Reinventing Entrepreneurial History
Abstract: Research on entrepreneurship remains fragmented in business history. A lack of conceptual clarity inhibits comparisons between studies and dialogue among scholars. To address these issues, we propose to reinvent entrepreneurial history as a research field. We define “new entrepreneurial history” as the study of the creative processes that propel economic change. Rather than putting actors, hierarchies, or institutions at the center of the analysis, we focus explicitly on three distinct entrepreneurial processes as primary objects of study: envisioning and valuing opportunities, allocating and reconfiguring resources, and legitimizing novelty. The article elaborates on the historiography, premises, and potential contributions of new entrepreneurial history.
Keywords: entrepreneurship, entrepreneurial processes, history, theory, temporality, uncertainty, agency, opportunity, resources, legitimation
Business History Review, 2017, 91 (4): 767-799 – doi:10.1017/S0007680517001374
Review by Nicholas D Wong (Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University)
This article by Wadhwani and Lubinski proposes the reinvention of ‘entrepreneurial history as a research field’ with the aim of promoting greater ‘conceptual clarity’ between comparative studies and dialogue amongst scholars in the field. This engaging and well-written paper provides a new way of considering entrepreneurial activities over time with the emphasis placed on the processes that drive entrepreneurship rather than the individuals or institutions. Following a call to arms for history to join other social sciences (“management, economics, sociology, finance and anthropology”) in developing a distinct sub-field for the study of entrepreneurship the authors provide a neat structure to the paper which begins by providing an historiographical assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of what they term the “old entrepreneurial history”. This is followed by an insight into the parameters of the concept of “new entrepreneurial history”; one which considers the development temporally and defined succinctly as “the study of the creative processes that propel economic change”. This conceptualization foregrounds entrepreneurial processes rather than focusing on particular actors, institutions, or technologies.” The third section develops a set of core processes that frame the object of study in entrepreneurial history, “(i) envisioning and valuing opportunities, (ii) allocating and reconfiguring resources, and (iii) legitimizing novelty”. The paper concludes by highlighting the important contributions new entrepreneurial history can make to the field of business history.
In assessing the historical foundations of entrepreneurship, the authors follow the well-trawled path through the German Historical School of Schmoller and Weber and ultimately on to Schumpeter which, over time, helped promote the concept of “historical change focussed on entrepreneurial processes”. It was perhaps Schumpeter more than any other who ardently proclaimed the centrality of history in enabling the understanding the role of the entrepreneur as the driving force of capitalism and “central to the operation of markets and the dynamics of economies”. However, despite the strength of scholarship that developed during the immediate post-war period, the authors highlight how the field of entrepreneurial history dissipated in later decades being replaced by formulaic, normative and structured research that was “increasingly focussed on how norms, laws and other institutions shaped entrepreneurial roles and functions”. The authors highlight how this approach ultimately led to the demise of the field in the late 1960s as Chandlerian theory on organisational form and managerial hierarchies dominated business history. The 1970s and 80s saw entrepreneurship studies receive increasing attention from business-people and policy makers alike as a way of understanding how economies and markets operate (and what drives them). However, it was still largely ignored by business historians.
To demonstrate the difficulty for historically-orientated scholarship in defining and framing the concept of entrepreneurship, the authors provide some quantitative analysis of the number of articles published in Business History Review during the period 1954-2015 which mention entrepreneurship in the full text, including references. The figures are startling, with only 44 of 1044 featuring the term ‘entrepreneurship’ and when excluding the phrase appearing in citations this figure reduces to only twenty-six articles. This provides clear evidence of the lack of engagement with entrepreneurship by business history scholars. Moreover, of those articles that directly use the term, ‘entrepreneurship’, there is a general lack of clear definitions (most rely on Schumpterian definition, whilst more recently, Mark Casson’s definition has been widely-used). The authors use this evidence to demonstrate the lack of engagement in entrepreneurial studies (beyond the individual entrepreneur at least!) in business history. This is interesting research method although it could possibly have been improved by extending the analysis into other prominent business history journals such as Business History or Enterprise and Society – this would have strengthened the conclusions drawn from this section of the study. This section finishes by highlighting how historians have tackled entrepreneurship in recent years, with Popp, Raff, Amatori, Friedman, Jones and others using a variety of approaches including biography, microlevel process (such as agency over time) and macrolevel approaches which consider the consequences of entrepreneurship for structural change (such as the industrial revolution or globalisation).
