The Virtues and Vices of Business – a Historical Perspective
Business History Conference Annual Meeting
Frankfurt am Main, Germany
March 13-15, 2014
The organizers invite papers and session proposals that address both the micro and macro levels of the virtues and vices of business in historical perspective. In keeping with longstanding BHC policy submissions need not be directly related to the conference theme. The 2014 Program Committee consists of: Ed Balleisen, Duke University (chair); Chris McKenna, University of Oxford; Andrea Schneider, Society for Business History (Germany); Per Hansen, Copenhagen Business School (BHC President), and Jan-Otmar Hesse, University of Bielefeld.
Is business good or bad, or both? Does business serve private or public interests, or both? A variety of theories from the social sciences furnish different answers to these questions and, by implication, different ideas about the role of the state in creating the good society. The 2014 BHC annual meeting aims to address these issues from a historical and empirical perspective by exploring the virtues and vices of business across societies from the early modern period to the present.
Business firms – large corporations, small and medium-sized enterprises and entrepreneurs – have been decisive in securing economic growth and development through the First, Second and Third Industrial Revolutions. By constantly innovating, imitating and competing, business has changed the lives of billions of people all over the world. Firms have brought forward new products and services that enrich and improve our lives. The wider business community, including not just companies but also trade associations and informal networks, have fashioned solutions to numerous pressing social problems, whether concerning the environment, health and safety, discrimination, social isolation, or other aspects of modern life. One can similarly point to examples of business as a progressive force enabling minorities and poor people to shape better lives.
Yet, four hundred years of business history are also replete with examples of abusive and dehumanizing business practices, against other firms, individuals, and entire peoples. In some cases, as with plantation slavery and imperial expansion, the offending enterprises worked closely with state authorities. In others, the actions of business entities prompted calls for aggressive state intervention to minimize or end the negative effects of business. The occurrence of business scandals amid extreme cases of financial crisis offers especially well known historical instances of this type. But history offers an abundance of examples where business enterprises have generated serious externalities, yet nonetheless privatized profits while socializing risks borne by other stakeholders – and sometimes by shareholders as well. Around the industrialized world, business interests have also regularly interfered with politics, sometimes supporting non-democratic regimes, lobbying against the public interest and fighting organized labor.
Should we view such episodes of corruption and abuses of economic power as regrettable costs that society must pay for increases in income and wealth? Do these unseemly aspects of capitalism merely represent the unavoidable process of Schumpeterian creative destruction? Or should we rather understand them as the result of specific, and contingent, institutional frameworks, business networks, and systems of corporate governance that increase the likelihood and occurrence of business scandals and crisis?
Another set of questions involve the evolution of societal understandings about “the good and virtuous,” or “the bad and the vicious,” that we use to praise or condemn particular markets, firms, or business practices. To what extent should we attribute the more abject failings of business, as judged from any particular social vantage point, to the decline of old and the rise of new social regimes that entail changes in discourse, narratives, cultural values, and norms? How have societies tried to set moral boundaries to the domain of business – either by prohibiting some businesses and markets outright, or by proscribing commercial practices as beyond the ethical pale? And how and why have those moral constraints on business activity changed over time?
Must we endure the vices of business so that society may enjoy its virtues? Do they result from state intervention that disturbs the delicate balancing act of markets, or from too little regulation that allows private business actors to pursue their own interests regardless of the costs to society? Or should we abandon the dichotomy of state and market altogether and replace it with a more historically based view of markets as embedded in social and cultural relations? Even if one accepts the “embeddedness” of market relations, we continue to face complicated questions about how to strike the best balance between private and public interests. How have societies attempted to strike this complex balance? What business networks, systems of corporate governance, and cultural, political and social values have historically contributed to achieving this balance most constructively?
The committee will consider both individual papers and entire panels. Individual paper proposals should include a one-page (300 word) abstract and one-page curriculum vitae (CV). Panel proposals should include a cover letter stating the rationale for the panel and the name of its contact person; one-page (300 word) abstract and author’s CV for each paper; and a list of preferred panel chairs and commentators with contact information. Graduate students and recent PhDs (within 3 years of receipt of degree) whose papers are accepted for the meeting may apply for funds to partially defray their travel costs; information will be sent out once the program has been set. Everyone appearing on the program must register for the meeting.
The BHC annual meeting has been organized locally by the Gesellschaft für Unternehmensgeschichte (GUG, Society for Business History) and the GUG participates in the program committee. GUG members are encouraged to propose papers for this meeting. The language of the conference will be English. All sessions will take place at Goethe University in Frankfurt, and lodging will be in a number of area hotels.
The BHC awards the Herman E. Krooss Prize<http://www.thebhc.org/aw
The K. Austin Kerr Prize<http://www.thebhc.org/aw
The CEBC-Halloran Prize in the History of Corporate Responsibility<http://www.theb
The deadline for receipt of all proposals (papers, panels, and Krooss Prize competition) is 15 September 2013. Please send them to [email protected]<mailto:BHC2
The Oxford Journals Doctoral Colloquium in Business History will be held in conjunction with the BHC annual meeting. This prestigious workshop, sponsored by BHC and funded by the Journals Division of Oxford University Press, will take place in Frankfurt Wednesday March 12 and Thursday March 13. The colloquium is limited to ten students. Participants work intensively with a distinguished group of BHC-affiliated scholars that includes at least two BHC officers. The colloquium will discuss dissertation proposals, relevant literatures and research strategies, and employment opportunities in business history. This colloquium is intended for doctoral candidates in the early stages of their dissertation projects. If you are interested in being considered for this colloquium, please submit to Roger Horowitz by 15 November 2013 to BHC2