Abstract: Business History Among the Social Sciences

Daniel Raff


It has become clear in recent years that there is interest among business historians—graduate students, junior faculty, and even on occasion some occupants of established posts—not just in business school jobs but in figuring out how to present their work in ways that will register with business school colleagues.  There has been a good deal of discussion of how to do this at BHC meetings and conferences in Europe of other business history organizations and also in the recent publication of a collective work entitled Organizations in Time edited by Brucheli and Wadhwani (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), a book that is a sort of introduction to how business history matter might be cast in the High Social Science form that dominates the (largely empirical) field known as organization theory and more generally characterizes research and assessment most prominent business schools.  The lead article (de Jong, Higgins, and van Driel, “Towards a New Business History?”) in a 2015 Special Issue of Business History (2015, [57(1)]) is another recent essay on a related theme.  At the same time, readers of Science (“Estimating the Reproducibility of Psychological Science,” 28 August 2015 [349(6251)]) or even the New York Times issues of August 27, 28, and September 8, 2015, will be aware without any further exploration of a growing literature that the mansion of High Social Science rests on shaky foundations.  I think business history has a place—indeed, a potentially highly productive place—amongst the social sciences but not at all one of the sort either OIT or the Business History authors seem to have in mind.  Even brief examination of what scientists actually do and modest exploration of what this suggests about what science actually is clarifies the work setting of business school faculty members, the basic project of the social sciences, the inadequacies of the academic management version of social science, and how business history could contribute to the social scientific study of organizations in a non-Procrustean and strength-respecting way.  I will sketch what such an examination and suggestions might look like, to lay out how such a way of presenting business history material might proceed, and to explain how it might be situated amongst the concerns about inference and knowledge social sciences faculties consider when reviewing research in their own more familiar domains.  It seems to me that some specific domains of inquiry are ripe for this sort of treatment and I identify them.  I conclude with a proposition.