movement. Drawing upon their writings and correspondence, as well as prior work by others, we focus on their ideas regarding the development and maintenance of cooperation, a key theme of their writings. Against the context of labor strife, both men recognized the need for the establishment of incentives and routines to build trust between management and labor. Much of their work underlies arguments that later organizational behavior theorists have used, especially in their criticisms of economic incentives as a sole stimulus for cooperation. From their arguments, we can see the importance of social embeddedness as an important consideration in determining cooperation.

view paper (if available)

The Historicity of Corporate Social Responsibility in the United States and Britain
Author: Michael Heller; Brunel U.
Author: Kevin D. Tennent; U. of York
Author: Jeffrey Muldoon; Emporia State U.

Our purpose is to examine the historical nature of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), a pillar of business practice, strategy, and research. Traditional narratives place the development of CSR as a response to the post-World War II world, where an educated public demanded business to pursue more ethical policies. The genesis of this movement is Bowen’s seminal book on CSR, published in 1953. However, we offer a counter-narrative. We argue that the real genesis of CSR in both Great Britain and the United States was an attempt by business to gain legitimacy from employees as the work relationship switched from transitory workers to permanent employees at the end of the nineteenth century. Early CSR was an attempt to reduce information asymmetries, gain worker loyalty and trust, and reduce labor costs such as theft, destruction of property and absenteeism. This was not an altruistic response, but an example of enlightened self-interest, as well as a more nefarious response to reduce industrial action among workers.

view paper (if available)

Corporate Social Responsibility, Trust, and Using History to Develop Managers (session 630)

Donation of C$2m to the the Canadian Business History Association

21 07 2021
AS: I’m pleased to announce a major investment in the field of business history.

WILSON FOUNDATION COMMITS $2 MILLION TO THE CBHA/ACHA   The study of business history in Canada has received a $2 million endowment from The Wilson Foundation of Oakville, Ontario. The endowment will support the Canadian Business History Association’s (CBHA/ACHA) mandate of encouraging the study of the country’s commercial history. The first $1 million of the endowment is immediate while the second $1 million will be triggered by matching donations.

“We are delighted that the Wilson Foundation has chosen to support the study of business history in Canada in such a generous manner.  Now, more than ever, studying business’s past can better inform the leaders and decision-makers of today and tomorrow, something that the Wilson Foundation recognizes, and we thank them for their support” said the CBHA’s Board Chair, Professor Dimitry Anastakis of the University of Toronto and the Rotman School of Management.
The Wilson Foundation’s endowment will allow the CBHA/ACHA to sustain its operations, expand its outreach, and launch new projects aimed at connecting Canadian students, scholars, archivists, business leaders, and the public with their business history, an essential element to how we understand Canada in an increasingly globalized world.  Projects supported by the Endowment will include financial support for students, expanded online and in-person events such as the CBHA/ACHA Talks and conferences, the digitization of important historical documents, and the creation of an online biographical inventory of Canadian business leaders. 

Created in 2015, the CBHA/ACHA brings together academics from a wide range of disciplines, archivists, and business leaders in the common pursuit of advancing the study and understanding of business history in Canada and operates through the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. 

British Universities and Transatlantic Slavery: the University of Glasgow Case

13 07 2021

Stephen Mullen of the University of Glasgow has published an important new peer-reviewed paper on that university’s historical ties to the slave trade.

Here is the abstract:

On 16 September 2018, the University of Glasgow released the report ‘Slavery, Abolition and the University of Glasgow’. This acknowledged that slave-owners, merchants and planters with connections to New World slavery – and their descendants – donated capital between 1697 and 1937 that influenced the development of the institution. In producing this report, the institution became the first British university to declare historical income derived from transatlantic slavery. In response, a nine-point programme reported as reparative justice was launched, the first British university to launch a project on such a scale. This article traces both the methodological approach undertaken in the study and the historical evidence related to the University of Glasgow. This provides insights into the process of collecting and analysing the evidence on which the report and strategy was based. Current understandings about British universities and transatlantic slavery are shaped by the institutional relationship with owners of enslaved people. This article underlines the importance of merchant capital – in this case, mainly via West India commerce – to the development of one institution.

