Category Archives: Method & Epistemology in History

Reconstructing the B-School

Clio in the Business School: Historical Approaches in Strategy, International Business and Entrepreneurship

by Andrew Perchard (Stirling), Niall Mackenzie (Strathclyde), Stephanie Decker (Aston) and Giovanni Favero (Venice)

On the back of recent and significant new debates on the use of history within business and management studies, we consider the perception of historians as being anti-theory and of having methodological shortcomings; and business and management scholars displaying insufficient attention to historical context and privileging of certain social science methods over others. These are explored through an examination of three subjects: strategy, international business and entrepreneurship. We propose a framework for advancing the use of history within business and management studies more generally through greater understanding of historical perspectives and methodologies.

Keywords: History, strategy, international business, entrepreneurship, methodology

Freely available for a limited time at: Business History, 59(6): 904-27

Review by Mitchell J. Larson (University of Central Lancashire)

Recently Martin Parker (Bristol) has taken to the airwaves promoting the idea of bulldozing the business school. In sharp contrast, Andrew Perchard, Niall McKenzie, Stephanie Decker, and Giovanni Favero make a compelling case for certain disciplines in the management sciences to open themselves to alternative methodological and epistemological approaches. They argue that the fields of strategy, international business, and entrepreneurship have not embraced historically-oriented research to the same extent as other fields within business and management studies. The authors also admit that many scholars conducting historical business research have not made a sufficiently solid case about the robustness of their historical methodology(s) or data to convince other social scientists about the validity of their claims. Drawing upon an impressive range of previous works to develop their discussion, the paper attempts to reconcile these discrepancies to highlight how a more explicit articulation of the historian’s process could overcome the concerns of ‘mainstream’ management scholars regarding theorization and methodology in these three fields specifically and in management studies generally.

One major concern held by non-historians is that historical work illustrates an alleged a-theoretical or even anti-theoretical nature of scholarly writing (Duara, 1998). A second major concern is that historical methods (i.e. of data collection) are not sufficient grounds upon which to base management theory. The authors demonstrate the complexities of these issues with respect to existing historical work in business and management studies, such as the ‘cherry-picking’ of outlier events to support a more general point – especially by scholars in other fields applying historical methods rather casually – and place responsibility upon business and management historians to make their process(es) more transparent and explain themselves and their work better to other social scientists. The article claims that the “continuing distinctions drawn between the primary data created by social science research…with the collection of ‘secondary’ documentary evidence in archives…are misleading.” (p. 915). Whereas social science researchers will be aware explicitly about potential sources for bias in their data and often include discussions about this in their work, the historical process ‘internalizes’ these judgements and thus appears to hide them from the reader. The discipline of history, so accustomed to the individual historian’s assessment of the materials being examined, assumes that with satisfactory preparation the historian’s assessment will be reasonable based on her (or his) knowledge of the historical context, the actors involved, and assumptions about the rationality and practicality of the various decisions that might have been made at any particular point in the timeline. But it is this internalization of decision-making and assessment which so troubles non-historians and why the authors call for business and management historians to “more clearly articulate the methodologies adopted by historians to show the value of history to business and management studies…” That there is value to be realized is shown through the acceptance of historical approaches by other branches of the management studies arena, and their point is that these three sub-fields have been slower to warm to their use than others.

The major difficulty here lies in the way data are encountered: the social scientist generates new ‘primary’ data through his or her interaction with respondents whether actively (through interviews or questionnaires) or passively (through observation). Given the nature of historical work, of course this style of primary data generation is seldom possible: all the protagonists are gone and even the organization(s) to which they were affiliated may have disappeared or transformed beyond anything the historical actors could have imagined. Indeed even the labels of what constitutes ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ data differ between historians and other groups of social scientists. What the historian then faces is piecing together traces of the past much like an archaeologist might do when exploring new ruins. The main difference is that the business historian deals with written records while the archaeologist deals with physical remains, but in both cases often as much (or more) remains hidden as is brought to light in the process of discovery. This process, and the gaps in data continuity that it allows, appear to bother social scientists whose epistemological approach is steeped in the rationalist arguments of the physical sciences and applies only to the data they have actively sought to collect. That other elements can be discarded as irrelevant to the analysis likewise troubles historians for whom contingency and context are vitally important pieces of the story.

