H-Business--Interviews with Emerging Scholars, by Ashton Merck
The Business History Conference offers extensive support to emerging (or early-career) scholars, including a doctoral colloquium, a mentoring program, and, crucially, a much-loved free breakfast at the BHC. But when, exactly, do you emerge? And what happens after that? That’s what I hope to illuminate with this series of interviews with emerging scholars on their state of mind, the state of the field, and everything in between.
Today’s interviewee is Dr. Sven Kube, the 2021-2022 NEH-Hagley Fellow and a historian of culture, business, and technology.
AM: How did you get interested in business history?
SK: When I was completing my PhD, I realized that business history was an enormously useful lens for revisiting and problematizing Cold War cultural history. My background is multidisciplinary: I started out as a music journalist and enrolled in Cultural Studies, Literature and Linguistics, and Communications when I went to university. I only transitioned into History at the doctoral level. I had a clear sense of what I wanted to work on and, at Florida International University, met Ken Lipartito, a business historian with a wide range of interests. We talked a lot about my research and Ken became my mentor. After reading the first dissertation chapters, he told me: “Alright, looks like you’re a business historian.”
AM: So once you knew you were a business historian, when did you attend your first business history conference (BHC, EBHA, etc.), and was there anything particularly memorable about it?
SK: I attended my first BHC, Denver 2017, as a participant of the Doctoral Colloquium, which was chaired by Ed Balleisen. That was a great occasion for discussing my dissertation research and receiving feedback during the writing process, and it was also the perfect gateway into the larger BHC community. I am affiliated with several associations and do appreciate the BHC as a particularly social, inclusive, and encouraging environment for doctoral students and junior scholars. Partaking in the colloquium gave me a network of contacts before I even went to my first BHC panel—I would tell anyone to apply.
AM: That’s a good point about how the doctoral colloquium helps you build a network before you “really” get involved in the organization. Now, tell us a little bit about your dissertation research.
SK: I spent a part of my childhood in communist East Germany and was “obsessed” with Western pop culture. As an undergrad in university, I studied processes of transnational, and particularly transatlantic, cultural exchange. Tapping vast literatures on how popular culture factored in the Cold War’s battle for the hearts and minds of Eastern Bloc dwellers, I noticed that certain aspects of cultural transference were absent from Western accounts.
I decided to focus my doctoral project on the dissemination of popular music. Historiographies on that subject have concentrated on initiatives of Western cultural diplomacy, such as Cold War radio broadcasting, artist exchange programs, and live concert tours. I set out to write from a different angle, investigating cultural commerce across the Cold War divide to show that communist countries invited several types of Western music for reasons extending from technological and economic trends. That is where I took the business history route. I traced cooperation between the nationally owned monopolist of one communist country and private record companies across the capitalist hemisphere, explaining how closely technological, economic, and cultural developments were intertwined. My work empirically measures the commercial significance of Western music in an Eastern marketplace and details the benefits of cooperation for both sides. It argues that cultural commerce between music industries familiarized Bloc dwellers with pop culture—and thus with Western ideas and values—in ways that diplomatic initiatives were not able to.
AM: Where are you in the process of turning your dissertation into a book or other publications?
SK: As soon as I had wrapped the dissertation, I did what musicians do once they have finished recording an album: I took it on the road. I presented the project to audiences at multiple association meetings, from the Business History Conference and the American Historical Association to the American Musicological Society and the International Association for the Study of Popular Music. Receiving feedback and talking to publishers at those events helped a great deal as I was editing the book manuscript. It is nearing completion now, and publishing the monograph is the top priority.
AM: Let’s talk about what else you have been up to since finishing the dissertation. I believe you are a Hagley Fellow this year? Tell me a bit about how that’s going.
SK: Yes, I am currently at the Hagley Museum & Library, which is a fantastic place to visit for anyone with interest in technology and enterprise. The Hagley is home to very interesting archival collections and a phenomenal place for finding inspiration. I am a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for the History of Business, Technology, and Society, which runs the program in cooperation with the National Endowment for the Humanities. There are, in fact, opportunities for scholars in all career stages to join the Hagley’s community and tap its resources.
At the present moment, I am laying foundations for an article that compares entrepreneurial philosophies in capitalist and communist settings. I collected material on the work of communist managers in the course of dissertation research, recognizing that this is still relatively new Business History territory. Here at the Hagley, I am currently looking at files from the David Sarnoff Collection to gather material that will enable me to apply a comparative angle. I am also screening sources that may help me tackle the evolution of popular arts and entertainment from a history-of-capitalism perspective for the second book.
AM: Sounds excellent. And before coming to Hagley, you were a Postdoctoral Associate at Florida International University, is that right? Tell me a bit about the nature of your work there.
SK: Yes, I spent the time after graduation as a postdoc at FIU. I built a course portfolio that reflects my transatlantic profile as a researcher. I taught lower- and upper-division courses in American, European, and World History. The job came with additional responsibilities like coordinating student support programs and hosting workshops. Overall, it was perfect practice for teaching at the university level.
AM: As a member of the BHC’s Emerging Scholars Committee, do you have any advice for emerging scholars entering the field?
SK: Even if you are working on something that does not look like a clear-cut business history topic to you, you should still consider the possibility that business history angles and methods may help you distinguish it from previous scholarship. It certainly worked for me. There is a lot of genuine curiosity and real momentum in our subfield, and its focus has been rapidly expanding in recent years.
AM: I think that’s great advice, thank you! Any last words for our audience? Where can we find you and/or your work?
SK: I published a few articles since graduating, most recently in The Journal of Popular Culture. My latest piece is coming out in a volume on “Capitalism and the Senses,” edited by Reggie Blaszczyk and David Suisman. It is a first foray into the problematique of how organizational principles of capitalism shape cultural aesthetics.
I closed my social media accounts when I was approaching comps as a doctoral student and never found the time to return to those platforms. I maintain an ascetic presence on Twitter at @sevenofnein. The best way to get in touch is through Linkedin or via email—either through my website, svenkube.com, or directly to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This year, I am co-chairing the BHC’s Emerging Scholars Committee, which supports scholars in early career stages. We host events at the annual BHC meeting and are also building a mentoring program that connects emerging with established business historians. If you are curious about opportunities in this vibrant field, take a peek at the BHC website and hit us up!
This is part of a series of interviews with Emerging Scholars on H-Business.
Because I’m away and not able to update these interviews in real time, some of their contents, particularly peoples’ current roles or positions, may be slightly outdated. In some cases, I may check back in for an update when I return, in August or September.
- Ashton Merck, H-Business Associate Editor