Abstract: To speak with one voice: Small Firms and Collective Governance in Late Nineteenth-Century Britain and America

Francesca Carnevali


Toward the end of the nineteenth century, two communities of small-scale specialty makers were threatened with near ruin as a consequence of the failure of public ordering to protect them from fraud and design copying. Small firms' lack of scale often implies smallness also in terms of agency, and the paper compares the strategies pursued by the jewelry makers of Birmingham (UK) and Providence (USA) to create "rules of the game" to regulate their activities. The paper details how, although the manufacturers in these two towns had similar production structures and markets and used the same technology, they gave a different collective response in their confrontation of an adverse institutional environment. The comparative methodology used in this paper allows us to explore fully the importance of contingency in shaping the decisions of economic actors and understand what moral world they were reproducing in their choice of governance structures. The different forms of trade association created by the two communities shows how the establishment of collective governance structures is a reflexive process based on the assessment of background conditions rather than a rational response to the abstract problem of maximization. Both communities made strategic choices that they obviously thought were rational when choosing which form of association to adopt. Nevertheless, their choices were bounded by contingency. These choices, therefore, shaped the resource dependency and the allocation of resources but were also shaped by those, generating consequences for the structure of the community and its long-term development.