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Reinventing Entrepreneurial History

  • R. Daniel Wadhwani and Christina Lubinski


Research on entrepreneurship remains fragmented in business history. A lack of conceptual clarity inhibits comparisons between studies and dialogue among scholars. To address these issues, we propose to reinvent entrepreneurial history as a research field. We define “new entrepreneurial history” as the study of the creative processes that propel economic change. Rather than putting actors, hierarchies, or institutions at the center of the analysis, we focus explicitly on three distinct entrepreneurial processes as primary objects of study: envisioning and valuing opportunities, allocating and reconfiguring resources, and legitimizing novelty. The article elaborates on the historiography, premises, and potential contributions of new entrepreneurial history.

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1 Jones, Geoffrey and Wadhwani, R. Daniel, “Entrepreneurship,” in The Oxford Handbook of Business History, ed. Jones, Geoffrey and Zeitlin, Jonathan (New York, 2008), 501–28.

2 Cassis, Youssef and Minoglou, Ioanna Pepelasis, eds., Entrepreneurship in Theory and History (Basingstoke, U.K., 2005); Casson, Mark, Entrepreneurship: Theory, Networks, History (Cheltenham, U.K., 2010); Friedman, Walter A. and Jones, Geoffrey, “Business History: Time for Debate,” Business History Review 85, no. 1 (2011): 18 ; Casson, Mark and Casson, Catherine, The Entrepreneur in History: From Medieval Merchant to Modern Business Leader (Basingstoke and Hampshire, U.K., 2013); Wadhwani, R. Daniel and Jones, Geoffrey, “Schumpeter's Plea: Historical Reasoning in Entrepreneurship Theory and Research,” in Organizations in Time: History, Theory, and Methods, ed. Bucheli, Marcelo and Wadhwani, R. Daniel (Oxford, 2013), 192216 .

3 Landström, Hans and Lohrke, Franz, eds., Historical Foundations of Entrepreneurship Research (Cheltenham, U.K., 2010).

4 R. Daniel Wadhwani, “Historical Reasoning and the Development of Entrepreneurship Theory,” in Historical Foundations of Entrepreneurship Research, 343–62.

5 For an overview, see Shionoya, Yūichi, ed., The German Historical School: The Historical and Ethical Approach to Economics (London and New York, 2001); Shionoya, Yūichi, The Soul of the German Historical School: Methodological Essays on Schmoller, Weber, and Schumpeter (New York, 2005); Koslowski, Peter, Methodology of the Social Sciences, Ethics, and Economics in the Newer Historical School: From Max Weber and Rickert to Sombart and Rothacker (Berlin and New York, 1997); Nau, Heino Heinrich and Schefold, Bertram, eds., The Historicity of Economics: Continuities and Discontinuities of Historical Thought in 19th and 20th Century Economics (Berlin and New York, 2002). Though both the English and German Historical Schools called for greater attention to the agency of the entrepreneur, our focus here is on the infuence of the German Historical School.

6 Others included Etienne Laspeyres, Karl Bücher, Adolph Wagner, and Georg Friedrich Knapp.

7 Schumpeter, Joseph A., Economic Doctrine and Method: An Historical Sketch, trans. Aris, R. (New York, 1954 [First German edition: 1912]), 175–80. For the program of the historicists, see also Ebner, Alexander, “Schumpeter and the ‘Schmollerprogramm’: Integrating Theory and History in the Analysis of Economic Development,” Journal of Evolutionary Economics 10, no. 3 (2000): 355–72. Yūichi Shionoya, “A Methodological Appraisal of Schmoller's Research Program,” in The Soul of the German Historical School, 13–30.

8 Hodgson, Geoffrey Martin, How Economics Forgot History: The Problem of Historical Specificity in Social Science (London and New York, 2002).

9 Wadhwani, “Historical Reasoning,” 343–62.

10 Schumpeter, Joseph A., Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, 5th ed. (London, 1976 [1943]); Schumpeter, Joseph A., The Theory of Economic Development: An Inquiry into Profits, Capital, Credit, Interest, and the Business Cycle (Cambridge, Mass., 1936 [first published in German, 1911]). For the development of Schumpeter's thoughts over time see, McCraw, Thomas K., Prophet of Innovation: Joseph Schumpeter and Creative Destruction (Cambridge, Mass., 2007).