There are a number of significant factors here which the article discusses at some length, but what is striking about the discussion is that there is, perhaps ironically, seemingly little consideration for how these disciplines arose and evolved over time and whether these differences in development might be at the root of the issue. History as an activity reaches back to antiquity but the modern discipline of history received fresh articulation in the early nineteenth century. In contrast, the fields one might ascribe to the ‘social science’ area relevant to business and management (anthropology, communications, economics, geography, sociology, and psychology, for example) tend as a group to be newer and as part of their growth had to justify space in the academic environment for themselves. The process of doing so led these fields to ally themselves with the methods and approaches of the physical sciences to gain scientific credibility in a way that the traditional subject of history never did. The discipline of history, and by extension business and management history, is now playing a catch-up game to find ways to articulate and justify its value as a discipline in the face of criticism from practitioners in other fields. Perchard et. al. try to move this process forward by explaining to historians how their work could or should be explained differently (not necessarily done differently) to assist non-historians in assessing and appreciating its value. Here they remind us of the work of Andrews and Burke (2007) whose ‘five Cs’ (change over time, causality, context, complexity, and contingency) provide a useful guide to help non-specialists appreciate the aspects that historians are likely to fix upon as explanatory variables. The authors also point to the work of Jones and Khanna (2006) and Maclean, Harvey, and Clegg (2016) as helpful in making historical work relevant to mainstream business and management studies.

The article is a valuable contribution to the on-going effort to bring management and business historians closer to those studying and theorizing about management and business activity. Its relevance touches on a number of critical issues both in the academic field of study and related to the career development of those engaged in this kind of research.

References

Andrews, Thomas and Burke, Flannery (2007), “What Does it Mean to Think Historically?”, Perspectives in History, available at: https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/january-2007/what-does-it-mean-to-think-historically

Duara, Prasenjit (1998), “Why is History Anti-theoretical?”, Modern China, 24(2): 106.

Jones, Geoffrey and Khanna, Tarun (2006), “Bringing History (Back) into International Business,” Journal of International Business Studies, 37(4): 453-68.

Maclean, Mairi, Harvey, Charles and Clegg, Stewart (2016), “Conceptualizing Historical Organization Studies,” Academy of Management Review, 41(4): 609-32.

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Where is the growth?

Mismeasuring Long Run Growth: The Bias from Spliced National Accounts

by Leandro Prados de la Escosura (Carlos III)

Abstract: Comparisons of economic performance over space and time largely depend on how statistical evidence from national accounts and historical estimates are spliced. To allow for changes in relative prices, GDP benchmark years in national accounts are periodically replaced with new and more recent ones. Thus, a homogeneous long-run GDP series requires linking different temporal segments of national accounts. The choice of the splicing procedure may result in substantial differences in GDP levels and growth, particularly as an economy undergoes deep structural transformation. An inadequate splicing may result in a serious bias in the measurement of GDP levels and growth rates.

Alternative splicing solutions are discussed in this paper for the particular case of Spain, a fast growing country in the second half of the twentieth century. It is concluded that the usual linking procedure, retropolation, has serious flows as it tends to bias GDP levels upwards and, consequently, to underestimate growth rates, especially for developing countries experiencing structural change. An alternative interpolation procedure is proposed.

Source: http://econpapers.repec.org/paper/cgewacage/202.htm

Distributed in NEP-HIS on 2015 – 01 – 09

Reviewed by Cristián Ducoing

Dealing with National Accounts (hereafter NA) is a hard; dealing with NA in the long run is even harder…..

Broadly speaking, a quick and ready comparison of economic performance for a period of sixty years or more, would typically source its data from the Maddison project. However and as with any other human endevour, this data is not free from error. Potential and actual errors in measuring economic growth is highly relevant economic history research, particularly if we want to improve its public policy impact. See for instance the (brief) discussion in Xavier Marquez’s blog around how the choice of measure can significantly under or overstate importance of Lee Kuan Yew as ruler of Singapore.

The paper by Leandro Prados de la Escosura, therefore, contributes to a growing debate around establishing which is the “best” GDP measure to ascertain economic performance in the long run (i.e. 60 or more years). For some time now Prados de la Escosura has been searching for new ways to measure economic development in the long run. This body of work is now made out of over 60 articles in peer reviewed journals, book chapters and academic books. In this paper, the latest addition to assessing welfare levels in the long run, Prados de la Escosura discusses the problems in using alternative benchmarks and issues of spliced NA in a country with a notorious structural change, Spain. The main hypothesis developed in this article is to ascertain differences that could appear in the long run NA according to the method used to splice NA benchmarks. So, the BIG question is retropolation or interpolation?

Leandro Prados de la Escosura. Source: www.aehe.net

Leandro Prados de la Escosura. Source: http://www.aehe.net

Retropolation: As Prados de la Escosura says, involves a method that is …, widely used by national accountants (and implicitly accepted in international comparisons). [T]he backward projection, or retropolation, approach, accepts the reference level provided by the most recent benchmark estimate…. In other words, the researcher accepts the current benchmark and splits it with the past series (using the variation rates of the past estimations). What is the issue here? Selecting the most recent benchmark results in a higher GDP estimate because, by its nature, this benchmark encompasses a greater number of economic activities. For instance, the ranking of relative income for the UK and France changes significantly when including estimates of prostitution and narcotrafic. This “weird” example shows how with a higher current level and using past variation rates, long-run estimates of GDP will be artificially improved in value. This approach thus can lead us to find historical anomalies such as a richer Spain overtaking France in the XIXth century (See Prados de la Escosura figure 3 below).

An alternative to the backward projection linkage is the interpolation procedure. This method accepts the levels computed directly for each benchmark year as the best possible estimates, on the grounds that they have been obtained with ”complete” information on quantities and prices in the earlier period. This procedure keeps the initial level unaltered, probably being lower than the level estimated by the retropolation approach.

There are two more recent methods to splice NA series derived from the methods described above: the “mixed splicing” proposed by Angel de la Fuente (2014), which uses a parameter to capture the severity of the initial error in the original benchmark. The problem with this solution is the arbitrary value assigned (parameter). Let’s see it graphically and using data for the Maddison project. As it is well known, these figures were recently updated by Jutta Bolt and Jan Luiten van Zanden while the database built thanks to the contributions of several scholars around the world and using a same currency (i.e. the international Geary-Kheamy dollar) to measure NA. Now, in figure 1 shows a plot of GDP per capita of France, UK, USA and Spain using data from the Madison project.

GDP per capita $G-K 1990. France, UK, USA and Spain. 1850 – 2012

The graph suggests that Spain was always poorer than France. But this could change if the chosen method to split NA is the retropolation approach. Probably we need a graph just with France to appreciate the differences. Please see figure 2:

GDP pc Ratio between Spain and France. Bolt&vanZanden (2014) with data from Prados de la Escosura (2003)

GDP pc Ratio between Spain and France. Bolt&vanZanden (2014) with data from Prados de la Escosura (2003)

Figure 2 now suggests an apparent convergence of Spain with France in the period 1957 to 2006. The average growth rate for Spain in this period was almost 3,5% p.a. and in the case of France average growth shrinks to 2,2% p.a. Anecdotal observation as well as documented evidence around Spainish levels of inequality and poverty make this result hard to believe. Prados de la Escosura goes on to help us ascertain this differences in measurement graphically by brining together estimates of retropolation and interpolation approaches in a single graph (see figure 3 below):

Figure 3. Spain’s Comparative Real Per Capita GDP with Alternative Linear Splicing (2011 EKS $) (logs).

Figure 3. Spain’s Comparative Real Per Capita GDP with Alternative Linear Splicing (2011 EKS $) (logs).

In summary, this paper by Prados de la Escosura is a great contribution to the debate on long run economic performance. It poises interesting challenges scholars researching long-term growth and dealing with NA and international comparisons. The benchmarks and split between different sources is always a source of problems to international comparative studies but also to long-term study of the same country. Moving beyond the technical implications discussed by Prados de la Escosura in this paper, economic history research could benefit from a debate to look for alternative measures or proxies for long-run growth, because GDP as the main source of international comparisons is becoming “dated” and ineffective to deal with new research in inequality, genuine savings Genuine Savings, energy consumption, complexity and gaps between development and developed countries to name but a few.

References

Bolt, J. and J. L. van Zanden (2014). The Maddison Project: collaborative research on historical national accounts. The Economic History Review, 67 (3): 627–651.

Prados de la Escosura, Leandro  (2003) El progreso económico de España (1850-2000). Madrid, Fundación BBVA, , 762 pp.

PS:

1) This paper by Prados de la Escosura has already been published in Cliometrica and with the same title

2) Prados de la Escosura’s A new historical database on economic freedom in OECD countries | VOX, CEPR’s Policy Portal.

(Spoiler Alert) Game of Science: Higher life expectancy does not cause Economic Growth

Disease and Development: A Reply to Bloom, Canning, and Fink

By Daron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson (both MIT)

URL: http://d.repec.org/n?u=RePEc:nbr:nberwo:20064&r=his

Abstract

Bloom, Canning, and Fink (2014) argue that the results in Acemoglu and Johnson (2006, 2007) are not robust because initial level of life expectancy (in 1940) should be included in our regressions of changes in GDP per capita on changes in life expectancy. We assess their claims controlling for potential lagged effects of initial life expectancy using data from 1900, employing a nonlinear estimator suggested by their framework, and using information from microeconomic estimates on the effects of improving health. There is no evidence for a positive effect of life expectancy on GDP per capita in this important historical episode.

Reviewed by Sebastian Fleitas

 “The game of science is, in principle, without end.   He who decides one day that scientific statements do not call for any further test, and that they can be regarded as finally verified, retires from the game.” 

The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Karl Popper, 1934.

Bill Gates' Infographics

Bill Gates’s Infographic.

Not a long time ago, on April 25, Bill Gates posted an infographic on his blog revealing which is the world’s deadliest animal. Sharks, bugs, snakes and many very scary animals are not even close. The mosquito has the first place by far. They carry terrible diseases, including malaria, which kills more than 600,000 people every year. This infographic is just a reminder of how important it is to improve health around the world. Better health conditions could make millions of people live longer and better lives. But will these better health conditions (and a longer life expectancy) actually cause economic growth? Cross-country regression studies show a strong correlation between measures of health and both the level of economic development and recent economic growth. But, as we know, correlation does not imply causation.

