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Business History and the Problem of Action

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 September 2020


The problem of action is the problem of both identifying and explaining it. The two aspects are not as distinct as this formulation might suggest, and the present paper focuses on the first, bringing in only as much of the second as is absolutely necessary. (A companion paper focuses on the second in a similar way.) Because business history is for all practical purposes a history of organizations and because action in and by organizations generally implicates those organizations’ routines, addressing the problem of action as business historians encounter it requires discussion of relatively recent literature on the relationship between structure and agency. That discussion raises questions about the meaning of agency in human conduct and in historical analysis. After exposition of some helpful ideas drawn from the sociology literature, this paper draws out implications for writing the business history of firms and industries.

© The Author(s) 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Business History Conference

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I owe thanks to Thomas Flemming, Michael Gilsenan, Robert Solow, Jeffrey Weintraub, and Sidney Winter for long-(and longer-and-longer-)running conversations and correspondence, to the late Michael Cohen and to Alejandra Irigoin for ultimately profoundly stimulating reading suggestions, and to Andrew Popp and Philip Scranton for generously patient reads of early drafts. Discussant’s comments from Louis Galambos and the succeeding general discussion at the 2017 Multiple Futures for Business History conference at Wharton were also valuable. James Porter gave a sharp-eyed read of the penultimate draft and made very helpful comments. So did seminar audiences at the Berliner Forschungskolloquium Wirtschafts- und Sozialgeschichte and at a meeting of organization studies scholars organized by Daniel Geiger in Hamburg. Wharton’s Dean’s Office and its Mack Institute provided stalwart financial support. The usual disclaimer applies.


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