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What is Business History?

By Greg Caramenico
Updated: Feb 29, 2024

Business history is the academic study of the origins and development of commercial institutions. It is a sub-field of economic history, drawing on scholarship from other areas like economics and political science. The discipline originated in a business school, and has historically focused on topics like the origins of corporate management or entrepreneurship. Its scholars also write about labor history and government regulatory relationships with businesses and workers. Originally, there was a strong British and American focus, but today historians approach business history through many different cultural and economic settings.

Business historians research the development of commercial entities and their administrative structures, such as the history of corporations along with their complex interactions with governments and global markets. Sometimes associated with management schools, business history examines questions about the origins of management and financial structures taught in MBA programs and implemented in corporations. The subject originated in its present form in the United States, but has grown popular in universities around the world. Some business historians study labor relations, particularly the interaction of organized labor unions with management.

The nature of entrepreneurship and its role in the rise of modern industry is a special topic of interest in the history of American business. Academic biographies of steel or railroad tycoons, like the so-called Robber Barons, could also be considered business history, along with research into the dealings between these entrepreneurs and the U.S. government. Historians of business were typically less interested in the cultural and social elements of corporate life, although the rise of comparative approaches changed this to some extent. In sociological analysis of business, scholars sometimes investigate how a corporate culture develops within a firm.

Harvard Business School became an early leader in the creation of business history from the 1920s onward by dedicating a journal to the subject and accruing large library holdings. Examples of major scholarship in the subject at Harvard include work on the history of individual corporations, sometimes told by veterans of these companies, but also studies of the financing of publicly traded companies. In the 1960s and 1970s, Alfred Chandler wrote on the history of management and its role in shaping the modern corporation, works that encouraged a trend of interest in administrative history.

Business history has become less isolated academically than it was in postwar American universities. Scholars use interdisciplinary methods in topics like the formation of trade guilds in the premodern world, and the struggles between states and large corporations. Older economic approaches such as Raymond de Roover's classic studies of banking in Renaissance Florence to major works of theory like Joseph Schumpeter's analysis of modern business cycles remain influential, however. Historians of business in the U.S. have sometimes worked with legal history when studying government regulation of corporations and the legal aspects of industry.

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