What Acemoglu and Johnson (AJ hereafter) do in their 2014 paper (NEP-HIS 2014-05-17) is just to play the Game of Science. AJ (2007) argue that life expectancy does not cause economic growth and that previous studies had not established a causal effect of health and disease environments on economic growth. Since countries suffering from short life expectancy are also disadvantaged in other ways that are correlated with their poor health outcomes, previous macro studies may be capturing the negative effects of these other unobservable disadvantages. To address this identification problem, AJ (2007) used an instrument for the life expectancy: medical advances that occur at the health frontier, interacted with variation in the prevalence of diseases across the world, used together to construct a predicted mortality variable. The adoption of new medical practices is clearly endogenous, but the authors argue that the technology at the frontier is potentially exogenous. Since there was variation across countries in the prevalence of different diseases, the timing of new medicine advances has a different effect on the predicted mortality for different countries. In other words, the predicted mortality variable satisfies the requirements of a good instrument: it is correlated with the life expectancy in the country, but it is arguably not correlated with other unobservables that determine growth that may be changing at the same time in a country.

Dr. Jonas Salk and Dr. Albert Sabin developed two different polio vaccines that have pretty much  almost eradicated polio from the world.

Dr. Jonas Salk and Dr. Albert Sabin developed two different polio vaccines that have pretty much almost eradicated polio from the world.

Bloom et al. (2013, hereafter BCF) disagree with AJ’s strategy and conclusions. In their paper, which earlier appeared as an NBER working paper, they argue that the problem with AJ’s instrument is that it assumes the predicted mortality to be exogenous and not affected by contemporaneous income shocks. In other words, it implies that the initial mortality rate in 1940 should be unaffected by income levels in 1940, which is difficult to believe. As BCF explain very clearly, the “natural experiment” constructed by AJ is flawed. The “treatment group” that received large health gains from technological innovations is fundamentally different from the “control group” that received low health gains, since the “treatment group” had lower life expectancy initially. Therefore, if initial conditions are important for subsequent economic growth, the results will be biased if these initial conditions in 1940 are not considered. BCF included the level of life expectancy in their econometric specifications (a “partial adjustment model”) and they concluded that exogenous improvements in health due to technical advances associated with the epidemiological transition appear to have increased income levels.

In their reply to the reply, Acemoglu and Johnson (2014) address by different means the concern raised by BCF about their original work. First, in order to capture the long-run effects of the initial life expectancy, they include the level of life expectancy in 1900 interacted with time dummies in their decadal panel data set (which runs from 1940). Second, they estimate the “partial adjustment model” of BCF via non linear GMM, since the linear estimation of BCF’s specification will lead to a great deal of multicollinearity and the standard errors become very large. Finally, they use microeconomic estimates from another paper to calculate potential macroeconomic effects of current life expectancy on future growth and examine the implications of their baseline results. AJ conclude that all these approaches confirm that their main results are robust. There is no evidence that increases in life expectancy after 1940 had a positive effect on GDP per capita growth.

There are three issues in this Game of Science that I would like to comment on. First, the intent to quantify the contribution of health to economic growth is extremely relevant for both scientific and policy-related motivations. The general conclusion of the debate, at this stage of the game, is that health conditions were not a factor that shaped the differences in GDP per capita during the second half of the 20th century. Even more generally, the evidence casts doubts on the views that health has a first-order impact on economic growth. With this in mind, it is important to recognize the limitations in the study, especially to extract conclusions for today’s effect of health on economic growth. This is recognized by AJ, who warn that international epidemiological transition was a one-time event and that the diseases that take many lives in the poorer parts of the world today are not the same as those 60 years ago. Despite these considerations, it is important to notice that no author in this debate has questioned the crucial role of improving health conditions to save and improve the lives of millions of people.

Correlation and Causation

Correlation versus Causation

Second, it is important to highlight that the main contribution of AJ is that they provide a sound way to address the problem of endogeneity in order to answer this important question. It is not the first time that Acemoglu and Johnson find a way to design a natural experiment to address some fundamental development questions by using exogenous variation in a country-level panel data setting. In another famous paper, Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson (2001, AJR hereafter) address the problem of endogeneity that raises in the study of the linkages between income and institutions with the famous instrument of mortality rates of European settlers in different colonies. In both occasions Acemoglu and co-author(s) show us in practice the nuts and bolts of economists’ empirical work, that is, to address the endogeneity concerns by doing good research designs and by finding exogenous sources of variation.

Finally, I see this debate as a privileged example of Popper´s quote. In this short reply to BCF, AJ (2014) present further tests for their results in AJ (2007), overcoming the important point that BCF raise. This is a fair game; both articles are forthcoming in the Journal of Political Economy and the database and programs for AJ papers can be downloaded from Daron Acemoglu’s webpage at MIT. Even more, this is not the first time these authors play the game in the same way. A similar, and also very illustrative debate about AJR (2001) and David Albouy’s critiques can be found in the American Economic Review, or in the NBER working paper. In both debates, Acemoglu and co-author(s) present more evidence on their results that are robust to additional tests, but in both episodes we gain from the debate. We just need to recall that our knowledge is always limited by the evidence we have at the moment, and that this evidence will change over time. After all, in the Game of Science, just like in another famous game, you do not know how it is going to end, even if you read all the books that have been published on the topic.

