- Business History around the World
This important cluster of perspectives on practice and prospect in business history derives from a fall 1998 colloquium held at Bocconi University in Milan, sponsored jointly by the Institute for Economic History, the Italian Association of Business Historians (ASSI), Reading University, and Johns Hopkins University. The collection echoes its support team's transnational diversity, presenting an opening set of conceptualizing essays, eleven concise national/regional overviews, and four closing chapters that identify themes for comparative business history. Both a snapshot of the discipline's preoccupations in the late 1990s and a handbook of historiography and work then in progress, Business History around the World is a volume every reference library should own. For practicing historians and graduate students, in my view, parts one and three will have more durable utility than the portraits of "Area Patterns" in between.
Lou Galambos leads off by nailing two central, contemporary dilemmas for the field: identity—what are the objects of research and communication in business history?—and boundaries—what distinguishes business history from other histories, and to whom are we speaking? He tables the question of whether Alfred Chandler's durable influence has become an intellectual straitjacket and instead summarizes the range of internal and external critiques and alternative approaches. Galambos slips, though, when discussing the postmodern perspective. Although he labels it "this intensely ideological brand of business history," he categorizes the core claim that has long sustained the field ("that, all other things being equal, the institutions that make available the most goods and services are the best for society" [pp. 28–29]) as simply "an assumption," as if this were not also an intensely ideological assertion. Nonetheless, scholars will do well to savor Galambos's tough-minded prose and the implication that multiplying vectors of research are remapping the field. [End Page 492]
William Lazonick next provides an elegant and compact re-presentation of arguments and perspectives that he has developed over the last two decades, delivering familiar hammer blows to neoclassicals, then moving on to telling critiques of the Chandler framework. Chandler's work shies away from "consider[ing] the modern business enterprise itself as a social organization." His tool kit "contains no theory of innovative strategy"; moreover, "economies of scale and scope are outcomes of the innovation process that need to be explained." Lazonick also doubts that the "three-pronged investment" concept can be useful without a detailed assessment of what capabilities such investments generated for innovation and cooperation (pp. 52–54, emphasis in original). In pressing business historians to step away from operations to grapple with innovation, Lazonick accomplishes valuable work, an effort that would profit from contact with scholarship and theoretical work in the history of technology, STS, and organizational sociology, all of which focus intensely on innovation. Here one key question is whether innovation theory can be operationalized within business history or whether that attempt would transform the field into something needing a new name.
As a Galambos-designated "historical alternatives" scholar (pp. 24–25, 27), I have an elective affinity for Jonathan Zeitlin's careful reprise of the theoretical insights and empirical findings yielded by two decades of research "outside the box." Two points only can be mentioned here. First, economic governance operates both within and beyond enterprise boundaries, which undercuts granting "any ontological or epistemological privilege to the individual business firm." Second, this approach "rejects both frictionless adjustment and path dependency as frameworks for the understanding of economic change." Actors' decisions and institutions constrain and alter development tracks, while "lock-in" is rarely so general as assumed, for actors also "routinely question firms' routines" in the light of shifting circumstances (pp. 67, 69). Zeitlin's essay title refers to "Industrial History," a more inclusive term than business history and perhaps, given these three chapters, a candidate to supersede the latter. However, if anatomizing innovation is fundamental to the field's next wave, then analyzing the dynamics of failure (micro, meso, macro) strike me as a necessary corollary, giving...