Friday, March 1, 2013

Philip Scranton & Patrick Fridenson's "Reimagining Business History"

Philip Scranton is University Board of Governors Professor, History of Industry and Technology, at Rutgers University, Camden, and editor-in-chief of the journal Enterprise and Society. Patrick Fridenson is emeritus professor of international business history at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris and founding editor of Entreprises et Histoire. Both are former presidents of the Business History Conference.

They applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, Reimagining Business History, and reported the following:
Reimagining Business History is a set of 43 quite short essays (or aperçus) drafted by two old-timers (one French, one American), in an effort to promote creative research initiatives in the field. The entries are grouped in four clusters: ‘practices to avoid,’ ‘opportunities worth exploring,’ ‘prospects now emerging,’ and ‘key concepts and frameworks.’ Page 99 appears in the second cluster, where we discuss ‘reflexivity,’ a fundamental concern in contemporary social theory with rich potential for business historical studies and for businesses.

Reflexivity, defined as “active learning amid the ongoing flux of change,” at bottom describes how humans reflectively self-monitor actions in which they are engaged. It can also be viewed as the feedback loops that, in organizations, recycle information about situations and outcomes to actors involved in decisions and projects. Crucially, individuals and groups, moving forward in time, use reflexivity (often continuously, as in a football match) to alter their strategies and the bases for their initiatives. This means, first, that practice is inherently improvisational and second, that reflexivity is inherently non-linear.

No matter how many habits and responses we may have learned, we cannot have complete knowledge of the situations in which we take actions. Nor do we have wholly reliable, consistent means for interpreting what’s happening in the flux around us. One consequence is that, especially in ambiguous or crisis situations, we genuinely do not know what’s going on or where it’s leading. (Think about first dates.) Hence, we constantly improvise actions that flow into our social and economic interchanges; and we simultaneously monitor what, if any, effects our efforts have.

This dynamic anchors the core of investment or negotiation – situated interactions in which outcomes cannot be read off, or calculated from, the participants’ starting positions. Such indeterminacy is frightening, but it also animates our search for compromises and practical ‘ways of going on’ (Wittgenstein). Understanding historically how business actors managed such uncertainties has potential value for business actors today, because feedback loops can trigger the reflexive re-designing on ongoing strategies. Surely, the indeterminacies of business outcomes affect present-day managers and entrepreneurs no less than they haunted their forebears in earlier generations.

Ideas like page 99’s ‘reflexivity’ are the heart of our book. We think they have value both for historians and for businesspeople today. Adding that value is what ‘reimagining’ is all about.
Learn more about Reimagining Business History at The Johns Hopkins University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue