Do business historians need a theory of the archive?

Why business historians need a constructive theory of the archive

by Stefan Schwarzkopf (Copenhagen Business School)(


Abstract: Archival records are a constitutive element of business historical research, and such research, in turn, is fundamental for a holistic understanding of the role of enterprise in modern capitalist societies. Despite an increasing debate within business history circles about the need to theorize the historian as author and creator of narratives, a fuller reflection on the uses and limitations of the archive in business historical research has not yet taken place. This article takes its lead from theories of organisational epistemology, and asks to what extent business historians are trapped by an outdated, realist methodology and epistemology which is in danger of ignoring the multiple roles that archives play in their knowledge production.

Review by Stephanie Decker

Stefan Schwarzkopf’s paper on business archives (circulated by NEP-HIS on 2013-05-11) is a welcome addition to an increasingly lively debate about the future of business history. Originally published in the Business Archives Journal, it is now also available as an MPRA working paper. Even more refreshingly, it is a theoretical and more qualitatively focused discussion, which have remained rare on lists such as NEP-HIS, which are, as the name (New Economic Papers) suggests, dominated by debates based on the methodological apparatus of economics. In business and economic history, whether historians are quantitatively or qualitatively oriented, archives are central to their research. While business historians, the majority of whom work qualitatively, usually fail to discuss their methods at all, economic historians, mostly quantitatively oriented, provide detailed accounts of their numerical data and analytical procedures. Yet many also employ analysis based on historical sources in order to construct their models or to interpret their results; this aspect of gaining historical insight is however not discussed in methodological terms. The very familiarity of historians with their main research setting – the archive – apparently breeds contempt. Or disinterest at the very least.
This is precisely what Schwarzkopf highlights in his contribution: the need for a “fuller reflection of the uses and limitations of the archive in business historical research”. For this he blames the predominantly realist epistemology of many business historians even though other historians apparently have moved away from this in a variety of turns. Business history has certainly been somewhat divorced from the major trends and theoretical developments in mainstream history, even though this is perhaps less true in some continental European countries, where business historians remain integrated in history departments. More often than not they may be located in a variety of different departments, such as departments of social science or economics, as well as business schools. If business history ought to engage more with theoretical turns, the question today has become – which one? And from which discipline?
Schwarzkopf is certainly right to argue that a theory of the archive is necessary and important for business historians. It is in fact by now a much wider debate already (Ferguson, 2008; Stoler, 2009), and again one to which business historians have not contributed. But in this epistemological debate, even he seems to take too much for granted at times, first and foremost the very object of the debate. What do we think is an archive? “[A]rchives are organisations, they require institutional support.” Are archives really a ‘thing’, something tangible, an organisation, a location? To Michel Foucault archives were first and foremost structures that shaped the material, an approach that Schwarzkopf suggests greater engagement with at the end of the paper. And whatever empiricist historians may think about abstract Foucaultian constructs, in this digital, virtual age this definition is if anything gaining in relevance and reality. Are the two physical and conceptual notions of ‘archive’ mutually exclusive? Arjun Appadurai (2003) reminds us in “Archive and Aspiration” that they might be. He is interested in a very different type of archive, which is a personal locus of memory, identity and belonging for migrant communities. Postcolonial research is faced precisely with this absence of effective organisations that span past and present, thus the kind of archive that Schwarzkopf and many other business historians take for granted.

