Who's Who at the BHC. Interview with Roger Horowitz [Meet the Officers series]

[interview published in the January 2021 issue Over the Counter]

Officers across committees and boards work throughout the year to run the Business History Conference. In 2021, the Meet the Officers section of the BHC’s newsletter Over the Counter will publish interviews with some of these scholars to know more about their role and service to the organization.

Before the break, I met with Professor Roger Horowitz, director of the Center for the History of Business, Technology, and Society at the Hagley Museum and Library, to talk about his role as an officer of the Business History Conference. Roger has been Secretary-Treasurer for the BHC for over twenty years. “I became Secretary-Treasurer of the Business History Conference in 1999, when Will Hausman, who was the Secretary-Treasurer for 12 years before me, became the first and founding editor of Enterprise and Society (Oxford University Press),” he says. Roger does not define himself as a classic business historian, however. At meetings, he jokes, he and other people “make the disclaimer” that even though he is the Secretary-Treasurer of the BHC, he “is not really a business historian.” Roger’s scholarly career started in labor history, went on to food history, “which is really commodity chain analysis,” he mentions. He has also published, and his work has been highly acclaimed in the field of Jewish history. Roger also teaches The History of Capitalism at the University of Delaware, which might be what he has been doing all along, “but it has only been through the back door that I have become a business historian.”

In 1999, when Roger began his position as Secretary-Treasurer, the BHC was undergoing “a transformation” from being “pretty much built around a certain paradigm, the analysis of Alfred Chandler in business history, with a focus on structures of large firms,” to being an organization “open to anybody who looked at business in any particular way.” It became a scholarly community “defined by a particular research focus on the firm and all sorts of enterprises which engage in various kind of economic activity.” Opening the organization to “a variety of approaches” and “understandings of business in society” meant that more people were willing to present at meetings, and the BHC started “drawing upon a more interesting set of ideas.” In the United States, the transformation also meant “a big opening to cultural history,” to people considering issues of race.” Also, at that time, there was an “opening to people working in European circles and in Asia.” Institutionally, at the turn of the 2000s, the Hagley Library began to take “a major role being [part of] the BHC” as well, which meant more administrative support, especially with Carol Lockman, “who has been a huge, powerful presence in the BHC,” Roger notes.

The new methodological and disciplinary perspectives prevented the BHC from becoming obsolete, Roger insists, and instead, there was an increase in membership and support of the BHC. “It is really hard for an organization to be able to move on to something else, to be able to shift and flow with the change of ideas,” Roger explains. The BHC “has become bigger, more diverse, and terribly interesting.” This is due, in part, to the willingness of senior scholars to see change: the scholars involved in the discussions around the Chandler model “were the ones who powered” the shift, and still today “are pivotal for the BHC.” Long-time BHC members are also “often the people who donate large amounts of money to the BHC, which is funding subsidies for young scholars to come to our annual meetings.” Roger mentions such continuity as the result of a reciprocal dynamic and an “interest in generating different ideas.”

The BHC had 350 members in 2020, a figure that has been stable for many years. “I wish I could make it grow,” Roger says, “but still, it is pretty good since membership is not what it used to be--membership used to be how you got the journal [E & S].” With the rise of academic research databases providing access to journals, more and more organizations are dealing with declining membership rosters. So, Roger believes that what might have “kept the membership up has been the annual meeting and also people wanting to support the BHC.”

Looking ahead, Roger predicts, “the whole digital world is going to open up a [new] means of collaboration,” specifically “transnational, collaborative work,” and foster even more exciting research. Roger is hopeful that with advances in technology and the new opportunities for meeting virtually, the BHC will organize other events and attract more members. 

To conclude the interview, I asked Roger for advice to new generations and new members. “Two points of advice,” he said; “one is, you want to give papers,” to get your name out there, make yourself known, publicize your research. Second, Roger mentioned, emerging scholars need to “be open to going through the other door from a career standpoint.” Opportunities to become “a professor may come up, and they can be great, but sometimes they can be terrible” too. New graduates ought to be willing to embark on professional options they might don’t even know to exist. Roger pointed out a third suggestion for those seeking to be part of the BHC as committee members. Although the organization should create a better way of recruiting members, he reckons, Roger thinks that networking is important to have a role within the organization. Now, after giving a paper, “you have to lobby,” Roger admits. Contact the Secretary-Treasurer, the President, and promote your skills or suggest a project.

To my last question, “what makes you proud of your service to the BHC?” Roger responded that he is proud to see how many of us have grown within the organization, from conducting research at Hagley and giving a paper to participating in the colloquium and becoming trustees. Leadership transition is key, Roger added, “which is the profit of being an open organization.” At least “half of the [current] trustees I met when they were graduate students, and now they are part of the leadership of the organization.” There are opportunities within the organization, and it is the role of the trustees and administrators to let new people and minds take the opportunity to take leadership positions. Some of the trustees “will be future presidents, and that is what needs to happen.” Roger ended by assuring that keeping the organization open will regularly restore it, making it attractive to new ideas. So, the next phase is “going to [be to] get rid of me,” Roger laughs, “and we are making that happen.”

[Interview conducted and edited by Paula de la Cruz-Fernández, web editor of the BHC, in December of 2020)

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