I really liked how this paper was very transparent about authorial motivation, data, and analytical methods. I read the paper with great interest because I’m currently doing research on how older profit-seeking companies that profited from trans-Atlantic slavery, such as the Society of Lloyd’s,  are now responding to accusations that their current wealth was built on a foundation of slavery.  Stephen Mullen’s excellent paper raises almost as a many questions as answers, so let me suggest that researchers now switch their focus from what slave-owners did for the University of Glasgow to what, if anything, the University of Glasgow did for the institution of slavery in return.

We know that universities in the antebellum American south produced sophisticated intellectual defences of slavery that had the aura of academic credibility because they were written by professors. That these professors engaged in this type of legitimation work is not terribly surprising, as in many societies, one of the functions of universities is try to justify the existing social order and to reproduced inequality. Now in the period in question, Glasgow’s Adam Smith wrote against slavery (some of his empirical claims about the motives of slave-owners were just plain wrong, but his ideas clearly exerted a considerable influenced over abolitionists). I’m wondering, however, about other Glasgow academics who wrote about slavery and who worked at this university at the time it was bringing in donations from slave-owners. What role, if any, did the people on the University of Glasgow payroll play in justifying slavery at time when that institution’s legitimacy was being questions?  Historical research on that issue can, in my view, shed light on the more general and present-day issue of the role of universities is legitimating unjust institutions. I would note here the Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was written and published after he left academic employment, although Smith did critique slavery in an undergraduate lecture he delivered in 1763.

Mullen’s finding that the University of Glasgow accepted donations from slavery isn’t terribly surprising. After all, we all know that universities have, for centuries, taken money from pretty much anyone who has money to give and wishes to buy some social status and perhaps launder their reputation: Oxford colleges took money from feudal lords and bloodthirsty monarchs and in return helped to legitimate existing social hierarchies, most notoriously during the English Civil War, Oxford gave both practical and moral support to the Royalist side. Universities today take money from Middle Eastern arms merchants, Russian oligarchs with ties to Putin,  and Chinese firms with close ties to the PLA. They will take money from anyone provided law and public opinion will tolerate it. (The financial ties between Oxford and the Chinese government have recently been criticized by both left-wing and conservative newspapers in the UK,  which makes me thing that Oxford may need to return  to the money it recently got from Tencent). The willingness of penny-grubbing academics take money from bad dudes isn’t terribly surprising to anyone who knows academics. The focus of historical researchers, I think, should be more on understanding how universities help to legitimate oppression and inequality in the present.    

Some Reflection on Recent Events in Canada

5 07 2021

Part of my research in about the uses of the past, about how companies and other organizations use their histories. A sub-set of that strand of my research is about how organizations respond they have been accused of having committed truly horrible human rights abuses in the past. I also published a paper in Journal of Business Ethics on how executives of the Hudson’s Bay Company, which was founded in the seventeenth century to trade with Indigenous people in present-day Canada, has responded in recent decades to the accusations from Indigenous activists that the original source of the firm’s wealth was the systematic exploitation of Indigenous people. I’ve also published on the political economy of Confederation, the process by which the Canadian state was formed in the 1860s. The cover of a book on the subject that I published is above. I’ve also acted as an expert witness in a Canadian constitutional court case that turned on the interpretation of the Canadian constitution of 1867. My published work on this subject has been characterised, I think, by nuance and a balanced treatment of historical figures as well as the application of a theoretical lens that is critical of the empire-building, illiberal, dirigiste, mercantilist and social-engineering ideas of many of the creators of the Canadian federal state.

I’ve therefore followed with interest the recent controversies in Canada over the legacies of the residential schools for Indigenous children that the Canadian federal government created after the 1860s. In recent months, the graves of children who died of diseases while attending these schools have been identified (the fact that several thousand of these children died while at these schools was previously known, part of the agreed statement of facts produced by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and discussed in books published by Canadian university presses). The discovery of the graves led to protests, arson attacks against Roman Catholic churches, the toppling  of statues of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II, and, in many communities, the cancellation of Canada Day, a national holiday on 1 July that marks Confederation. I’ve been asked what I think about this issue so I am sharing some very preliminary observations here. I’ve organised my thoughts under four headings. 

Departure from What the Standard Model Would Predict

There is a large body of social-scientific research on demands for historical apologies by the governments of liberal democracies. Essentially, this literature contains a large number of case studies of incidents in which activists in a nation accuse the government of having been involved in some horrible human rights abuse in the past. The accusation could relate to, say, the French government’s actions in Algeria before independence, what Britain did in Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising, or the historical mistreatment of African-Americans in the US context. Now reading a bunch of studies from different liberal-democratic countries leads one to discern the pattern that I call the Standard Model.

 The Standard Model goes like this: a group, usually on the left of the political spectrum, makes a public claim that the national government was involved in a horrible human rights abuse in the past. They demand an apology, perhaps with money attached, and symbolic action such as the renaming of streets, the removal of statues, and the cancellation of a national holiday (Bastille Day, Australia Day, whatever). Now the Standard Model predicts that any given individual’s response to these accusation will be largely determined with great accuracy simply by determining where the person is on the country’s left-right political spectrum. If they are a supporter of the main centre-right political party (say the Conservatives in Canada or the UK or the Republicans in the US or France), they will typically say “Well, what happened then wasn’t very good and was clearly wrong. However, we shouldn’t dwell on it too much. The minority group that is complaining about this historical injustice should focus more on making money in the present day”.

In other words, the centre-right person tends to minimize or downplay the present-day significance of the historical injustice. In contrast, supporters of left-wing political parties tend to have the opposite view and they tend to maximize the significance of the historical misdeed. As you go to the extreme left of the spectrum, you get people expressing this sort of sentiment: “What our country did is horrible. We were basically as bad, if not worse, than the Nazis and the minority group that was victimized back then now needs lots of help from us. Our country and other Western countries are in no position to lecture [insert name of authoritarian regime here] about human rights. We should discontinue our national holiday and tear down the statues etc linked to the bad guys responsible for the historical human rights abuses.” We see this pattern here in Britain, in the US, in France, and so forth.

Based on the polling data and academic studies from various countries I’ve seen, the Standard Model usually has pretty strong predictive accuracy (0.8 or 0.7 or something in that range). However, when I look at the terms of debate in Canada right now about residential schools, I get the impression that the relationship between one’s position on the left-right political spectrum and position on historic crimes is broken, or at least, weaker than it is in the other cases covered by the Standard Model. First, which of Canada’s two official languages one speaks seems to predict how you view the historical issue of residential schools: I’ve sampled the debate in  the French-speaking province of Quebec on this issue people there tend to frame this story less about racial issues and more within a narrative about the Roman Catholic church’s history of human rights abuses around the world. Second, in the English-speaking parts of Canada, one’s prior attitude towards the Roman Catholic church, which is still largely independent of one’s position on the left-right political spectrum, appears to be driving attitudes towards this issue. People who never liked the Catholic church, either because they were left-wing feminists or hardcore Protestant evangelicals or  centrist followers of the New Atheism of Richard Dawkins, have worked the newly revealed evidence of abuse in Catholic schools into their existing narratives. Such people maximize the historical injustice now being discussed, even if they are politically conservative. Needless to see, we’ve seen a festival of confirmation bias on all sides that is going to be depressing to any social scientist.  The situation is very awkward for the governing Liberal Party, a traditionally centrist party that has recently lurched to the left, because historically there was a statistically significant linkage between being at least nominally Roman Catholic and voting for that party.

McGill-Queen’s University Press

In 2008, the Canadian government offered an apology and compensation to the Indigenous individuals who suffered because of the residential school system. The government also funded Truth and Reconciliation Commission to  undertake extensive research into the residential schools and to produce an agreed statement of facts that could be basis of discussion about how to go forward. The many volumes of the TRC’s report were published by McGill-Queen’s University Press (full disclosure I’ve published with that press and happen to be an alumnus of one of the universities that owns it). Volume 4 of the report deals with the issue of how many children died while attending the residential schools, what we know about their remains, and what we know about what caused their deaths. This scholarly work, which was published in 2015, would allow interested readers to answer the following questions that have recently been the subject of intense and, sometimes ill-informed speculation, in Canada:

  1. How many children died while attending residential schools?
  2. How did this mortality rate change over time?
  3. How did the mortality vary between the residential schools run by the Catholic Church versus the Protestant-run schools?
  4. How did the mortality rate for these groups of children differ from that of otherwise similar children who lived with their parents and were educated at day schools or did not attend any school? What baseline child mortality rate should we use in determining whether the residential school system increased the mortality rate for Indigenous children?

