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Reimagining Business History

Author(s):Scranton, Philip
Fridenson, Patrick
Reviewer(s):Zamagni, Vera

Published by EH.Net (June 2014)

Philip Scranton and Patrick Fridenson, Reimagining Business History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013. x + 260 pp. $25 (paperback), ISBN: 978-1-4214-0862-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Vera Zamagni, Department of Economics, University of Bologna.

A book by two of the world best-known business historians offers great promise and I was very glad to be asked to review it. However, after having read the introduction and the afterword, where the authors claim that “there is no central message and no argument” (p. 240), I wondered whether it was at all possible to write a review. Normally in a review one tries to capture precisely the “central message” and the “arguments” of the book under consideration, but the authors of this one appear to explicitly exclude that this could be a meaningful exercise. However, knowing the authors and their scholarship well enough through many of their writings, I was not discouraged by their 43 allegedly disconnected “entries,” as they have called their short chapters, because I was sure that I could indeed spot some relevant messages, beyond their warning. Only, a bit more patience was necessary to extract them from the original and uncommon architecture of the book.

Such an architecture is comparable to a mosaic, which makes use of self-contained pieces to produce an overall picture. The authors have arranged their entries around four basic themes, which are like the sections of a mosaic: traps to be avoided by business historians, opportunities to be exploited, new prospects to be explored and resources to be employed. Of the many distinguishable “images” that emerge in the sections of this mosaic, I would concentrate on four, which find my wholehearted agreement. The first, which is in my opinion the most interesting, is to be found largely (but not exclusively) in section 1. The authors, in recognizing that the Chandlerian paradigm, which dominated business history for decades, is no longer central, advocate diversity (entry 6). In their opinion, it is of no use trying to substitute that paradigm with another leading one, because the world today is much more complex than in the past, even Western predominance is no longer unchallenged (9) and there are many organizational forms worth being studied, which link together several firms (4). In this connection, I consider their understanding of the relevance of networks, cartels, clubs and different forms of business, precious, but initial. More could be said of the important role played by SMEs, or cooperatives, that are never mentioned, not even in entry 7 of the second section, where they speak of non-profit and quasi-enterprises or in entry 11 of section 3, where they deal with trust and cooperation. Having said this, I think it remains true that the history of major capitalist corporations will still make use of Chandlerian categories, although the authors are quite right in pointing out that even in these cases there is scope for highlighting new issues (entry 7 of section 3).

The second image is to be spotted mostly in section 3 and is the recommendation to open up business history to more diverse interests: not only management, accounting, and strategies, but a host of other topics – forms of property (entry 1 of section 3), frauds (2), and failures (11 of section 2), gender (4), how projects are implemented (6), relations with the state (entry 2 of section 1 and entry 8 of section 2) and more.  The suggestion of the authors is not only to consider aspects of a firm’s life that have been excluded by the Chandlerian paradigm’s dominance, but to broaden the dimensions of inquiry, to include for example uncertainty or improvisation, because the authors recognize that the life of enterprises is driven not only by rationality, but by “animal spirits” and context. This diversity of topics and dimensions leads the authors to shape the third recognizable image: the need to look for categories inspiring interpretations not only from economics and management, but also from other social sciences.

I come to the final image I want to signal: in several entries the authors return to the issue that business history is history. Sources must be used critically, and not taken at face value (entry 8 of section 1); the story which is reconstructed must be placed in its context (1 of section 1); time is not a standardized dimension (10 of section 4); categories taken from today’s theories are often inadequate and an attention to past theories is necessary (1 and 7 of section 4); periodization of business history might not coincide with society periodization (3 of section 1). This reminder to business historians that they are historians would seem obvious, but is instead well taken, because there is currently a strong temptation in business history to behave as in economic history, namely apply present-day theories to the past, without any critical sensibility.

This review does suggest that the authors might have assembled their book in a different way, and therefore shows that they were right when they stated that there is no “central” message. We have learned however that there are strong messages, which point to a new, more open vision of business history. I really hope that business historians will read this book, because it is apt to open new roads and strengthen the discipline in such a way as to make of it a more assertive component of the larger field of “Economic History,” which cannot be left only to macro-econometricians.

Vera Zamagni, Vera.negri@unibo.it, is the author of Italcementi (2006), Finmeccanica (2009), and CMC (2011). The first is the largest cement firm in Italy and one of the largest cement multinationals in the world; the second is the defense company of the Italian government, active in the field of space, aircraft, electronics, trains, electrical machinery, now privatized, but still with an important government stake; the third is a large and international construction cooperative.

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Subject(s):Business History
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative