In a recent article published in a special issue of the journal Business History, Mats Larsson and I explored the contribution to be made by the comparative method in social science research. As an example, or, better, a sort of ‘test’, we analysed a particular research topic from a comparative and longitudinal perspective, namely the governance of family firms in Italy and Sweden, with reference to two main dimensions: a) corporate finance and the structure of domestic financial markets, and b) the institutional determinants of the persistent eradication of family capitalism. For better or worse, the article provides an example of comparative analysis, of a largely qualitative nature, examining the same topic across different geographic, cultural and institutional settings while also taking into account the long-term horizon of the economic development of the two countries. In that article, our argument was, in sum, that solid historical research had to stand equally on two legs, one being the long-term orientation (highlighting structural transformations) and the other, a comparative perspective that could instead highlight idiosyncratic features.
This basic research methodology is well known to business historians, and is in some ways instinctive, or innate, in some colleagues, as was certainly true in the case of Francesca Carnevali. Francesca devoted a significant part of her research to longitudinal comparative analysis, as for instance in the book Europe's Advantage, in which she explored the relationships between banks and small firms in four large European economies in the twentieth century. Francesca, in essence, ran a comparative analysis of the alternatives for industry financing in different countries characterised by different banking and corporate finance systems. In running this exercise she was thus able to understand better the dynamics of the British decline in manufacturing, as well as the way in which a specific banking system is able to positively, or negatively, influence the development of small firms and industrial districts.
In the above-mentioned Business History article, Mats Larsson and I concluded by stressing how, through an extensive use of cross-national comparisons, it would be easier to ‘understand not only the development in specific companies but also the differences between national business systems’. Indeed, the vast domain of governance and ownership structures, and, more generally, of the notion of ‘varieties of capitalism’, is an important arena for comparative analysis, as has been shown in multiple research fields ranging from organisation studies to sociology, political science and others.