- Reimagining Business History. by Philip Scranton and Patrick Fridenson
This stimulating book provides inspiring and challenging input to the discussion among business historians about the direction of their field. As historians of technology as well as of business, the course Philip Scranton and Patrick Fridenson chart is one that will interest many historians of technology. The authors are senior professors, Scranton at Rutgers University in New Jersey and Fridenson at a social science university, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. Their objective is to push business history beyond its current limits. They want the field to move from history of the modern company to a broader focus on business in history, already a trend. A main focus is internationalization, an aim SHOT shares. They argue that business history should engage with wider issues and themes in history more broadly. History of technology, likewise, has seen a parallel trend of engaging in wider issues, from environmental themes such as pollution to political ones such as imperialism, colonialism, and the emergence of a surveillance society.
Fridenson and Scranton present their discussions and reflections about business history through forty-three short essays on practices to avoid, opportunities, promising themes, and generative concepts and frameworks. They focus on recent decades and provide their hopes for the subject’s [End Page 263] future. Two of the essays will illustrate the authors’ argument. The first discusses retrospective rationalization in history (pp. 30–34). The authors illustrate the theme by comparing two narratives on the early history of the Swedish auto producer Volvo. In 1926, Volvo completed its first automobile, which was essentially hand-built. In 1936 and again in 1956, Volvo’s long-term leader presented accounts of the company’s origin and path to success. Despite having the same source, the two narratives were substantively different. The 1936 story observed that the company had been lucky, had produced a first model that was obsolete at its introduction, and unprofitable. The 1956 narrative lacked all these elements; it emphasized the generally good climate for starting car production in the mid-1920s.
The second essay discusses opportunities for studying “Trust, Cooperation, and Networks” (pp. 177–83). Trust is essential to business operations and transactions, but we tend to realize this only when it is absent. Trust, cooperation, and networks are difficult to study historically because they do not always leave the kinds of records that are easily preserved in business archives. Yet understanding them is essential for developing and framing one’s narrative. The important role of trust in currencies was illustrated frequently in recent financial crises, for example, and it is an essential element in the dynamic of cooperation between a producer and its sub-contractors or suppliers, as in the automobile industry. Most of the authors’ examples are also relevant in regard to the commercial aspects of production and sales in history of technology. Their argument also applies to innovation and the technical aspects of production, as illustrated in the history of the Norwegian classification service for the merchant marine, Det Norske Veritas. This service provided a mechanism for negotiating trust that was used in shaping ships, shipbuilding, and marine business.
The ten themes in the book’s last sections on “Resources” (pp. 187–237) provide examples of promising generative concepts and frameworks. They illustrate the potentials and limitations of the authors’ development strategy for business history. For example, this section highlights the uses that business historians have made of relevant work from the social sciences. But why should business historians settle for borrowing concepts and maxims such as “communities” of practice and “follow the actor”? Why not engage in and be inspired from contributing to the shaping of this field’s theoretical discussions?
Recent discursive case studies of branding and marketing and several of the accepted papers for recent SHOT conferences reflect the same trend and raise a similar issue. The book’s section on the trap of “Taking Discourse at Face Value and Numbers for Granted” (pp. 44–47) invites discussion regarding sources and methods...