The institutional co-evolution of proto-multinationals

The Formative Years of the Modern Corporation: The Dutch East India Company VOC, 1602-1623

By Oscar Gelderblom (University of Utrecht), Abe de Jong (Erasmus University Rotterdam) & Joost Jonker (Universities of Amsterdam and Utrecht)

URL: http://ideas.repec.org/p/ems/eureri/32952.html

Abstract

With their legal personhood, permanent capital with transferable shares, separation of ownership and management, and limited liability for both shareholders and managers, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and subsequently the English East India Company (EIC) are generally considered a major institutional breakthrough. Our analysis of the business operations and notably the financial policy of the VOC during the company’s first two decades in existence shows that its corporate form owed less to foresight than to constant piecemeal engineering to remedy original design flaws brought to light by prolonged exposure to the strains of the Asian trade. Moreover, the crucial feature of limited liability for managers was not, as previously thought, part and parcel of that design, but emerged only after a long period of experimenting with various, sometimes very ingenious, solutions to the company’s financial bottlenecks.

Reviewed by Stephanie Decker

The Dutch East India company may be among the best researched businesses of all time, but it is testament to its importance as a proto-multinational and the quality of its archive that research on this firm continues to inform contemporary research debates. The working paper by Gelderblom, De Jong & Jonker (NEP-HIS 2014-01-17), which has since been published in the Journal of Economic History, is interesting as it deals with the early years of the VOC (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie), and presents both a historical narrative as well as some distinctive challenges to previous assumptions. Their paper has to be seen as both an interesting contribution to other researches on the VOC, as well as some more general debates.

The continued interest in this very old company is due to a variety of reasons. Even a short sweep of recent work that relates to the VOC shows a remarkable breadth of themes. Wim van Lent has compared management policies of the VOC with its competitor, the English East India company, to understand some problems of its organizational evolution (Sgourev & Van Lent, 2011). This comparison is so intriguing not just because of the Dutch-English colonial competition during this time period, but also because the two East India companies were organized very differently, and almost provide a naturally occurring counterfactual for each other in a laboratory that tests organizational effectiveness at long distance.

As both firms date back to the seventeenth century, and were among the first well-documented examples of how organizations dealt with the challenges of managing across vast distances, their corporate histories are of great importance in and of themselves. Both provide organizational solutions to some of the perennial problems of multinationals, which struggled with poor communication and oversight of operations, especially the difficulties of enforcing control and monitoring the trustworthiness of its agents.

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Gelderblom et al. discuss the attitudes and conflicts within the Dutch Republic over the control of the VOC, the world’s first modern corporation

But despite all of these similarities to the multinationals of later stages, the East India companies were also fundamental different, and creations of their own time. The companies, especially the VOC, often took on roles that made them quasi-governmental bodies. As a result, they were involved in some of the day-to-day issues of governance of empire, which made these archives particularly rich. Thus they have been researched beyond the narrow confines of business history, and the particular insights that can be gained from those files have been discussed in great detail by Ann Laura Stoler (2009), a well-known postcolonial historian of gender and empire. The conduct of business often involved the company in political and personal issues well beyond what one would usually expect to see in a business archive, which offers rich contextual insights into the time period and its attitudes.

It is in this regard that the paper by Gelderblom et al. is interesting, as it discusses the attitudes and conflicts within the Netherlands over the control and financing of the VOC, and the exact rights and obligations of its directors. The paper takes core historical values such as contextualization and contingency (O’Sullivan & Graham, 2010) seriously, and paints a rich picture of the time period and some of the characters that influenced the decision-making within and beyond the VOC. The importance of these issues lies in more conceptual debates about the evolution of limited liability in the West (as opposed to other commercially vibrant areas such as the Middle East). Gelderblom et al.’s analytically structured narrative (Rowlinson, Hassard & Decker, 2014) highlights that although the VOC possessed some important legal features that we commonly associate with modern corporations, others developed only during its first years of operations in response to external pressures.
Consequently, having acquired two key features of the modern corporation (the split between ownership and management and transferable shares) from the outset, the VOC obtained three more (a permanent capital, limited liability for directors and by extension legal personhood) step-by-step over a period of some twenty years. Thus the five features did not come as a package, as a coherent logical set.

Their narrative shows how most of these pressures reflected financial constraints, as the large-scale trading activities in conjunction with military expeditions were a far larger undertaking than anything that had hitherto been financed on the Amsterdam money markets. This is an important contribution, and their short discussion in the conclusion quite sensitively highlights that some assumptions about the superiority of the Western institutional frameworks, such as argued for by Kuran (2010), are perhaps too ethnocentric to fully understand not just the different evolution of institutions in other cultures, but can also blind researchers to the historically contingent development of the legal frameworks that we now take for granted.