For business history, this is in fact also a more common issue than one would expect, at least for those who research the history of consumption or small firms in less concentrated industries. There are more theoretical options even for those cases, as the discussion by Newton and Carnevali (2010) shows. Because business historians are frequently dependent on private collection that are not institutionalised like their public counterparts, they have perhaps more in common with postcolonial approaches to a privatised past than they realise, because they are similarly weaving a patchwork that needs to contend with many gaps in the records (Decker, 2013). These issues cannot be neatly packaged into global North and South. What about the CEOs who offer their private papers to researchers? Archives come in increasingly different shapes and sizes. Can we have a theory that does justice to this variety? Or do we need many different theories?
Some of the most recent challenges to a stable notion of ‘archive’, such as digitisation, highlight the complexity of the issues. How does digitisation affect how archives are used, and vice versa? Will it determine what the collection stands for, more so than the entire body of files? Perhaps not a new problem for libraries that contain individual high value items that eclipse the totality of their collection, but certainly a phenomenon that will spread with digitisation. Just consider decisions to digitise parts of archival collections that are of greater public interest, such as World Bank’s digitisation of the Robert McNamara’s files. Faced with the impossibility of digitising an archive as vast as theirs, files of greater relevance to present-day audiences are prioritised, negating the need for people to physically enter 1818 H Street, NW, and engage with the overall collection. Is this a manipulation by the archivists, or is this it the pressure of demand shaping organisational responses?
Clearly neither history nor memory is simply determined by what was kept in the past. Memory is much more powerfully influenced by what the present is looking for in the past. Schwarzkopf highlights the important issue of ‘falsification’ in the example of Elsevier expunging undesirable products from the collection. The artificial boundaries between our knowledge of the past and present that have been taken for granted are called into question by new approaches such as memory studies. Here, history and archives are equated with “storage memory […] an ‘amorphous mass’ of unused and unincorporated memories that surround the functional memory like a halo (Tamm, 2013: 462 citing ; Assmann, 2011: 125).” The area of social remembering ought to be far more prominent in discussions of corporate history, while the theoretical implications of ‘mnemohistory’ still await critical engagement.
So what kind of archive are we talking about? The ground is shifting beneath us as we speak, as the meaning of the word “archive” is changing inexorably. Ask your undergraduate students, who might tell you the Financial Times database is an archive. And why not? “Digital humanities” are gaining ground, and debates about how this will change methodology and theory have just begun. And with technological advances, a postcolonial loss of organisational control is never far. Recent complaints in the UK newspaper the Guardian about the variable cost of archival research do not quite address the long-term impact of historical research via digital camera – that it allows all of us to build personal digital archives, removed from the oversight of institutionalised archivists. Business historians are by no means the only ones affected by these trends. If we ask whether we need a theory of the archive, surely nowadays we must first of all talk about how we define an archive, and whether business historians may actually be dead.

Schwarzkopf is right to criticise the widespread bias towards those easier-to-research, large corporate archives. Funnily enough, so has the more theoretically self-conscious Management and Organizational History (Mills and Helms Mills, 2011). But sometimes he overstates his case, for example when he writes: “If there is no archive that for example allows us to study the involvement of a specific company in arming Nazi Germany, or in exploiting slave labour in the Caribbean, then it has no space in academic discourse.” While clearly intended to be ironic, it is difficult to ignore the massive boom in German business history of the 1990s and 2000s in uncovering the Nazi past of German firms in the aftermath of the scandal surrounding Swiss bank accounts. The history of slavery and Atlantic history more generally has certainly been more significant outside business history (see for example Childs, 2002), but there are business historians engaging with these debates all the same (Haggerty, 2010). Painting the kettle too black detracts from the valid point that we need a greater epistemological engagement with our primary locus of research, the archive.
Not only has this debate been missing, as Schwarzkopf rightly points out, but there are also new approaches to theorizing the archive that go beyond the limitations of a short piece. This paper is one of the first to raise some of these fascinating questions for the practice of business history, and will hopefully spark a debate about the status of archival work in the field.


Appadurai, A. (2003) Archive and Aspiration. In: Brouwer J (ed) Information is Alive. Rotterdam: V2 Publishing.
Assmann, J. (2011) Cultural Memory and Early Civilization: Writing, Remembrance, and Political Imagination, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Childs MD. (2002) Master-slave rituals of power at a gold mine in nineteenth-century Brazil. History Workshop Journal 53: 43-72.
Decker, S. (2013) The Silence of the Archives: Postcolonialism and Business History. Management and Organisational History 8: 155-173.
Ferguson, K.E. (2008) Theorizing Shiny Things: Archival Labors. Theory & Event 11.
Haggerty S. (2010) Risk and risk management in the Liverpool slave trade. Business History 51: 817-834.
Mills, A.J. and Helms Mills, J. (2011) Digging Archaeology: Postpositivist Theory and Archival Research in Case Study Development. In: Piekkari R and Welch C (eds) Rethinking the Case Study in International Business and Management Research. London: Edward Elgar, 342-360.
Newton, L. and Carnevali, F. (2010) Researching Consumer Durables in the Nineteenth Century: The Case of the Piano. Business Archives: Sources and History 101: 17-29.
Stoler, A.L. (2009) Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Tamm, M. (2013) Beyond History and Memory: New Perspectives in Memory Studies. History Compass 11: 458-473.

6 thoughts on “Do business historians need a theory of the archive?

