Thursday, September 12, 2013

History matters

Three months ago I took up a post as a research assistant in a business school. Nothing unusual—despite the fact of my uncommon academic background in this field of research. I am a historian who specialised in medieval times by writing my thesis about sociocultural dimensions of eating in and out in late medieval towns. As my new job was repeatedly subject to discussions among friends with academic or non-academic background, I carry out in this blog how a historian could contribute to the business research.

First of all, business is all but a main subject of today's historiography. The already ten year old lamentation of the German business historian Hartmut Berghoff who stated a de-economisation of the recent historiography was met with almost no responses. As an illustration you can look at the recent list of the 24 (!) introductory seminars at the history department of my home university: Neither attracts the freshmen with a catchphrase which is in any relation to "economy". Topics like the history of human bodies appear to be more in vogue—is it surprising that nobody apart of us historians is knowing what we are actually doing?

Instead of regretting the loss of any influence of a historian's voice on public debates, I demand that historiography should inquire the past with questions relevant to today's problems. From my point of view, I am convinced that no topic has such a demand of reflections as e.g. the apparently irresistible marketization of all spheres of our lives. But what could a historian contribute to such a discussion?

Ironically, straight the specific culture-based perspective which can be trained by studying such topics like the history of the transformation of the perception of human bodies. As long as the mainstream economics are regarding the economy as a separated "realm" in which rules and dynamics are considered like physical principles that tries to make our actions ex ante predictable like the falling of an apple from a tree due to the force of gravity; that long voices other than economists' are needed on the topic of economy.

In contrast to a purely economic approach, a historian's perspective embeds the economy in its sociocultural environment. Institutions as e.g. markets can be deciphered as social constructions and are persistently subject to change; their rules are characterised by mostly unrecognized norms and conventions. Regarding the behaviour of human beings on markets, you can go so far that a postulated rationality of human behaviour itself is a socially constructed concept which was invented by scholars during the times of Enlightenment.

That even mainstream economists turn away from the axiom of rational behaviour by reason of its limited empirical explanatory power is no surprise from a culturalistic point of view: The rational mode of thinking is only one empowering concept among others which all influence the behaviour of business men.

In this respect, however, I understand the work of scholars as contributors to the design of the concepts and institutions of our lives. The question in the middle for business researcher has to be: What is a “good” firm? As a historian I have not only some knowledge about the path dependencies of all conditions but also the consciousness about its alterability. I am happy to help working on it.

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