11 Schumpeter, Joseph A., History of Economic Analysis (New York, 1954), 780 .

12 Quoted from English translation in Ramon J. Betanzos, “Wilhelm Dilthey: An Introduction,” in Dilthey, Wilhelm, Introduction to the Human Sciences: An Attempt to Lay a Foundation for the Study of Society and History, trans. Betanzos, Ramon J. (Detroit, 1988), 13 .

13 Makkreel, Rudolf A. and Rodi, Frithjof, “Introduction to Volume III,” in Dilthey, Wilhelm, The Formation of the Historical World in the Human Sciences (Princeton, N.J., 2002), 910 .

14 Schumpeter, Joseph A., “The Creative Response in Economic History,” Journal of Economic History 7, no. 2 (1947): 149–59.

15 Jones, and Wadhwani, , “Entrepreneurship;Sass, Steven, Entrepreneurial Historians and History: Leadership and Rationality in American Economic Historiography (New York, 1986); Fredona, Robert and Reinert, Sophus, “The Harvard Research Center in Entrepreneurial History and the Daimonic Entrepreneur,” History of Political Economy 49, no. 2 (2017): 267314 .

16 Sass, Entrepreneurial Historians; Cochran, Thomas C., “Cultural Factors in Economic Growth,” Journal of Economic History 20, no. 4 (1960): 515–30; Landes, David S., “French Entrepreneurship and Industrial Growth in the Nineteenth Century,” Journal of Economic History 9, no. 1 (1949): 4561 ; Landes, David S., The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present (London, 1969).

17 Wadhwani, “Historical Reasoning,” 343–62.

18 Gerschenkron, Alexander, “Social Attitudes, Entrepreneurship, and Economic Development,” Explorations in Entrepreneurial History 6 (1953/54): 119 .

19 Wadhwani, “Historical Reasoning,” 343–62.

20 Harvey, Charles, “Business History and the Problem of Entrepreneurship: The Case of the Rio Tinto Company, 1873–1939,” Business History 21, no. 1 (1979): 322 .

21 Landström, Hans, “Pioneers in Entrepreneurship Research,” in Crossroads of Entrepreneurship, ed. Corbetta, Guido, Huse, Morton, and Ravasi, Davide (New York, 2005), 1331 ; Landström and Lohrke, Historical Foundations.

22 Casson, Mark, The Entrepreneur: An Economic Theory, 2nd ed. (Cheltenham, U.K., and Northhampton, Mass., 2003); Casson, Entrepreneurship. For the reception in business history, see also Alvarez, Sharon, Godley, Andrew, and Wright, Mike, “Mark Casson: The Entrepreneur at 30—Continued Relevance?Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal 8, no. 2 (2014): 185–94.

23 Mark Casson and Andrew Godley, “Entrepreneurship and Historical Explanation,” in Entrepreneurship in Theory and History, 25–60; Godley, Andrew, “Entrepreneurial Opportunities, Implicit Contracts, and Market Making for Complex Consumer Goods,” Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal 7, no. 4 (2013): 273–87.

24 Jones, Geoffrey, Multinationals and Global Capitalism: From the Nineteenth to the Twenty-First Century (Oxford and New York, 2005), 1314 ; Casson and Casson, The Entrepreneur in History; Casson, Mark and Casson, Catherine, History of Entrepreneurship: Innovation and Risk-Taking, 1200–2000 (Cheltenham, U.K., 2013).

25 Cuff, Robert D., “Notes for a Panel on Entrepreneurship in Business History,” Business History Review 76, no. 1 (2002): 123–32. McCraw, Prophet of Innovation.

26 Popp, Andrew and Holt, Robin, “The Presence of Entrepreneurial Opportunity,” Business History 55, no. 1 (2013): 928 ; Raff, Daniel M. G., “How to Do Things with Time,” Enterprise & Society 14, no. 3 (2013): 435–66.

