restricted access What Is Business History?
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What Is Business History?

In this thought-provoking, yet sometimes frustratingly paradoxical, piece, Daniel Raff sets forth a research agenda for the business history field that he argues will breathe fresh life into something that is increasingly seen as old and limiting: namely, the internally focused, firm-centric, Chandlerian paradigm (or “synthesis,” as he calls it). In contrast to some others who have written on this topic, Raff is not exhorting us to shift our focus outwardly, toward the external, social, political, cultural, or environmental contexts in which firms evolved or to turn our attention to the broader external, social, cultural, political, or environmental impacts of business activity.1 Instead, he is urging us to get on with the job that Chandler helped start but by no means completed himself: investigating, analyzing, and reaching deeper understanding of the history of what has gone on inside business over time.

What do I think of this? Full disclosure: my own research focuses on the history of industrial pollution and pollution regulation—in other words, it concerns the part of our field that Raff appears to be [End Page 475] explicitly excluding from the compass of his new synthesis. As I will explain later, like many business historians, I don’t believe the future of business history lies with purely internalist ways of conceptualizing our subject matter.

Yet I agree with almost everything said here. Business historians do need to continue studying what goes on inside firms. Business firms have played and continue to play much too important a role in American life for us to stop studying the internal history of corporate decision making in all its many aspects. We should indeed broaden the Chandlerian synthesis beyond Chandler’s own focus on corporate organizational structure. And, yes, I agree that it is very important that we look beyond managerial intentions and analyze the selection pressures that shaped and constrained management decision making—especially those that affected decision making in ways that encouraged managers to act in suboptimal ways. For one thing, this is the only way we can hope to explain many of the internal problems that General Motors and many other large American firms experienced over the past forty years. For another, many historians still treat business as what I call a “black box”—usually of capitalist greed and evil—that operates in an assumed rather than a carefully researched and analyzed way. Business historians have an obligation to help other historians, as well as our students and the public as a whole, understand the dynamics and complexities of internal corporate decision making, including the constraints and pressures under which management decision makers operate.

Finally, I also very much like the last part of the paper, in which Raff describes the kind of research we will need to conduct to carry out this new research agenda. I like the fact that an economic historian who is well known for his quantitative work openly acknowledges here that we do not have to base our studies of management decision making on quantitative analysis and economic modeling in order to write good business history. I’m also pleased that he’s urging us write the way that Keith Thomas and other cultural historians write, by immersing ourselves in our research and then telling stories about what happened in business over time. I fully agree!

This said, however, I have serious reservations about the way that Dan Raff has described the substance of his new synthesis. The difficulty isn’t that he is looking inwardly rather than outwardly as I do but that his new conceptualization of this part of our field is not nearly ambitious enough. His list of the kinds of management decisions we should be studying is too narrow, too focused on issues like technological innovation, product design, and supply chain management, to do justice to the broad scope of a truly new, firm-centric conceptual paradigm, one capable of capturing the imaginations of a [End Page 476] new generation of business historians. I think he should, for example, be urging business historians to tackle issues often considered to be the preserve of labor historians, like management decision...