Tag Archives: epistemology

The Enigma of Chinese Business Records

Discovering Economic History in Footnotes: The Story of the Tong Taisheng Merchant Archive (1790-1850)

By Debin Ma (London School of Economics) and Weipeng Yuan (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences)

 Abstract: The Tong Taisheng (统泰升) merchant account books in Ningjin county of northern China in 1800-1850 constitute the most complete and integrated surviving archive of a family business for pre-modern China. They contain unusually detailed and high-quality statistics on exchange rates, commodity prices and other information. Utilized once in the 1950s, the archive has been left largely untouched until our recent, almost accidental rediscovery. This article introduces this unique set of archives and traces the personal history of the original owner and donor. Our story of an archive encapsulates the history of modern China and how the preservation and interpretation of evidence and records of Chinese economic statistics were profoundly impacted by the development of political ideology and in modern and contemporary China. We briefly discuss the historiographical and epistemological implication of our finding in the current Great Divergence debate.

URL: http://econpapers.repec.org/paper/ehllserod/67552.htm

Distributed by NEP-HIS on 2016-9-11

Reviewed by Joyman Lee

tongtaisheng-coverpage

Cover page of the Tong Taisheng account book

Summary

This paper is the first stage in a four-part project to set out the history of the Tong Taisheng archive, the history of the firm, the history of Ningin county, and the larger North China economy in the mid-nineteenth century on the eve of the Opium War. Tong Taisheng was a medium-sized family-owned local grocery store that sold a large variety of dry goods, and the discovery of a genealogy (1903) allows the family’s history to be traced back for 16 generations, or 491 years to 1404, when the family migrated to Ningjin and started life there as farmers. Through diligence and thrift, the family business expanded, and it came to own 300 mu of land (48 acres) before a temporary setback in the 7th and 8th generation. Afterwards, the family made a comeback through commerce, invested heavily in education (as one would expect for local elites), with the result that family wealth and business stabilized to between 300-800 m. As a sign of their social status, the family was frequently entrusted with mediating and resolving village disputes at the point the archive ended in the mid-nineteenth century.

This is an impressive and ambitious project that aims to uncover the history of an extraordinary business archive in Ningjin county, Shandong province in North China. Although the data from the archive was briefly utilized by the leading Chinese economic historian at the time, Yan Zhongping, in 1955, the archive has disappeared from view until its rediscovery by the authors. Surprisingly, most of the documents were donated by a member of the lineage operating the archive (and the business) in 1935, and were simply sitting untouched in the National Library and the Institute of Economic Research of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, both in Beijing. According to the authors, the data amounts to ‘over 11 thousand data points of copper-silver exchange rates with transaction dates and quantities, five and six different types of silver used, loans and interest rates of clients, all in daily frequency’ (p7), as well as detailed prices of about 40 or 50 types of commodities. Moreover, it offers the opportunity to undertake an in-depth study of the Chinese accounting system, of the traditional monetary system and the impact of nineteenth-century opium trade and silver outflow, and to quantify China’s traditional marketing structure that forms the core of William Skinner’s landmark study on China’s macroeconomic regions (1964).

The authors offer a detailed description of the four categories of information available: firstly, original account books,  or journals or daily books (流水账) to record daily transactions of cash and goods in copper cash and silver, which constitute the bulk of the archive; secondly, postal account books, or general trade ledgers (交易总账), which were sorted by the name of the business house or customer; thirdly, summary account books, with information on strung coins account, profits and dividend account; and fourthly, miscellaneous account books, with details of temporary dealings and transactions, and accounts of loans, land purchases, and income from interest on loans. The entire archive was in traditional Chinese format with string-bound Chinese paper, was hand-written in classical Chinese, and requires specialized learning and expertise to decipher.

tongtaisheng

General trader ledger account from 1846, reflecting the ‘four columns’ (四柱法) system in traditional Chinese accounting

Comment

The richness of the archive should be self-evident, and it is all the more extraordinary in light of the paucity of detailed economic information on pre-imperial China. As the authors highlight, much of Robert Allen’s (2011) critique of the eighteenth-century Chinese data used by Kenneth Pomeranz (2000), centers on the data’s alleged imprecision in relation to Europe. As the authors put it, the paucity of Chinese historical data is in itself an intriguing historical question, as it invites us to question whether it is the result of poor record keeping, or whether it is more a reflection of the poor state of archival collection given China’s tumultuous modern history. Similarly, it will be valuable for scholars to consider whether China’s alleged lack of rich historical data is indeed suggestive of the lack of a high level of economic development or rationality compared to Europe.