  1. Bill Cooke

    love this discussion. But is a ‘theory of the archive’ about ontology (the what is the thing that is the archive) or epistemology (which could be how do we know the archive, what knowledge claims can we make through the archive). I don’t know, but either/both routes could be fruitful, if never ultimately capable of producing a definitive answer.

    FWIW, I don’t think Business Historians should beat themselves for not having ‘their own’ theory of the archive, insofar as most theory in organisation studies is not intrinsic to it, but drawn largely from social theory and sociology (and often constructed on the basis of poor ‘history’ imho – not the people named here though). But they to might profitably look to ‘history’ as a discipline, where some of this stuff is being worked through. But really enjoyed this review, and will also look out Stefan’s paper. Thanks to both of you.

    1. stephdeck1 Post author

      Thanks for your comment Bill! The distinction between ontology and epistemology is helpful, but I agree that a definitive answer is unlikely. I think what it is unclear is what could be a theory of the archive, and whether, considering the variety of archives, one theory would even be possible or desirable. Also I agree that business historians do not need their ‘own’ theory – but that they ought to consider both history and sociology as possible starting points that allows them to think about the specific types of archives that they work with as opposed to many mainstream historians (who work in public archives created by organisations that often produced ‘knowledge’ in a hegemonic fashion).

      1. Stefan Schwarzkopf

        I would like to thank Stephanie Decker for taking the time to comment on my MPRA working paper. As both Stephanie’s response and the recent commentary by Andrew Smith ( show, there is an urgent need for business historians to take the epistemological, methodological, axiological and, indeed, ontological, basis of their own work a lot more serious. In line with this, I welcome Stephanie’s skepticism that one single theory of the archive might not do justice to the scale and complexity of the issue at hand. Stephanie is right to remind us that (personal) memories which are embedded in and circulate within social communities are an important source for business historians; a source that clearly transcends the boundaries of the physical, institutional, i.e. ‘locational’ space that most of us will associate with the term ‘archive’. As a historian of marketing and advertising communication, fast-paced industries prone to discarding their records, I know the value of moving the locus of research from the (often non-existing) archive of advertising agencies to the ‘communities of practice’ (Duguid) of people who are or who have been working in such agencies.

        And yet, precisely this example of personal memory ‘as archive’ highlights once again the surprising lack of interest shown in methodological and axiological problems even by leading business historians. Take, for instance, Harvard Business School’s current project to ‘capture the story of the development of business systems in emerging economies over the last four decades’ by conducting oral history interviews with ‘leading business practitioners’, i.e. with CEO’s ( The group of business historians at HBS who has embarked on this extensive project is to be congratulated for their ambitions to collect and thus rescue for future generations of historians, sociologists and economists the perspectives and insights of these business leaders. By contrast, though, which historian of science today would attempt to capture the emergence of modern physics by lining up personal interviews of Nobel Prize laureates? There is, in my mind at least, nothing wrong at all with collecting personal memories through oral history interviews. But to disconnect these ‘leaders’ from the firms they worked in, the workers they employed, the political structures they had to endure, the request for bribes they undoubtedly faced, etc., is to write history through the eyes of ‘great men’ – an approach which in no other sub-field of history (political history, art history, history of science, social history, economic history) would still count as sufficient.

        For younger and mid-career scholars like myself, this lack of interest in the complicacies as regards the theory of historical research shown by so many business historians is troublesome, not the least for reasons to do with publication prospects. I believe there is a reason why business historians at times struggle to get their research published in the highest-ranking management and business research journals. Compare the methodological and epistemological sophistication which one can find in any issue of, say, the Academy of Management Review, Organization Studies, Environment & Planning, the Journal of International Business Studies, or Accounting, Organisations and Society. Needless to say that these journals have of course accepted the work of the leading business historians of our time, such as Geoffrey Jones, John Wilson, Steve Toms, Mick Rowlinson, Andrew Popp and others. My point here is that business historians have yet a long way to go to match the level of reflection that is the norm in these journals. The archive as evidence base, as the source and locus of our research, is *the* key point which differentiates us as business historians from the social science-oriented researchers which dominate business schools. By pretending that this key point of differentiation does not require critical investigation, business historians only diminish their chances of sharing the decreasing resources that are available for qualitative research.

  2. Pingback: The Business Historian and the Archive in the Post-Snowden Era | The Past Speaks

  3. Pingback: ¿Qué es un archivo? | Pasado y Presente de la Economia Mundial

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