Following the illuminating section on the historiography of entrepreneurship, the next section tackles the concept of entrepreneurship as it relates to field of history. Here the authors provide a succinct and applicable definition of entrepreneurial history: “the study of the creative processes that propel economic change”. Here they are keen to point out that, “the definition focuses on the study of entrepreneurial processes and their relationship to change”. They provide three key premises that link entrepreneurial history to historical change over time: the temporal foundations of agency; multiplicity in the forms of value; and the collective and cumulative character of entrepreneurship. With reference to the first premise, the authors cite the work of Popp et al., and Beckert, by suggesting that understanding entrepreneurial agency “hinges on examining the processes by which they envision and pursue futures beyond the constraints of the present context”. Here they are making clear linkages to the concept of forward projection, that being the idea that the study of entrepreneurial history requires the researcher to understand the necessity of entrepreneurs to think-forward and plan for an “unpredictable future”. This is a novel approach, although it is reliant on a particular set of sources that work as evidence for qualitative research that can enable the historian to penetrate the mindset of the entrepreneur. The two papers cited by Popp and Holt both rely on extensive sets of letters between entrepreneurs and their familial, social and business networks which help construct a picture of the entrepreneur and the strategic forward planning for key developments such as succession, diversification, or international expansion. The second premise, multiplicity in the forms of value, suggests that entrepreneurs can find value beyond baseline profitability. Here the authors infer that entrepreneurs can seek future forms of (non-economic) value such as civic, environmental, academic, and industrial. This again is linked to the idea that the pursuit (or accumulation) of intangibles such as reputational and social capital can provide competitive advantage in the market place and, perhaps, can be considered as entrepreneurial as innovation, expansion and diversification. The final premise, the collective and cumulative character of entrepreneurship, refers to the domino effect of entrepreneurial opportunities that provide the foundation for, and provoke, further streams of entrepreneurship. This is linked to the notion that entrepreneurs have a sense of collective identity and the idea that “they belong to a generation, group or epoch”. The importance of this premise is that it moves away from what the authors refer to as the “heroic individual”. Here, new entrepreneurial history calls for further analysis of “cumulative entrepreneurial processes across multiple actors over time that propel historical change”.
The third section of the article points to processes that act as primary objects of study in entrepreneurial history. The first of these, envisioning and valuing opportunities, is linked to the classical characteristics of entrepreneurship such as forecasting market changes, seeking new opportunities, accessing and creating new technologies, exploiting new markets/territories and developing new practices. However, the authors highlight how new entrepreneurial history deviates from the old forms by explaining how the new opportunities are enacted rather than discovered. This is because actors define value and worth in different ways and this changes over time. The second process is allocating and reconfiguring resources; here they suggest that entrepreneurial history can “explore the processes and mechanisms by which actors allocated and reconfigured resources towards uncertain, future ends”. This section highlights the value of history in analysing the process and motivation for entrepreneurs to influence macro-level developments in terms of institutional or societal change and how this influences their allocation of resources. The final process identified by the authors, legitimizing novelty, builds on the previous processes as, in their view, legitimacy can pose ‘a problem in the entrepreneurial process because the new forms of value and new combinations of resources entrepreneurs introduce often fail to conform to widely shared expectations regarding rules, norms, beliefs, and definitions. Legitimation processes thus form another important focus of research in entrepreneurial history”. The key contribution of the historian in this area is understand the process of legitimation and to analyse how and why societal or institutional change occurs over time.
In terms of the potential contributions that new entrepreneurial history can make the authors have compiled a helpful table that compares it to Chandlerian business history, new institutional business history, and new economic histories of business. This table, in part, helps reinforces the central tenets of new entrepreneurial history (such as the emphasis on the process of entrepreneurship, the cumulative and collective approaches, the impact on development of society and institutions, the methods of assigning value over and above profit etc.) and how it diverges or challenges traditional schools of business history. The eclectic approach to entrepreneurship as designed by the authors provides a framework for future research to follow in order to consider the development of entrepreneurship over time but also in understanding how entrepreneurship influences, and is influenced, by, individual, institutional and societal micro and macro-level factors. Perhaps the greatest contribution, as highlighted in the conclusion, is the implications or influence that new entrepreneurial history can have on entrepreneurs today. Here the authors demonstrate the strength of the historian in enabling entrepreneurs to understand the world and “acting in it”. By following the framework developed in this paper, business historians have opportunity to develop a richer and deeper insight into the core factors that influence and drive the process of entrepreneurship.
A couple of minor observations: the definition provided by the authors, in my opinion, could be broadened out slightly. In the case the authors raise the point that new entrepreneurial history focuses on the study of the creative processes that propel economic change, [my emphasis], however, this framework could be used to study processes far beyond the purely economic (including, for example, environmental, technological, cultural, management, social, political). Indeed, the section on ‘multiplicity in the forms of value’ highlights how value can be assigned to non-economic factors, such as the accumulation of social and cultural capital, environmental, civic, academic, esthetic, industrial etc. The definition in this instance seems too narrow in enabling the researcher to understand change and the authors themselves provide insight into factors beyond market forces. In terms of broadening out the concept, I feel this particular theme has potential to inform research beyond business history and could have relevance to research in other branches of management and organisational studies, and perhaps even other disciplines in social sciences. My second observation concerns the blurring or overlap between premises two and three concerning the recruiting and allocation of resources on one hand and gaining of legitimacy on the other hand. Both sections cover similar areas with regards to the winning institutional support or driving institutional change in order to gain support or enhance legitimacy. I feel there is scope to draw greater distinctions between these two processes.
To conclude, this article presents a well-considered and well-structured contribution to the field of entrepreneurial history. The authors establish a real need for their approach and then provide a strong, clear and adaptable framework that can open the field to future researchers. As a business historian myself, I am always sympathetic to papers championing a historical or temporal approach and found this paper extremely useful to my ongoing research projects. I am sure it will make a strong contribution to the field and provoke much discussion and research in the years to come!
I am extremely grateful to Andrew Popp and Niall Mackenzie for their feedback on an earlier draft of this review.