27 Welter, Friederike, “Contextualizing Entrepreneurship—Conceptual Challenges and Ways Forward,” Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice 35, no. 1 (2011): 165–84; Welter, Friederike and Gartner, William B., eds., A Research Agenda for Entrepreneurship and Context (Cheltenham, U.K., 2016). Dimov, Dimo, “Grappling With the Unbearable Elusiveness of Entrepreneurial Opportunities,” Entrepreneurship: Theory and Practice 35, no. 1 (2011): 5781 .

28 Galambos, Louis and Amatori, Franco, “The Entrepreneurial Multiplier,” Enterprise & Society 17, no. 4 (2016): 763808 ; Friedman and Jones, “Business History: Time for Debate,” 1–8; Graham, Margaret, “Entrepreneurship in the United States, 1920–2000,” in The Invention of Enterprise: Entrepreneurship from Ancient Mesopotamia to Modern Times, ed. Headrick, Daniel R., Mokyr, Joel, and Baumol, William J. (Princeton, N.J., 2010).

29 McClelland, David C.Characteristics of Successful Entrepreneurs,” The Journal of Creative Behavior 21, no. 3 (1987): 219–33.

30 Gartner, William B., “Who Is an Entrepreneur? Is the Wrong Question,” Entrepreneurship: Theory and Practice 13, no. 4 (1989): 4768 .

31 Stevenson, Howard H. and Jarillo, J. Carlos, “A Paradigm of Entrepreneurship: Entrepreneurial Management,” Strategic Management Journal 11, no. 4 (1990): 1727 ; Shane, Scott and Venkataraman, Sankaran, “The Promise of Entrepreneurship as a Field of Research,” Academy of Management Review 25, no. 1 (2000): 217–26.

32 On processes as objects of research see Abbott, Andrew D., Processual Sociology (Chicago, 2016). Though we treat the study of mechanisms and processes synonymously, Abbott distinguishes between them. See Abbott, Andrew D., “Mechanisms and Relations,” Sociologica 2 (Sept.–Oct., 2007): 122 .

33 Popp and Holt, “Presence”; Popp, Andrew and Holt, Robin, “Emotion, Sensibility, and the Family Firm: Josiah Wedgwood and Sons,” Business History 55, no. 6 (2013): 892909 ; Beckert, Jens, Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics (Cambridge, Mass., 2016).

34 Raff, “How to Do Things with Time”; Dimov, “Grappling With the Unbearable Elusiveness of Entrepreneurial Opportunities.”

35 Knight, Frank H., Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit (Boston and New York, 1921).

36 Koselleck, Reinhart, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time (New York, 2004); Emirbayer, Mustafa and Mische, Ann, “What Is Agency?American Journal of Sociology 103, no. 4 (1998): 9621023 .

37 For a discussion of structure vs. agency in entrepreneurial history, see Hesse, Jan-Otmar, “Die ‘Seele des Unternehmens': Das stille Unternehmertum Hans Ringiers,” in Unternehmer—Fakten und Fiktionen: Historisch-biografische Studien [Facts and Fictions about Entrepreneurs: Historical Biographical Studies], ed. Plumpe, Werner (Berlin, 2014).

38 Baumol, William J., “Entrepreneurship: Productive, Unproductive, and Destructive,” Journal of Political Economy 98, no. 5 (1990): 893921 ; Schumpeter, “Creative Response,” 153.

39 Boltanski, Luc and Thévenot, Laurent, On Justification: Economies of Worth (Princeton, N.J., 2006).

40 Cole, Arthur, Business Enterprise in Its Social Setting (Cambridge, Mass., 1959); Wadhwani and Jones, “Schumpeter's Plea,” 192–216; and Galambos and Amatori, “The Entrepreneurial Multiplier.” For critical examination of these concepts see also, R. Daniel Wadhwani, “Gales, Streams and Multipliers: Conceptual Metaphors in Entrepreneurial History,” Enterprise & Society (forthcoming).

41 Lippmann, Stephen and Aldrich, Howard, “A Rolling Stone Gathers Momentum: Generational Units, Collective Memory, and Entrepreneurship,” Academy of Management Review 41, no. 4 (2016): 658–75.

