Institute of Modern History

Beyond Businesses: Agency, Political Economy & Investors, c.1850-1970

A Summer School for doctoral studentsSupported by the Institutional Strategy of the University of Tübingen (ZUK 63)

University of Tübingen, 20–22 September 2017

Please note that the Call for Papers is now closed.

Business history and economic history have been distinct disciplines, separate from both economics and organizational studies, for over three-quarters of a century. They have developed a rich and varied historiography that has helped to answer and contextualize some of the largest questions of the last two centuries. These include explaining rapid technological changes of the industrial and information ages, the globalization of financial and production markets, and, not least, the rise of Capitalism itself. However, recent trends have in some cases deepened the divide with "traditional" history and historiography. For instance, business history has often found its natural home in business schools rather than history departments, while economic history is increasingly undertaken in a highly quantitative manner in economics, rather than history, faculties. However, while much work remains to be done to redress the balance, new approaches from historians are starting to re-bridge the divide. We believe historians engaged in archival research have much to offer business and economic topics, and it is work in this area that this summer school intends to foster.

More particularly, the school will examine one of the major "problems" prevalent in the existing literature. Simply put, the firm &endash; that is the company or organization itself &endash; has been the unit of assessment most prevalent in business and economic historiography, matched only by overviews of national economies or government policies. Many historians, economists and business scholars have made their careers explaining the rise (and fall) of major corporations, or the successes and failures of a nation's economy or core industries. However, while these studies have been immensely valuable, such narratives of success and/or failure have missed, or not yet fully developed, important nuances as a result.

We have identified two major issues such nation or firm-specific studies fail to capture, and have broken them down as follows:

  1. Business people regularly move between firms, but they also move into, influence, or create, organizations outside the world of private profit-seeking business. These can be linked to politics, government, the military, education, health care and the environment, philanthropy, promotion of trade, and/or other pursuits. Their work can transcend state, national, and continental boundaries, and can influence entire economic systems. For example, businessmen have advised military production ministries in Britain during (and between) both World Wars; business leaders collaborated with municipal authorities on measures to reduce smoke pollution in 19th century Chicago; and in more recent times have changed the face of private higher education with multi-million dollar donations to their Alma Mater, and indirectly have aided the rise of the modern "Business School" itself. Thus, businessmen seek to influence &endash; though not always for private profit &endash; the world that their businesses operate in, and this has not often been captured in existing studies of firms or economies.
  2. Similarly, businesses are not only influenced by the acumen of their managers, by the general state of the economy or by governmental regulation. With the creation of joint-stock companies, external private investors entered the field of business, for various reasons and with myriad motives. Some desired to achieve a permanent stream of income. These investors' sentiments became a force that was hard to ignore, as witnessed during stock market bubbles in England, France and the Netherlands as early as the 18th century. Technological (and legal) changes after 1860 accelerated these processes. Some new investors entered the market simply for the thrill and/or for the financial gains possible by means of speculation, perhaps with little or no interest in the businesses at all. Nevertheless, this group, often already wealthy and influential, helped create more volatile markets, and caused unease among politicians and business people in the process. Moreover, when such individuals were left as losers following the bursting of the bubbles they helped create, their complaints were loud and public. In short, the role of speculation and the attempts to define or limit what kind of investors should be allowed to enter this world (and, thus, the world of business) are also important in understanding the environment beyond the boundary of the firm or nation that businesses operated in.

Furthermore, while these problems are not completely unique to the modern world, they acquired greater significance from the second-half of the 19th century. The second-wave of industrialization after 1850 (primarily in Britain, Germany, Japan and America) gave birth to larger corporations and professional management structures, which gradually diminished the role of wholly family-owned and/or operated firms. In their place, joint stock firms further proliferated with some (such as General Motors) growing and transitioning to multi-divisional and multi-national conglomerates by the 1930s. In turn, this allowed for the rise in the wealth and influence of professional business magnates such as Charles Schwab (Bethlehem Steel), Alfred Sloan (GM), and others. Simultaneously, technological advances in communication and technology &endash; from the telegraph to the ticker tape &endash; allowed real-time transactions and completely transformed stock market speculation, increasing the number of willing participants and tradable shares dramatically. As such, the cases of business going beyond the firm or the national boundary multiplied dramatically from this point, and offer up myriad exciting avenues for historical research.

Similarly, though in recent times we understand well the nature of a "globalized" world in which firms and agents transcend company or national boundaries, the term itself has its roots in the 1970s. The vast increase in computing power and the equally dramatic decrease in the cost of aviation in the last forty or so years means we could reasonably understand this later period as an era unto itself, in much the way the transformation of firms and speculation was a century earlier. For these reasons, the summer school plans to concentrate on this particularly volatile century or so of change, and would invite papers from PhD students working on business and economic topics broadly defined from roughly 1850 to 1970.

To aid interested students, some of the specific questions to be addressed in global, national, regional, and comparative contexts might include the following:

In sum, this school will on one level explore the interrelationships between business practice/entrepreneurs and the actors, organizations, and institutions of the broader social and political environment. On another, it will study the influence of "outsiders" upon the wider economy and society, both by means of speculation on the business world and by the reactions of governments and business community to their actions. These are very large and important questions which are only slowly beginning to be tackled by historians, and our hope is that the summer school will help to map out and better understand spheres of business beyond the national economies or particular firms, to the benefit not only of history students, but to show why and how history can benefit the kinds of studies that have hitherto taken place mainly in economics faculties or business schools.

The Summer School is organized by Dr Daniel Menning (University of Tübingen) and Dr Christopher Miller (University of Glasgow) with financial support from the Excellence Initiative of the University of Tübingen as part of the university's Institutional Strategy (ZUK 63).