All of my priors make we think that that a rigorous analysis would reveal that the residential school policy would have increased mortality relative to the counterfactual of allowing parents to educate their children as they saw fit. My priors and my knowledge of the enormous differences between nineteenth-century Protestantism and nineteenth-century Roman Catholicism also make me predict that the effect would be more pronounced for Catholic-run schools than Protestant-run ones. However, until I can see the work of the real experts, we can’t say for certain, let alone talk about effect size. One of the things the recent pandemic has taught all of us is to show greater humility in making causal claims linking particular government policies with changes in the mortality rate. That’s doubly true when we are talking about historical data with big gaps.

Anyway, all of this is to say that the research on the impact of the residential school project on Indigenous child mortality should, I think, be freely available to journalists and all others who want to base their opinions on the best available data and analysis. Unfortunately, both the relevant research and contact details of the academics who did it remain behind paywall which means that is hard for journalists in Canada’s woefully funded newsrooms to access. Volume 4 “Canada’s Residential Schools: Missing Children and Unmarked Burials” which was published by MQUP in December 2015 can be ordered here but is very expensive.  I would strongly encourage the Press to immediately release at least Volume 4 to everyone by putting its contents, including the description of the statistical methodology used online in open-access format. They could do so with a few key strokes!!!!

Recent Events Demonstrate the Need for Research Capacity Building in Canadian Universities

Canadian universities have become weak in the types of quantitative historical research methods that are necessary to investigate issues of this type.  They certainly have less capacity in this regard than do universities in this country. Quant historians such as George Emery, a historian whose research rigour was honoured with an award from a group of leading American economist, have retired and were replaced by scholars with different research capabilites. My impression that there will, after this month, be nobody in a Canadian university who does anthropometric history or the other types of history relevant to answering the questions identified above. Vincent Geloso, who works at a university in Ontario that used to be very strong in economic and demographic history, will soon be leaving for George Mason University’s famous econ department. In response to the recent debates about residential schools, Geloso has recently published some interesting insights into the political economy of settler-Indigenous relations in Canada that draws on his earlier peer-reviewed research in Public Choice. The core ideas he presents here, which involve applying concepts from public choice theory and constitutional political economy, are similar to those that I used in a paper that I wrote about 15 years ago but which never saw the light of day because of hostile peer reviewers. I’m glad that Vincent re-discovered these ideas independently and got them published as they can inform debate on how to go forward. I would add here that some of the research of Prof. Terry Anderson into Indigenous economies can also be of use in thinking about these issues.

The End of Canadian Originalism?

Canada Day holiday on 1 July marks the coming into force of the Canadian constitution of 1867. The holiday and the associated iconography implies that the politicians who created this constitution were heroes, or at least great statesmen whose memory should be honoured. Respecting the drafters of this constitution is thus congruent with the doctrine of constitutional interpretation known as originalism, which holds that in interpreting the meaning of the constitution’s text, judges should act effectively as agents on behalf of those who originally wrote it. Many countries with written constitutions have originalists (see here). There are smart Canadian lawyers and legal academics who are originalists (see here). They include Benjamin Oliphant and Leonid Sirota. Given that statutes of that 1867 constitution’s creators are now being dismantled, I suspect that originalism will die as a doctrine in Canada. When the creators of a document are regarded as evil, rather than imperfect, individuals it is almost impossible for people to continue to be seen as supporting a theory of constitutional interpretation that says that we must understand and defer to how those individuals intended the document to be understood. It fact, I suspect that it would be career harming for an academic working in a Canadian university to continue to be a Canadian originalist in the current context. The demise of Canadian originalism would probably be unfortunate because there are strong theoretical reasons for supporting at least some variant of originalism as William Baude argued in a recent conversation with Julia Galef.