42 Garud, Raghu, Kumaraswamy, Arun, and Karnøe, Peter, “Path Dependence or Path Creation?Journal of Management Studies 47, no. 4 (2010): 760–74.

43 de Guevara, Carlos Dávila L., Empresas y empresarios en la historia de Colombia: Siglos XIX–XX: Una colección de estudios recientes, 2 vols., Colección Vitral (Bogotá, 2003); Abelshauser, Werner, Nach dem Wirtschaftswunder: Der Gewerkschafter, Politiker und Unternehmer Hans Matthöfer (Bonn, 2009); Uwe Spiekermann, “Claus Spreckels: Robber Baron and Sugar King,” in Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies, 1720 to the Present, vol. 2, ed. William J. Hausman and German Historical Institute,, last modified May 30, 2013. Neither the biography nor the field of the new entrepreneurial history are limited to the level of the individual. Biographies, carefully constructed, can depart from the individual to explain change in organizations, institutions, and capitalist societies. However, they seem to have been marginalized in recent years and are only slowly making a comeback. See Pertilla, Atiba and Spiekermann, Uwe, “Living the American Dream? The Challenge of Writing Biographies of German-American Immigrant Entrepreneurs,” Bulletin of the German Historical Institute 55 (2014): 7790 .

44 Shane and Venkataraman, “The Promise of Entrepreneurship as a Field of Research,” 217–26; Dimov, “Grappling With the Unbearable Elusiveness of Entrepreneurial Opportunities”; Alvarez, Sharon A. and Barney, Jay B., “Discovery and Creation: Alternative Theories of Entrepreneurial Action,” Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal 1 (Nov. 2007): 1126 .

45 Mintz, Sidney Wilfred, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York, 1986).

46 Kaplan, Sarah and Murray, Fiona, “Entrepreneurship and the Construction of Value in Biotechnology,” Research in the Sociology of Organizations 29 (2010): 107–47; Beckert, Jens and Aspers, Patrik, eds., The Worth of Goods: Valuation and Pricing in the Economy (New York, 2011); Khaire, Mukti and Wadhwani, R. Daniel, “Changing Landscapes: The Construction of Meaning and Value in a New Market Category—Modern Indian Art,” Academy of Management Journal 53, no. 6 (2010): 12811304 .

47 Jones, Geoffrey, Profits and Sustainability: A History of Green Entrepreneurship (Oxford, 2017); Wadhwani, R. Daniel, Galvez-Behar, Gabriel, Mercelis, Joris, and Guagnini, Anna, “Academic Entrepreneurship and Institutional Change in Historical Perspective,” Management & Organizational History 12, no. 3 (2017): 175–98.

48 Collingwood, R. G. and Knox, T. M., The Idea of History (Oxford, 1946).

49 Levi, Giovanni, “Microhistory and the Recovery of Complexity,” in Historical Knowledge: In Quest of Theory, Method and Evidence, ed. Fellman, Susanna and Rahikainen, Marjatta (Newcastle upon Tyne, 2012), 121–32.

50 Dimov, “Grappling With the Unbearable Elusiveness of Entrepreneurial Opportunities.” See also Popp and Holt, “Presence.”

51 Historical research that grapples with how people envisioned their futures includes Friedman, Walter A., Fortune Tellers: The Story of America's First Economic Forecasters (Princeton, N.J., 2014); Hansen, Per H., Danish Modern Furniture, 1930–2016: The Rise, Decline and Re-emergence of a Cultural Market Category (Odense, 2018); Müller, Simone M. and Tworek, Heidi J. S., “Imagined Use as a Category of Analysis: New Approaches to the History of Technology,” History and Technology 32, no. 2 (2016): 105–19.

52 R. Daniel Wadhwani and Marcelo Bucheli, “The Future of the Past in Management and Organizational Studies,” in Organizations in Time: History, Theory, Methods, 3–30; Raff, “How to Do Things with Time.”

53 Carr, David, Time, Narrative, and History (Bloomington, Ind., 1986.)

54 Ellan Spero, “An Entrepreneurial Opportunity in Process: The Creation of an Industrial Fellowship Through Correspondence in Early Twentieth Century America,” Management & Organizational History (forthcoming.)