As the authors point out, part of the need for uncovering and developing the Tong Taisheng archive is epistemological. Because of the invisibility of the type of sources that the archive represents – due partly to political manipulation – academic researchers in China have become unfamiliar with the bookkeeping and accounting methods in the documents. The disappearance from view of these documents meant that researchers came to be predisposed towards source materials that were more familiar to Western eyes. The unenviable consequence was an interpretation of the past through a “European” or colonial framework (p17).

Owing to the originality of the sources, Ma and Yuan’s ongoing study of the Tong Taisheng business archive is likely to be highly important not only for Chinese business history, but also for the business history of other non-Western regions plagued by similar problems of the paucity of data, as well as the lack of awareness among researchers of types of documents that are very different from the ones familiar to Western researchers.

Additional References

Allen, R, Bassino, J, Ma, D, Moll-Murata, C, Van Zanden, J. 2011. “Wages, Prices, and Living Standards in China, 1738-1925: In Comparison with Europe, Japan, and India”. Economic History Review 64, S1: 8-38.

Pomeranz, K. 2000. The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Skinner, W. 1964. “Marketing and Social Structure in Rural China”. Journal of Asian Studies 24: 3-43.

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.

storageview
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.

Linking History and Management Discourse: Epistemology and Method

Seizing the Opportunity: Towards a Historiography of Information Systems

Nathalie Mitev (n.n.mitev@lse.ac.uk) and François-Xavier de Vaujany (devaujany@dauphine.fr)

Abstract: Historical perspectives are only timidly entering the world of IS research compared to historical research in management or organization studies. If major IS outlets have already published history-oriented papers, the number of historical papers – although increasing – remains low. We carried out a thematic analysis of all papers on History and IS published between 1972 and 2009 indexed on ABI and papers indexed in Google ScholarTM for the same period. We used a typology developed by theorists Usdiken and Kieser (2004) who classify historical organisation research into supplementarist, integrationist and reorientationist approaches. We outline their links with the epistemological stances well known in IS research, positivism, interpretivism and critical research; we then focus on their differences and historiographical characteristics. We found that most IS History papers are supplementarist descriptive case studies with limited uses of History. This paper then suggests that IS research could benefit from adopting integrationist and reorientationist historical perspectives and we offer some examples to illustrate how that would contribute to enriching, extending and challenging existing theories.

URL: http://EconPapers.repec.org/RePEc:hal:journl:halshs-00671690

The Silence of the Archive: Post-Colonialism and the Practice of Historical Reconstruction from Archival Evidence

by Stephanie Decker (s.decker@aston.ac.uk)

Abstract: History as a discipline has been accused of being a-theoretical. For business historians working at business schools, however, the issue of methodology looms larger, as it is hard to make contributions to social science debates without explicating one’s disciplinary methodology. This paper seeks to outline an important aspect of historical methodology, which is data collection from archives. In this area, postcolonialism has made significant methodological contributions not just for non-Western history, as it has emphasized the importance of considering how archives were created, and how one can legitimately use them despite their limitations.

URL: http://EconPapers.repec.org/RePEc:pra:mprapa:37280

Review by Bernardo Bátiz-Lazo

In his blog post entitled Theory and Historians, Andrew Smith points to a recent article in The Economist on the role of conceptual frameworks in history. Smith notes how some people are ‘…fundamentally hostile to the application of social theory to the craft of history’ and the comments to his post point to an interesting debate along these lines within the pages of the Economic History of Developing Regions journal.

The papers reviewed in this blog entry dig deeper into this issue while, at the same time, illustrate a trend concern on how to strengthen the links between historians and management scholars. Both these papers were circulated by NEP-HIS on 2012-03-21. Other examples include a similar paper by Mitev & de Vaujany on history and management information systems, Jari Eloranta’s Quantitative methods in business history: An impossible equation?, Amedeo Lepore’s New research methods of business history as well as Geoff Jones’ and Walter Friedman’s editorial in the Business History Review A Time for Debate. Smith, Jones & Friedman, the authors below as well as myself, sit within a social sciences faculty and more to the point, most are employed by a business school. Thus, explaining and even justifying our research to management scholars has not only conceptual implications but also practical ones as such as dealing with the issue of history journals having lower citation impact scores; and even more mundane, issues about promotion and allocation of research budgets.

Nathalie Mitev

Coming from an information systems background, the paper by Mitev and De Vaujany offers an interesting epistemological schema to explore the premise that ‘..management and organization studies have experience a move towards History’ while ‘[s]earching for theoretical and methodological benefits…’. Their concern is how to deal with ‘research [which] tries to include historical variability but still tends towards deterministic and universalist explanations.’ Based on the much celebrated framework by Behlül Üsdiken & Alfred Kieser’s History in Organisation Studies, Mitev and De Vaujany set on relating epistemological viewpoints of positivism, iterpretativism and cricial theory to corresponding historiographical methods.

François-Xavier de Vaujany

First there are supplementarist approaches where historical ‘context’ is simply added as a complement to common positivist approaches, still focusing on variables but with a longer time span. Examples of supplementarist, they say, are to be found in new institutionalism studies, which have become more ‘historical’ by studying a smaller number of variables over a longer period. But these, they say, lack the rich contextual evidence of case studies. Secondly, one finds integrationists or a full consideration of History with new or stronger links between organisation studies and the humanities (including history, literary theory and philosophy). Examples, they say, include most of the work around business history as ‘[b]usiness historians have progressed to realise the potential of their work to inform contemporary managerial decision-making.’ Thirdly, there are the reorientationistor post-positivist studies, which examine and reposition dominant discourses (such as progress or efficiency) and produces a criticism and renewal of organization theory itself, on the basis of history. Management history and history of management thought are said to be representatives. However,they add, here the logic of economic efficiency has superimposed onto the narrative of historians, that is, other potential avenues such as gender, culture and ethics have been disregarded in favour of a purely economicist narrative.

Mitev and De Vaujany then engage in very interesting an epistemological discussion of the three approaches and how can historical studies relate and/or inform different areas of management discourse. This is worth read as it is indeed, food for thought. I will thus make no attempt to summarise it. Nevertheless, the paper does progress while trying to find the prevalence of each of the three named approaches within research in information systems (IS). This through a content analysis of peer-reviewed journal articles which were identified by combining the ABI bibliographic database and Google Scholar:

The journals chosen had information systems as their primary focus as opposed to management science, computer science or information science. We selected journals whose principal readership is intended for those involved in the IS field… We do not claim that the survey is exhaustive; nor do we assume that a more comprehensive survey (e.g. including conference proceedings or using other databases) would deliver different results. The analysis involved the identification of all research papers in ABI that might broadly be defined as historical perspective on information systems. Using a further search on Google Scholar, we double checked on primary analysis in order to confirm general tendencies and identify complementary references, used in our discussion. Therefore, in our survey of relevant literature our intention is to focus on material that is published in outlets specifically targeted as IS.

At this point I grew a bit dissapointed by the paper by Mitev and De Vaujany. Ultimately only 64 papers were identified. For me, these represented the use of history as a method within the IS field. This should by no means be disregarded (more below). It is an interesting excerise in itself. But I thought that could have considered journals where historians of computing publish. I mean outlets such as the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing where Campbell-Kelly, Haigh and Heide (all of these are authors that Mitev and De Vaujany cite in their paper) regularly publish. I also felt more could be done about method and methodology in history.

Stephanie Decker – Aston University

Here is where the paper by Decker
fits in nicely. I had the fortune of hearing her present it at the M6 Business History Workshopat Coventry University. In comparison with Mitev and De Vaujany, Decker largely side steps epistemological issues to tackle head on how to explain what historians do in the archives and the issues that one faces in confronting surviving records of a particular organisation or event. This explanation is particularly poignant as she chooses to illustrate through her own work in Africa.

‘Triangulation’ and dealing with the issue of selection is part and parcel of most readers of this blog. I guess it does not need further explanation. But to be fair, Decker does present the topic in a new light and it is worth even for the most experience researcher to review her arguments and refresh some of the issues. As often things we take for granted are not examined in sufficient detail.

But the above does suggest there is a group of people who are seriously thinking how best to make history and management studies interact. Whether this should also translate into active presence in management journals and broad interest, peer-reviewed outlets is also part of the question. I am one of those who firmly believe that we as business historians have a serious contribution to make to the present conversation in management studies. As has been noted elsewhere by Ludovic Cailluet:

For those of us business historians who work in business schools/management departments, to publish in management journals is very important. One solution is to find “mainstream” or “pure players” co-authors who are interested in your data, and skills and who could help you with the format and describe methodology in a way that would answer the demands of management journals. Mixed methods (quanti/quali) are becoming very trendy lately in the management field. There is an opportunity.

Indeed, Business Historyhas initiated a series of special issues that offer social scientists an opportunity to explain how their work gels with the

Mustafa Özbilgin – editor of the British Journal of Management

discipline. But the opposite is not necessarily true. There is little or no representation of business historians in mainstream journals (hence the relevance of the paper by Mitev and De Vaujany above). Mustafa Özbilgin, general editor of the British Journal of Management, concurs:

You are right in spotting that business history have been rather under represented in the journal. There are a number of reasons for this. First business historians typically do not offer review service to the BJM nor do they typically submit papers. I don’t know the reasons for this. You may wish to seek explanations also within the business history community. BJM publishes only empirical pieces which draws on robust data, both of which are specific disciplinary constructs I am aware.

Dissecting epistemology and method of history is thus interesting and relevant for those aiming to build bridges outside our specialist area.