Published by EH.NET (January 2006)


Franco Amatori and Geoffrey Jones, editors, Business History around the World. Cambridge, UK; Cambridge University Press, 2003. xv + 425 pp. $55.90 (cloth), ISBN: 0-521- 82107-x.

Reviewed for EH.NET by William H. Becker, Department of History and Department of Strategic Management and Public Policy, George Washington University.

Together, the essays in this book produce a mosaic picture of the study of business history at the end of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first centuries. It is an essential reference work for students in any number of disciplines — history, economics, management, finance, sociology — interested in the history of business. The essays are drawn from papers presented at a colloquium on the future of business history at Bocconi University in Milan in October 1998. Many of the papers were substantially rewritten for this volume. The editors divide the work into three parts, and they introduce the book with a perceptive essay of their own. The essay goes further than providing an overview of the contents of the volume by highlighting the historic and recurrent tensions over what in fact constitutes the study of business history.

Part I of the book is devoted to essays focused on methodological and theoretical issues. These essays demonstrate the towering influence of Alfred D. Chandler, Jr. on the field. Critics of his work have not succeeded in producing a powerful alternative synthesis. But the ongoing critique of Chandler’s analysis has stimulated work on business history, especially in the United States, as scholars continue to debate subjects such as the field’s orientation to economic theory and how to accommodate business history to new directions in historical studies. Louis Galambos leads off the first section with a piece on the field’s identity and boundaries. He provides a trenchant overview of the development of the field and examines Chandler’s influence as business historians — and others — continue to come to terms with his legacy. Galambos also examines the interplay between economics and business history by a discussion of Oliver Williamson’s use of Chandler in his own work on the neoclassical theory of the firm. He discusses the important efforts of Peter Temin, Daniel M.G. Raff, and Naomi R. Lamoreaux, under the auspices of the NBER, to increase the collaboration between economics and business history in the building of a neoclassical paradigm of firm behavior. Galambos also addresses the work of evolutionary economists, such as Richard Nelson and Sidney G. Winter. In the next essay William Lazonick, writing on “understanding innovative enterprise,” reviews his well-known criticisms of neoclassical economics for ignoring the dynamics of firm development and for slighting the issue of innovation. Lazonick’s critique of Chandler is that he did not conceptualize the large industrial firm fully enough as a social institution. This point is taken up and broadened considerably in the essay by Jonathan Zeitlin on what has been called the “historical alternative” approach to business history. In this wide-ranging essay, Zeitlin argues that focusing on the firm too much narrows the field and that business historians must situate economic activity more broadly to account for ideology, individual personality, social structure, geographical location, resource endowments, and politics and government. These essays point up the broad methodological bases of business history, none of which dominates the field at the beginning of a new century.

The second part of the book is devoted to essays on “area patterns” in the study of business history. It starts off with a useful overview of the field in the United States by William J. Hausman. The following essays consider the scholarship on business history in a number of countries and/or regions. Britain, the Netherlands, the German-speaking areas, Japan, France, Italy, Spain, Greece, and Scandinavia are all covered. While Canada and Australia do not receive treatment, countries such as China and regions like Latin America are discussed. These essays range widely, as might be expected. While Chandler’s influence has been felt in the work on business history in many of these places, it looms less large overall than in the United States. In many of these countries, family business has played a much larger role than in the United States, and the professionally managed hierarchically organized firm is less common. Government has also played a larger role in business and economic development in many of the countries discussed in the second part of the book than in the United States, although one can argue that the influence of government has not received the attention it deserves among U.S. business historians. Ultimately, the essays in Part II of the book provide a useful perspective on the role that different national histories and systems of higher education play in framing the issues to which scholars devote themselves. In Scandinavia, Spain, and Greece business is firmly tied to the study of economic history. Business historians in Britain, Japan, France, and Italy often find themselves teaching in departments or schools of management and business studies. Commissioned corporate histories are an important source of work in business history in Britain, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, and Japan. Outside of the United States, the influence of postmodern theorizing has been less pronounced in the history profession although Galambos sees its influence growing as, for example, studies of consumer culture appear for countries other than the United States.

The final part of the book provides essays on comparative business history. This is a particularly promising area of work, although not entirely new to the field, since some of the earliest work in comparative business history appeared decades ago. Nevertheless, increasing globalization makes comparative perspectives more attractive than ever. The essays in this section cover family firms in comparative perspective, the history of multinational corporations, and business-government relations over time. Each essay discusses the relevant literature, but also suggests new subjects for study. The third part of the book ends the entire volume with an essay by Alfred D. Chandler, Jr. on current opportunities for research in the field. Chandler briefly reviews the development of the fields of business and economic history, and then turns to a plea for business historians to study more intensively the electronic-based industries: consumer electronics, computers, and information technology. Like the industries of the second industrial revolution that transformed the world economy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these are the industries that profoundly altered life at the end of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first centuries. Chandler, who did so much to focus business history on the large-scale firm, emphasizes here the importance of the study of firms in the context of the development of their industries. This latter point adds another dimension to the rich panoply of material about empirical studies and methodological and theoretical issues that the editors have put together in this wide-ranging, indispensable book.

William Becker’s recent publications include Voice of the Marketplace: A History of the National Petroleum Council (with Joseph A. Pratt and William M. McClenahan) and The Market, the State, and the Export-Import Bank of the United States, 1934-2001 (with William M. McClenahan). He is currently writing Shaping Corporate America: Big Business and the Twentieth Century Experience.