55 Hansen, Per H., “Business History: A Cultural and Narrative Approach,” Business History Review 86, no. 4 (2012): 693717 ; Mordhorst, Mads, “From Counterfactual History to Counter-Narrative History,” Management & Organizational History 3, no. 1 (2008): 526 ; Hjorth, Daniel and Steyaert, Chris, eds., Narrative and Discursive Approaches in Entrepreneurship (Cheltenham, U.K., and Northampton, Mass., 2004); Holt, Robin and MacPherson, Allan, “Sensemaking, Rhetoric and the Socially Competent Entrepreneur,” International Small Business Journal 28, no. 1 (2010): 2042 . Gartner, William B., “Entrepreneurial Narrative and a Science of the Imagination,” Journal of Business Venturing 22, no. 5 (2007): 613–27.

56 Ricœur, Paul, Time and Narrative (Chicago, 1984.)

57 Cornelissen, Joep P. and Clarke, Jean S., “Imagining and Rationalizing Opportunities: Inductive Reasoning and the Creation and Justification of New Ventures,” Academy of Management Review 35, no. 4 (2010): 539–57.

58 Popp and Holt, “Emotion”; Frevert, Ute, “Passions, Preferences, and Animal Spirits: How Does Homo Oeconomicus Cope with Emotions?” in Science and Emotions after 1945: A Transatlantic Perspective, ed. Biess, Frank and Gross, Daniel M. (Chicago, 2014), 300307 . See also the discussion of Fritz Redlich in Fredona and Reinert, “Harvard Research Center,” 290–98.

59 Lipartito, Kenneth, “Connecting the Cultural and the Material in Business History,” Enterprise & Society 14, no. 4 (2013): 686704 .

60 Waldron, Darryl and Hubbard, Carl M., “Valuation Methods and Estimates in Relationship to Investing Versus Consulting,” Entrepreneurship: Theory and Practice 16, no. 1 (1991): 4352 .

61 Balleisen, Edward J., Navigating Failure: Bankruptcy and Commercial Society in Antebellum America. (Chapel Hill, N.C., 2001).

62 Levy, Jonathan, Freaks of Fortune: The Emerging World of Capitalism and Risk in America (Cambridge, Mass., 2012); Sandage, Scott A., Born Losers: A History of Failure in America (Cambridge, Mass., 2005).

63 Baker, Ted and Nelson, Reed E., “Creating Something from Nothing: Resource Construction through Entrepreneurial Bricolage,” Administrative Science Quarterly 50, no. 3 (2005): 329–66.

64 Garud, Raghu and Rappa, Michael A., “A Socio-Cognitive Model of Technology Evolution: The Case of Cochlear Implants,” Organization Science 5, no. 3 (1994): 344–62.

65 R. Daniel Wadhwani and Geoffrey Jones, “Historical Change and the Competitive Advantage of Firms: Explicating The ‘Dynamics’ in the Dynamic Capabilities Framework” in The Oxford Handbook of Dynamic Capabilities, ed. David Teece and Sohvi Leih (Oxford, forthcoming); Danneels, Erwin, “Trying to Become a Different Type of Company: Dynamic Capability at Smith Corona,” Strategic Management Journal 32, no. 1 (2011): 131 ; Kahl, Steven J., “Associations, Jurisdictional Battles, and the Development of Dual-Purpose Capabilities,” Academy of Management Perspectives 28, no. 4 (2014): 381–94.

66 Mutch, Alistair, “Bringing History into the Study of Routines: Contextualizing Performance,” Organization Studies 37, no. 8 (2016): 1171–88.

67 Raff, Daniel M. G. and Scranton, Philip, eds., The Emergence of Routines (New York, 2016).

68 Wadhwani et al., “Academic Entrepreneurship.”

69 Suchman, Mark C., “Managing Legitimacy: Strategic and Institutional Approaches,” Academy of Management Review 20, no. 3 (1995): 575 .

70 Suddaby, Roy and Greenwood, Royston, “Rhetorical Strategies of Legitimacy,” Administrative Science Quarterly 50, no. 1 (2005): 3567 ; Suddaby, Roy, Foster, William M., and Trank, Chris Quinn, “Rhetorical History as a Source of Competitive Advantage,” Advances in Strategic Management 27 (2010): 147–73; Maguire, Steve and Hardy, Cynthia, “Discourse and Deinstitutionalization: The Decline of DDT,” Academy of Management Journal 52, no. 1 (2009): 148–78

71 Hargadon, Andrew B. and Douglas, Yellowlees, “When Innovations Meet Institutions: Edison and the Design of the Electric Light,” Administrative Science Quarterly 46, no. 3 (2001): 476501 .

72 Khaire and Wadhwani, “Changing Landscapes”; Greenwood, Royston, Hinings, C. R., and Suddaby, Roy, “Theorizing Change: The Role of Professional Associations in the Transformation of Institutionalized Fields,” Academy of Management Journal 45, no. 1 (2002): 5880 .

73 Haack, Patrick, Pfarrer, Michael D., and Scherer, Andreas Georg, “Legitimacy-as-Feeling: How Affect Leads to Vertical Legitimacy Spillovers in Transnational Governance,” Journal of Management Studies 51, no. 4 (2014): 634–66.

74 Maguire and Hardy, “Discourse and Deinstitutionalization,” 148–78; Hiatt, Shon R., Sine, Wesley D., and Tolbert, Pamela S., “From Pabst to Pepsi: The Deinstitutionalization of Social Practices and the Creation of Entrepreneurial Opportunities,” Administrative Science Quarterly 54, no. 4 (2009): 635–67; Bucheli, Marcelo and Salvaj, Erica, “Reputation and Political Legitimacy: ITT in Chile, 1927–1972,” Business History Review 87, no. 4 (2013): 729–56.

75 Suddaby, Roy, Bitektine, Alex, and Haack, Patrick, “Legitimacy,” Academy of Management Annals 11, no. 1 (2017): 451–78.

76 Greenwood, Hinings, and Suddaby, “Theorizing Change”; Maguire and Hardy, “Discourse and Deinstitutionalization,” 148–78.

77 Bitektine, Alex and Haack, Patrick, “The ‘Macro' and the ‘Micro’ of Legitimacy: Toward a Multilevel Theory of the Legitimacy Process,” Academy of Management Review 40, no. 1 (2015): 4975 .

78 Chandler, Alfred D. Jr., The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cambridge, Mass., 1977); Chandler, Alfred D. Jr., Scale and Scope: The Dynamics of Industrial Capitalism (Cambridge, Mass., 1990).

79 North, Douglass C., Institutions, Institutional Change, and Economic Performance (Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1990).

80 Baumol, “Entrepreneurship.”

81 Lamoreaux, Naomi R. and Raff, Daniel M. G., eds., Coordination and Information: Historical Perspectives on the Organization of Enterprise (Chicago, 1995); Guinnane, Timothy W., “Delegated Monitors, Large and Small: Germany's Banking System, 1800–1914,” Journal of Economic Literature 40, no. 1 (2002): 73124 .

82 Schumpeter, “Creative Response,” 149.

83 Suddaby, Foster, and Quinn Trank, “Rhetorical History”; Raff, “How to Do Things with Time.”

84 Popp and Holt, “Presence.”

85 David Kirsch, Mahka Moeen, and R. Daniel Wadhwani, “Historicism and Industry Emergence: Industry Knowledge from Pre-Emergence to Stylized Fact” in Organizations in Time: History, Theory, Methods, 217–40.

We thank participants who provided us comments during seminars at Copenhagen Business School, Ghent University, University of Reading, University of Kyoto, the Association of Business Historians Meeting in Berlin, and the Business History Conference in Denver. We are especially grateful for detailed feedback from Mark Casson, Geoff Jones, Per Hansen, Ken Lipartito, Mads Mordhorst, Andrew Popp, and Daniel Raff as well as two anonymous reviewers. We benefitted from the support of the Copenhagen Business School's “Rethinking History at Business School” initiative.


Reinventing Entrepreneurial History

  • R. Daniel Wadhwani and Christina Lubinski


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