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Gelderblom et al. hide much of their contribution in their paper’s appendix

In light of the above, it is noticeable that the actual narrative takes up the largest part of the paper, and that it is only at particularly important junctures that the historiographical literature is challenged, while the framing in the introduction and conclusion is more heavily conceptual. These insights that can only be developed from a careful, in-depth historical investigation perhaps deserve better highlighting. This extends to the title, which does not quite do justice to the large themes that inform the historical narrative. Finally, it is only in the appendix that it becomes clear for readers not familiar with the nature of the VOC archive that this early period that the paper deals with is indeed not as well-researched as the later period, especially in terms of its financial performance. All of this adds up to another interesting angle of research on the VOC, which as a company and an organizational archive is clearly a case of great importance for the history of business and its institutional developments.

References:

  • Kuran, T. 2010. The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • O’Sullivan, M., & Graham, M. B. W. 2010. Guest Editors’ introduction: Moving Forward by Looking Backward: Business History and Management Studies. Journal of Management Studies, forthcoming.
  • Rowlinson, M., Hassard, J., & Decker, S. 2014. Research Strategies for Organizational History: A Dialogue between Historical Theory and Organization Theory. Academy of Management Review, 39(3).
  • Sgourev, S. V., & van Lent, W. 2011. The Right Amount of Wrong? Private Trade and Public Interest at the VOC European Group of Organization Studies. Gothenburg, Sweden.
  • Stoler, A. L. 2009. Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Constructing Contemporary (Mexican Banking) History

Bank Nationalisation, Privatisation, Crisis and Financial Rescue: Using Testimonials to Write Contemporary Mexican Banking History

By Enrique Cárdenas (Centro de Estudios Espinosa Yglesias)

Abstract – The Mexican banking system has experienced a large number of transformations during the last 30 years. Although important regulatory changes were introduced in the 1970s, all but a couple of the commercial banks were nationalized in 1982, consolidated into 18 institutions and these were re-privatized in 1992. Shortly after, a balance of payments crisis in 1995 (i.e. Tequila effect) led the government to mount a financial rescue of the banking system which, in turn, resulted in foreign capital controlling all but a couple of institutions. Each and every one of these events was highly disruptive for Mexico’s productive capacity and society as a whole as their consequences have had long lasting effects on politics, regulation and supervision of the financial sector as well as polarising society. Not surprisingly the contemporary narrative accompanying these events has been highly controversial and full of conflicting accounts, with competing versions of events resulting in a long list of misconceptions and “urban legends”.

URL (Podcast: 07 April 2014, 1 hr and 38 min)

Review by Bernardo Bátiz-Lazo

This entry departs from our usual as it fails to discuss a specific paper circulated by NEP-HIS. Instead I comment and reflect on a public lecture, that is, another common medium we use to communicate our research. The lecture build around two multi volume books and three DVD’s, and was delivered by Enrique Cárdenas (Executive Director of Centro de Estudios Espinosa Yglesias or CEEY) at Bangor Business School’s London campus on 2014-04-07. The actual publications are available, by the way, in hard copy from CEEY’s book store and in electronic version from Amazon.com.mx, as well as following the links to videos below and the link to the full podcast of the presentation above.

The chief aim of this project is to offer new evidence on the process of nationalisation (1982) and privatisation (1991-1992) of Mexican commercial banks. These two episodes of contemporary financial history had important rippling effect on Mexican society, politics and macroeconomic performance. They also had global consequences, first, as they mark the start of the so-called “International Debt Crisis” after Mexico informed of a payment moratorium of sovereign debt in August 1982. Secondly, the ratification of Robert Rubin as the 70th US Treasury Secretary (1995-1999) together with Ernesto Zedillo taking office as 54th President of Mexico (1994-2000), led to a political power vacuum and impasse in economic policy making between the Autumn of 1994 and early Winter of 1995. Known in the vernacular as the “Tequila Crisis”, in December 1994 Mexico devalued its currency and this led to instability in international foreign exchange markets and accelerated the exit of portfolio investments from a number of other countries (most notably Argentina and Brazil). By this point in time, Mexicans had fought hard during negotiations with the US and Canada to keep the banking system out of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). But this exception was lost in the aftermath of the “Tequila Crisis” while the subsequent bailout of the newly privatised banks represented a precedent missed by US and British regulators of what would happen, on a much bigger scale, during the 2007-9 financial debacle.

José López-Portillo y Pacheco (Last presidential address to the Nation, 1982; The president broke into tears after announcing the nationalisation of the banks).  Courtesy of Centro de Estudios Espinosa Yglesias

José López-Portillo y Pacheco (1920-2004) (Last presidential address to the Nation, 1982; The president brakes into tears). Courtesy of Centro de Estudios Espinosa Yglesias

Cárdenas’ analytical framework is based on Stephen Haber’s ideas of co-dependence between political and financial spheres. Cardenas’ evidence-based approach is certainly welcomed. But more so as he tackles head on with the issue of periodicity and method. Specifically whether and how to write accurate and meaningful economic history using of oral sources in the recent past. Revisiting and unpacking method and methodology are topics not far from current debates in business history, as has been portrayed in previous posting in the NEP-HIS blog (click here); the forthcoming panel on oral histories and World War I at theEuropean Association for Banking and Financial History (EABH) meeting in Rüschlikon, Switzerland; recent and forthcoming publications in refereed journal articles by Stephanie Decker and colleagues (see full references below); and JoAnne Yates’s contribution to the edited book by Bucheli and Wadhwani (2014) (as well as their panel on the latter publication during the recent World Business History Conference in Frankfurt). Indeed, one of Cárdenas’ and CEEY trustees’ chief motivations to engage in this research was to listen to what major players had to say while they were still alive.

Cárdenas was not limited to oral sources. He endeavoured to gather surviving but uncatalogued documents as well as the construction and reconstruction of statistical data series to complement historical analysis. Actors were of the highest standing in society including former Presidents, Mexican and foreign Treasury ministers, senior staff at multinational financial bodies, past and present senior bank executives, regulators, economic academic advisors, etc. To deal with historians mistrust of recollection and potential bias, Cárdenas sent in advance a questionnaire split in two sections: one aimed at enabling a 360 degree perspective on key moments; and the second, made out of questions tailored to the participant’s office and status during the event. All participants were informed of who else would take part of the discussions but none were shown others’ responses until all were collected and ready for publication. The risk of being “outed” thus resulted in only a handful of contradictions as participants preferred to declined answering “painful” topics than stretching the “truth”. Meetings were recorded, transcribed, and compared against statistical data. The latter would either strengthen the participant’s argument or was returned to him with further queries. Several iterations resulted in each participant embracing full ownership of individual texts and thus effectively becoming an author of his entry. It’s this process of iterations and guided discussion to which Cárdenas refers to as “testimonials”.

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As mentioned, the result of the CEEY’s sponsored research by Cárdenas was two multi book volumes and three documentary videos all of which, as illustrated by the links below to trailers and video documentaries below, have been edited but have no narrators. All views are expressed by the main actors “so that viewers can draw their own conclusions” said Cárdenas during his lecture. By publishing a large number inconclusive outputs based on “testimonials” the CEEY, and Cádernas as his Executive Director, aim to offer a new empirical source for others to include in their own analytical work and come to their own conclusions. Indeed, CEEY’s publications also include a number single author monographs and the commissioning of edited collections by academic authors who have used the testimonials as part of their evidentiary repertoire.

But does Cárdenas have any conclusions of his own? For one, he believes the effort to generate and document events through testimonials and new statistical material results in a much more balanced approach to assess the limited options President López-Portillo had at the end of his term in office. For starters in 1981 he was to nominate on his successor ahead of elections (“el dedazo”). The events that followed were to become the beginning of the end for the one party rule that characterised Mexico during most of the 20th century. At this point in time, Mexico had experienced four record years of strong economic growth. Never seen before and never to be seen since. Its oil production was doubling each year but its international debt was skyrocketing (particularly that of short-term maturity in 1981-2).

But as international oil prices begin to drop, Mexico followed an erratic behaviour (reducing and then raising its oil price) while oil revenues generated 35% of fiscal income and 75% of exports. Moreover, prices for other Mexican exports also fell while a practically fixed-rate parity with the US dollar meant a strongly overvalued peso. A devaluation was followed by a massive increase in salaries. And in the midst of political jockeying and an accelerating worsening of public finance, the President (a lawyer by training) was, according to Cárdenas, to receive conflicting and contradicting information (Cárdenas calls it “deceiving”) on the actual size of the public deficit (which was to double from 7% of GDP in 1981 to 14% of GDP in 1982) as well as the merits of defending the Mexican peso vs US dollar exchange rate (which he publicly claim to “defend like a dog [would defend his master]“.

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This conclusion sheds a significant amount of light on the decisions of late former President López-Portillo. As much as also help to better understand the end of some otherwise promising political careers. The narrative of actors bring fresh light to understand the break up between Mexican political and business elites, which eventually results in the end of the one party rule in the presidential election of 2000. It also helps to explain the break up of the rule of law during the next 15 to 20 years in Mexico as well as the loss of the moral authority of its government.

Cárdenas and CEEY have certainly produced a piece that will resist the test of time. They offer a unique effort in creating contemporary financial history while building from oral sources, privileged access to main actors and in this process, developing an interesting method to deal with concerns around potential bias. Given the passion that the topics of nationalisation and privatisation still generate amongst Mexicans and scholars of modern day Mexico, it is understandable that the analysis has emphasised idiosyncratic elements of these events. But somehow links with wider issues have been lost. For one, nationalisation or sequestration of assets (whether of local or foreign ownership) characterised the “short” 20th century. Nationalisation is one side of the coin. The other is public deficit reduction through the sale of government assets. Indeed, the privatisation of Mexican banks between 1991 and 1992 enabled to finance about half of the reduction of Mexican sovereign debt (though the massive rescue that followed practically annulled that reduction). Mexicans were not inmune to Thatcherism to the same extent that a reduction of the state in economic activity (whether real or not) was and is part and parcel of the “second” globalisation.

In summary and in Enrique Cárdenas own words: “Writing current (economic) history is not only possible, but highly desirable!”. We welcome his contributions to enhance empirical evidence around such important events as well as offering a way to systematically deal with oral sources.

Videos

The President’s Decision (1982) – Trailer (with English subtitles)

The President’s Decision (1982) – Full length (in Spanish)

From Nationalisation to Privatisation of Mexican Banks (1982-1991) – Trailer (with English subtitles)

Privatization of Mexican Banks (The President’s Decision Ex Post: Bank Privatization [Tequila effect – 1991-1995] – Trailer (with English subtitles)

References

Yates, J. (2014) “Understanding Historical Methods in Organizational Studies” in M. Bucheli and R. D. Wadhwani (eds.) Organizations in Time : History, Theory, Methods Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 265-283.

Decker, S. (forthcoming) “Solid Intentions: An Archival Ethnography of Corporate Architecture and Organizational Remembering”, Organization.

Decker (2013) “The Silence of the Archives: Postcolonialism and Business History”, Management and Organisational History 8(2): 155-173.

Rowlinson, M. Hassard, J. and Decker, S. (forthcoming) “Research Strategies for Organizational History: A Dialogue between Organization Theory and Historical Theory”, Academy of Management Review.

Note: with special thanks for helpful comments to Sergio Negrete (ITESO) and Gustavo del Angel (CIDE).

“The Otherness of the Past:” (Economic) History and Policy in the Age of Disenchantment

On history and policy: Time in the age of neoliberalism
Francesco Boldizzoni (francesco.boldizzoni@unito.it), University of Turin
URL: http://econpapers.repec.org/paper/zbwmpifgd/136.htm
Abstract: It is often said that history matters, but these words are often little more than a hollow statement. In the aftermath of the Great Recession, the view that the economy is a mechanical toy that can be fixed using a few simple tools has continued to be held by economists and policy makers and echoed by the media. The paper addresses the origins of this unfortunate belief, inherent to neoliberalism, and what can be done to bring time back into public discourse.

“How will the 2008/09 crisis influence historical scholarship? […] The recent crisis reminds us that the policy response is as much a matter of ideology and politics as it is a matter of economics. […] The widespread use of the Great Depression analogy in the recent crisis having reminded us that historical narratives are contested, we will see more explicit attention to the question of how such narratives are formed.” – Eichengreen (2012: 303-304, my own emphasis added)

This paper, based on a lecture Francesco Boldizzoni gave as a scholar in residence at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, and distributed via NEP-HPE on July the 15th, 2013, explores the difficult relationship between history and policy, focusing on the ways in which scholars and policymakers have used and abused history in recent times.
Francesco Boldizzoni

Francesco Boldizzoni

The unnamed field in the title of Boldizzoni’s paper is no other but economic history, which comes as no surprise for those following the reception of his book The Poverty of Clio. Resurrecting Economic History, a controversial and dismal depiction of the state of economic history published in 2011. In his book, Boldizzoni (research professor of economic history at the University of Turin, and fellow at Clare Hall in Cambridge University) argues that economic history is dead, sickened by the epistemological and methodological faults of cliometrics and the new economic institutionalism (NEI), as well as “a lack of historical sensibility, linguistic skills, and by an amazing level of scholarly illiteracy” amidst her practicants and followers (Boldizzoni 2011b). Boldizzoni claims that if scholars are to “resurrect” economic history, they must draw inspiration from the example set by historians of the Annales school, the historicized socioeconomic modeling of Karl Polanyi, Moses Finley, Alexander Chayanov and Witold Kula, and insights taken from the neighboring disciplines of economic sociology and economic anthropology.
The paper now reviewed problematizes the relationship between history and policy, and more specifically, the interaction of economic history with economic policy, with particular attention to the uses and abuses of history and memory. Standing in the crossing of economic history, the history of economic knowledge and thought, memory studies, and the history of economics and science, Boldizzoni’s paper demonstrates the merits of interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary work, as his approach offers a nuanced, cautious answer to the role of historically-informed policymakers during economic downturns and illuminates what stance should economic historians have in the public sphere. Boldizzoni argues that history “is both a search for meaning and an injection of antibodies:” honest economic historians should necessarily denounce poor scholarship that mobilizes and abuses the past for political purposes in the present, and inform their audiences that the economic system is a “historically determined […] social construction, a man-made environment.” (Boldizzoni 2013: 10).

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)(ssc.mpp@cbs.dk)

URL: http://EconPapers.repec.org/RePEc:pra:mprapa:46650

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.

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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.

References

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.