Business History

Essay by vvasimm December 2010

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Business History

Business history is the study from a historical perspective of business and business firms in the environmental context-social, cultural, legal, political, and economic-in which they operate. The temporal dimension, understood as sensitivity to both real historical time and to the passage of time, is clearly crucial and leads often to an emphasis on factors such as change, processes of growth and development, and, indeed, persistence and decline across time. These concerns lead naturally also to a search for causal explanations for processes observed. Similarly, the emphasis on the contexts within which processes of change, growth, and development take place strongly informs the practice of business history as a multidisciplinary exercise and is to be found in all major definitions of the discipline, such as those produced by relevant societies, journals, and business historians.

Business historians utilize a wide range of sources and methods in pursuit of these aims.

Wherever possible, they explore the archives of business firms, seeking both quantitative (e.g., financial records) and qualitative (e.g., minutes or correspondence) data. At the same time, they also make extensive use of many different types of publicly collected and held information (from national economic data to the records generated by company law or census returns), secondary published and unpublished materials (diaries, biographies, newspapers, and trade journals), and, where subjects are relatively contemporary, interviews. Some business historians will also make use of various types of representations of business or of cultural artifacts generated by business firms.

Business historians have many varied foci, from corporate governance, structure, and strategy, through labor relations, marketing, and finance, to entrepreneurship, business culture, technological change, and more. Business performance is of course a major theme. They do not investigate business firms alone or in isolation, but also consider always those institutions and organizations with which firms...