Hostname: page-component-848d4c4894-8kt4b Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-06-17T05:43:32.876Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

Connecting the Cultural and the Material in Business History

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 February 2015


By taking note of new developments in economic theory and cultural theory, business historians have the opportunity to lead a reintegration of mentality and materiality in the study of history. This task will require rethinking the field’s traditional approach to strategy, structure, organization, and culture. An emerging literature of practice theory and the shift from a linguistic to a practice based model of culture offer to business historians, and to all interested in the economic past, a way to conduct this integration. The new approach will complement but go beyond the economics of information, institutions and behavior. Though the task will require some new methods and approaches, the result will bring the study of business and economic history to the forefront of history.

Presidential Address
Copyright © The Author(s) 2013. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Business History Conference. All rights reserved.

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1. Sewell, William, “A Strange Career: The Historical Study of Economic Life,” History and Theory, Theme Issue 49 (Dec 2010): 146.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

2. What Geoffrey Hodgson calls the “barren universality of rationality.” Geoffrey Hodgson, How Economics Forgot History: The Problem of Historical Specificity in Social Science (London: Routledge, 2001).

3. Sewell, “A Strange Career,” 149.

4. Posner, Richard, Sex and Reason (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993)Google Scholar; Becker, Gary, A Treatise on the Family (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981).Google Scholar

5. Chandler, Alfred D. Jr., Strategy and Structure: Chapters in the History of the American Industrial Enterprise (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1962), 3, 13.Google Scholar

6. Chandler, Strategy and Structure, 11–12, 15–17, 383–86. Latour, Bruno, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).Google Scholar

7. Goswami, Manu, “Remembering the Future,” American Historical Review 113, no. 2 (Apr 2008), 420.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

8. “Interchange: The Practice of History,” Journal of American History, 90 (Sept 2003), 587. As historians read postmodern thinkers, they grew even more skeptical of history as a recounting of external reality and focused their attention on the way language coded all thought and behavior, cutting out human agency and controlling subjects though the pervasive workings of discourse.

9. Cabrera, Miguel, “Linguistic Approach or Return to Subjectivism? In Search of an Alternative to Social History,” Social History 24, no. 1 (Jan 1999): 74–89.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

10. Cook, James, “The Kids Are All Right: On the ‘Turning’ of Cultural History,” American Historical Review 117, no. 3 (June 2012): 754.CrossRefGoogle Scholar As Daniel Rogers has recently argued, the retreat from social to cultural history contributed to the “hollowing out” of the social. It was the new thought and new metaphors coming from both free market economics and postmodern theory that contributed to the demise of the social. Rodgers, , The Age of Fracture (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2011).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

11. Sewell, , Logics of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 5.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

12. Surkis, Judith, “When Was the Linguistic Turn? A Genealogy,” American Historical Review 117, no. 3 (June 2012): 719–21.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

13. Spiegel, Gabrielle, “Comment on A Crooked Line ,” American Historical Review 113, no. 2 (Apr 2008): 408–14.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

14. Appleby, Joyce, Lynn Hunt and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth about History (New York: Norton, 1995), 247.Google Scholar Geoffrey Eley also argues for a methodological pluralism. He sees this as something more than a “wishy-washy eclecticism,” but rather “an acknowledgment that there are different ways of understanding the world, none sufficient in itself for every possible analytical or interpretive purpose.” Eley, , “The Profane and Imperfect World of Historiography,” American Historical Review 113, no. 2 (Apr 2008): 433.CrossRefGoogle Scholar Both Judith Surkis and Gary Wilder question whether it is sufficient to deploy cultural theory as a technical and methodological means “for refining research methods in order to reconstruct the past more accurately.” Wilder, Gary, “From Optic to Topic: The Foreclosure Effect of Historiographic Turns,” American Historical Review 117, no. 3 (June 2012): 731.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

15. Spiegel “Comment on A Crooked Line,” 411.

16. Riley, DylanThe Historical Logic of Logics of History: Language and Labor in William H. Sewell Jr.Social Science History 32, no. 4 (Winter 2008): 559.Google Scholar

17. Spiegel “Comment on A Crooked Line,” 413–14.

18. Defined most cogently by Paul David in his classic article, “Clio and the Economics of QWERTY,” American Economic Review 75, no. 2, Papers and Proceedings of the Ninety-Seventh Annual Meeting of the American Economic Association (May, 1985), 332–37.

19. Reckwitz, Andreas, “Toward a Theory of Social Practices: A Development in Culturalist Theorizing,” European Journal of Social Theory 5, no. 2 (2002): 243–63.CrossRefGoogle Scholar See also Ermarth, Elizabeth Deeds, “Agency in the Discursive Condition,” History and Theory 40 (2001): 34–58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

20. Reckwitz, “Toward a Theory of Social Practices,” 249.

21. Ibid; 250.

22. Spiegel, Gabriel, “Introduction,” in Practicing History: New Directions in Historical Writing After the Linguist Turn, ed. Spiegel, (London: Routledge, 2005), 3.Google Scholar

23. North, Douglass, “Institutions, Ideology, and Economic Performance,” Cato Journal 11, no. 3 (Winter 1992): 485.Google Scholar See also North, “Institutions,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 5, no. 1 (Winter 1991): 97–112; North, “Institutions and Economic Theory,” The American Economist 36, no. 1 (Spring, 1992): 3–6; and North, Wallis, John, and Weingast, Barry, Violence and Social Orders: Conceptual Frameworks for Interpreting Recorded Human History (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009).Google Scholar See also Acemoglu, Damon and Robinson, James, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty (New York: Crown Publishers, 2012)Google Scholar; Engerman, Stanley and Sokoloff, Kenneth, Economic Development in the Americas since 1500 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012).Google Scholar

24. Daunton, Martin, “Rationality and Institutions: Reflections on Douglass North,” Structural Change and Economic Dynamics 21 (2010): 147–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar Bounded rationality was conceptualized by Herbert Simon in the 1950s formed the basis for Joseph Stiglitz’s Nobel Prize–winning work on financial markets in the 1980s and 90s. Joseph E. Stiglitz, “Prize Lecture: Information and the Change in the Paradigm in Economics,” 20 Nov 2012, Coase, Ronald, “The Nature of the Firm,” Economica, New Series 4, no. 16 (Nov. 1937), 386–405 Google Scholar; Williamson, Oliver, Markets and Hierarchies: Analysis and Antitrust Implications (New York: Free Press, 1993).Google Scholar

25. Vries, Jan de, The Industrious Revolution: Consumer Behavior and the Household Economy, 1650 to the Present (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, argues for the increased productivity within the family before the industrial revolution but assumes that all productive families are alike, not that families in different cultures may order production and consumption in their own special ways. Lamoreaux, Naomi, “Rethinking the Transition to Capitalism in the Early American Northeast,” Journal of American History 90 (Sept 2003): 437–61.CrossRefGoogle Scholar Compare Greif, Avner, Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy: Lessons from Medieval Trade (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Trivellato, Francesca, The Familiarity of Strangers: The Sephardic Diaspora, Livorno, and Cross Cultural Trade in the Early Modern Period (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009).Google Scholar

26. Appleby, Joyce, The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism (New York: Norton, 2010).Google Scholar

27. Granovetter, Mark, “Economic Action and Social Structure: The Problem of Embeddedness,” American Journal of Sociology, 91 (Nov 1985), 481–510.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

28. DiMaggio, Paul, “Culture and Economy,” in The Handbook of Economic Sociology, eds. Smelser, Neil and Swedberg, Richard (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 27–57.Google Scholar

29. Zelizer, Viviana, The Social Meaning of Money (New York: Basic Books, 1994).Google Scholar For a study of how much social labor and metaphorical work goes into stabilizing abstract currency in a modern monetary system, see Mihm, Stephen, A Nation of Counterfeiters (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

30. Herrigel, Garry and Zeitlin, Jonathan, “Alternatives to Varieties of Capitalism,” Business History Review 84, no. 4 (Winter 2010), 667–74.Google Scholar

31. Fear, Jeffrey, Organizing Control: August Thyssen and the Construction of German Corporate Management (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

32. Freeland, Robert, The Struggle for Control of the Modern Corporation Organizational Change at General Motors, 1924–1970 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).Google Scholar The idea of embedded competencies among firms goes back to the pioneering studies of economist Edith Penrose. Her theory of the firm stressed the way firms as institutions gained certain skills and ways of working that they sought to exploit whenever they could. Because of historical experience and differences in the identities in the leadership of different firms, no two would likely see the environment, define the problem, and propose the solution in quite the same way. Penrose, Edith, Theory of the Growth of the Firm (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1959).Google Scholar

33. Poovey, Mary, A History of the Modern Fact (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), xii–xvii.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

34. Ibid; 91.

35. Ibid; 30–31.

36. MacKenzie, Donald, An Engine, Not a Camera: How Financial Models Shape Markets (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 9–12.Google Scholar

37. MacKenize, An Engine, Not a Camera, 252–63.

38. Ibid; 16–20. Likewise, as Rosalind Williams has recently argued, technologies as physical artifacts literally embody and therefore activate ideas, differences of power and identity, making their case in ways that humans sometimes find hard to argue with. When a system of technology has been programmed to direct labor in a certain way, we may say that it reflects some class interest in its design, but we must also say that it now makes a case for a certain way of working and organizing the world that carries habitual weight and encodes a certain symbolic system expressing values about the rightness of the world. Though not literally determinative, such systems act in ways that become very hard to “unthink.” Williams, Rosalind, “Opening the Big Box,” Technology and Culture 48 (Jan 2007): 104–16.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

39. Cronon, William, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: Norton, 1992), 97–147.Google Scholar

40. It is important not to ignore the insights of economic sociology. These abstracted identities were carried in and though other social relations. Nonetheless the creation of an abstract market is itself a process to be investigated.

41. Sklansky, Jeffrey, “The Elusive Sovereign: New Intellectual and Social Histories of Capitalism,” Modern Intellectual History 9, no. 1 (2012): 235.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

42. This is not to say that the path of history is smooth and without conflict. The political contestations over capitalism, however, are fought within, are part of the terrain of capitalism.

43. Sklansky, “Elusive Sovereign,” 236.

44. Reckwitz, “Toward a Theory of Practice,” 255.

45. Agnew, Jean-Christophe, “Afterward,” in Capitalism Takes Command: The Social Transformation of Ninetieth-Century America, eds. Zakim, Michael and Kornblith, Gary (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 279.Google Scholar

46. Caldor, Lendol, Financing the American Dream: A Cultural History of Consumer Credit (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hyman, Louis, Debtor Nation: A History of America in Red Ink (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011).Google Scholar Levy, Jonathan, “The Mortgage Worked the Hardest: The Fate of Landed Independence in Nineteenth Century America,” in Capitalism Takes Command, eds. Zakim, and Kornblith, , 39–67.Google Scholar

47. Thornton, Tamara Plakins, “Capitalist Aesthetics: Americans Look at the London and Liverpool Docks,” in Capitalism Takes Command, eds. Zakim, and Kornblith, , 169–98.Google Scholar

48. Reckwitz, Toward a Theory of Social Practices, 250.

49 Andrews, Thomas, Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).Google Scholar

50. Ibid; 136–37.

51. Ibid; 111.

52. It even changed people’s consciousness of the landscape, as Wolfgang Schivelbush shows in his book, The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19 th Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).

53. Andrews, Killing for Coal, 125.

54. Ibid; 167.

55. I believe Andrews work answers the objections to experience raised by Joan Scott. Experience is not prediscursive reality, and the subject positions of the workers are not essentialized as class nor is class a preexisting category. Subjects are constituted, but not only discursively. Their experiences are enacted in practices, which themselves are confluences of material and mental realities. Scott, Joan, “The Evidence of Experience,” Critical Inquiry 14 (Summer, 1991): 773–97.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

56. Sewell, Logics of History, 12–14.

57. Jones, Geoffrey, Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010)Google Scholar; Lipartito, Kenneth, “The Utopian Corporation,” in Constructing Corporate America: History, Politics, Culture, eds. Lipartito, and Sicilia, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 94–119.CrossRefGoogle Scholar