What is business history?

America became a world power after its industrialization in the 19th century.

Business history is the academic study of the origins and development of commercial institutions. It is a subfield of economic history, drawing on studies from other areas such as economics and political science. The discipline originated in a business school and has historically focused on topics such as the origins of corporate management or entrepreneurship. Its scholars also write about labor history and government regulatory relationships with companies 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 business entities and their administrative structures, such as the history of corporations along with their complex interactions with governments and global markets. Sometimes associated with business schools, business history examines questions about the origins of management and financial structures taught in MBA programs and implemented in companies. The subject originated in its current form in the United States, but has become popular at universities around the world. Some business historians study labor relations, particularly the interaction of unions with management.

The nature of entrepreneurship and its role in the rise of modern industry is a topic of special interest in American business history. Academic biographies of steel or railroad tycoons such as the so-called Thief Barons can also be considered business history, along with research into the negotiations between these entrepreneurs and the US government. Business historians were typically less interested in the cultural and social elements of corporate life, although the emergence of comparative approaches changed this to some extent. In the sociological analysis of business, scholars sometimes investigate how a corporate culture develops within a company.

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Harvard Business School became one of the first leaders in creating business history from the 1920s onwards, dedicating a journal to the subject and accumulating large library collections. Examples of important scholarships in the subject at Harvard include work on the history of individual corporations, sometimes told by veterans of those companies, but also studies on the financing of publicly traded companies. In the 1960s and 1970s Alfred Chandler wrote about the history of management and its role in shaping the modern corporation, works that stimulated a trend of interest in management history.

Business history became less academically isolated than in post-war American universities. Scholars use interdisciplinary methods on topics such as the formation of trade guilds in the pre-modern world and the struggles between states and large corporations. Older economic approaches, such as Raymond de Roover’s classical studies of banking in Renaissance Florence, even major theoretical works, such as Joseph Schumpeter’s analysis of modern business cycles, remain influential, however. Business historians in the United States have sometimes worked with the history of law when studying government regulation of corporations and the legal aspects of the industry.

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