Comprehensive (800 pages!) Guide to the History of Business

by Erin McCune on March 20, 2008

in Business History


In anticipation of today's publication of the Oxford Handbook of Business History, Harvard Business School's Working Knowledge has an interview with the editor, Geoffrey Jones.

Highlights from the interview:

Why is this book important?

Business historians over recent decades have generated rich empirical data on firms and business systems. They can in some cases confirm, and in others challenge, many of today's fashionable theories and assumptions by other disciplines. Yet for a number of reasons their research rarely permeates into wider literatures.

On globalization:

Mira Wilkins published a major study of the globalization of Ford in 1964, only four years after the word "multinational" was coined. Her study of the growth of American multinationals from the colonial era to 1914 was published in 1970. Its analysis of why and how firms globalize would only be much later formalized in the economic theory of the multinational enterprise, and it would take a further 20 years before the mainstream economics profession would identify globalization and global firms as a topic of real importance.

A succession of other "firsts" followed, including major studies of the globalization of services whilst most of the literature remained focused on manufacturing, and of diaspora entrepreneurship years before it became of interest because of recent attention on Indian and Chinese entrepreneurs in the United States and elsewhere.

As I write in my essay in the Handbook, and have explored in other work with my HBS colleague Tarun Khanna, the history of globalization delivers a rich set of data for current debates and literature on globalization. At the crudest level, historical evidence avoids spurious labeling of some phenomena as "new," and by so doing can challenge current explanations of their determinants. Historical evidence is crucial to exploring the causal relationship between foreign direct investment and long-run economic development. Today's world policy advice to all countries, and even more so to poor ones, is to open their borders to foreign multinationals because they will generate wealth and growth. The historical evidence shows clearly that this is an article of faith rather than proven by the historical evidence of the past. Or more precisely, there have been a wide variety of outcomes, but one persistent generalization is that foreign direct investment does not bring sustainable development unless the host country has a business system that is able to learn and absorb new knowledge, and an appropriate public policy framework.

On the need for more study of entrepreneurship:

And second, I believe that many of the most pressing unanswered questions in business history center around entrepreneurship. This was a major concern of business historians before Chandler, and others refocused the discipline on issues of organization and firm growth from the 1960s.

Over the last few decades, the study of entrepreneurship has not been entirely displaced, but it has always been marginal to mainstream research agendas, and business historians have not made a lot of progress in reaching valid generalizations of the kind Chandler offered for the growth of firms. In recent years, entrepreneurship researchers have made progress in understanding entrepreneurial cognition of opportunities and issues surrounding the assembly of resources.

The achievements of such research have been constrained, however, because of neglect of the context in which entrepreneurial decisions are made, and because of a need to use large data sets, which has narrowed much research to a study of high-technology start-ups in a few locations.

Book description (from the publisher):

This Handbook provides a state-of-the-art survey of research in business history. Business historians study the historical evolution of business systems, entrepreneurs and firms, as well as their interaction with their political, economic, and social environment. They address issues of central concern to researchers in management studies and business administration, as well as economics, sociology and political science, and to historians. They employ a range of qualitative and quantitative methodologies, but all share a belief in the importance of understanding change over time. The Oxford Handbook of Business History has brought together leading scholars to provide a comprehensive, critical, and interdisciplinary examination of business history, organized into four parts: Approaches and Debates; Forms of Business Organization; Functions of Enterprise; and Enterprise and Society. The Handbook shows that business history is a wide-ranging and dynamic area of study, generating compelling empirical data, which has sometimes confirmed and sometimes contested widely-held views in management and the social sciences. The Oxford Handbook of Business History is a key reference work for scholars and advanced students of Business History, and a fascinating resource for social scientists in general.

The Oxford Handbook of Business History
by Geoffrey Jones and Jonathan Zeitlin
Oxford University Press
March 20, 2008

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