In the Absence of Archives: Lessons from Less Developed Countries
Guest Editors: Adam Frost, Marcelo Bucheli, & Grietjie Verhoef
Business history is expanding to encompass a wider array of business forms and a greater plurality of contexts. In the past decade, scholars have begun to frame and synthesize growing bodies of research on the business histories of India (Tumbe 2019), Latin America (Dávila 2013; Barbero & Lluch 2014), China (Zelin 2013; Frost 2021), Eastern Europe (Pikos & Olejniczak 2017), Africa (Verhoef 2017), and the Middle East (Godley & Relli 2008; Pereira et. al, Forthcoming). In addition to illustrating the rich variety of business activities across difficult societal contexts, this research has begun to open exciting areas of inquiry, such as the histories of informal businesses, entrepreneurial diaspora networks, diversified business groups, and collective organizations, that have long been identified as "future agendas" of the discipline (Friedman and Jones 2010; Scranton and Fridenson 2013; Barbero and Puig 2015). However, this scholarship has also called attention to persistent methodological challenges of applying disciplinary tools and frameworks derived primarily from the study of North America, Western Europe, and Japan to the analysis of business in less developed countries (LDCs). The standard toolkit of business history- namely, the inductive analysis of corporate and state archives- is often inadequate to the task of making sense of how business emerged, operated, and evolved in LDCs over time. Further engagement thus requires embracing new modes of inquiry and methods of research.
Scholars have argued that the business history of LDCs (or "emerging markets") ought to be conceptualized as an "alternative business history," as shared contextual challenges- e.g., foreign domination, extensive state intervention, social unrest, and institutional inefficiencies- evoked entirely different sets of business responses than those in more developed market contexts (Austin, Dávila and Jones 2017: 537). Equally important though is the impact that these contextual challenges have on the production of historical knowledge. The consolidation of history as a discipline in Western Europe was closely linked with the use of archival sources to understand the past as "it actually happened." In one of the first handbooks on historical methods published in France in 1898, Leopold Ranke bluntly stated that "history is done with documents … no documents, no history" (Eskildsen, 2008: 451). While historical research has become increasingly open to different means of interrogating the past, written documents, created at the time when events unfolded, continue to be regarded as the highest standard of evidence. This presents obstacles for those studying societies with limited archival sources and perpetuates the misperception that most of the world lacks history.
Here, we highlight four key challenges:
Absences. So little of the past is recorded in archival records, and that small portion that does is always constructed, partial, and filled with absences (Coats & Dippold 2020). The "survival bias" is more extreme in LDCs, where acute resource constraints on the production and preservation of archival records exist or governments or private institutions lack incentives to take care of old documents. Indeed, many societies lack a tradition of producing corporate archives altogether. Often the only available archives are those of powerful multinational enterprises, which tend to exaggerate the agency of Western actors while downplaying the contributions of indigenous people. State archives are more widely available and sometimes cast light on areas left in the dark by corporate archives. But these too suffer their own absences because of political ideologies, resource constraints, bureaucratic inefficiencies, and institutional biases (Agmon 2021). It is critical, therefore, to "surface" these absences (Johnson 2020: 135) by drawing attention to that which went unrecorded and to read sources "along the grain" (Stoler 2009) to reveal the social epistemologies that guided and biased archival production.
Ruptures. The histories of emerging markets are often punctuated by episodes of foreign domination, political revolution, civil unrest, natural disasters, and other serial ruptures. These periods of turbulence not only disrupt ordinary business activities, but also lead to the dissolution of businesses, the dislocation of populations, and the fragmentation of archives. While ruptures are not unique to less developed countries (as anyone familiar with European history knows), they are often more acute in societies governed by younger or weaker states. The resulting gaps pose a serious challenge to constructing coherent historical narratives and retracing the evolution of business activities and organizations over time; as a result, discontinuities are too often taken for granted while continuities are left underexplored (Kirby 1990). Ruptures also create conceptual rifts that shape historical memory and are reproduced in periodizations of the past (Cohen 2003). Almost by default, the temporal boundaries of emerging market business histories thus become delineated by wars, revolutions, and regime change, even in cases where businesses successfully navigated and survived these events.
Silences. In many authoritarian and colonial contexts, archives were explicitly designed as instruments of control (Cohn and Dirks 1988; Dirks 2002) that silenced as much as they documented and preserved. Take, for example, the case of Guatemala, where, during the nation's bloody civil war (1960–1996), the military used archives as a weapon of surveillance, social control, and ideological management against insurgent communist forces (Weld 2014). Through such processes, archives can perpetuate powerful silences that shape historical memory and conceal the experiences of the disempowered (Schwarzkopf 2012; Decker 2013; Thomas, Fowler, & Johnson 2017). The histories of racial, cultural, religious, and gender minorities tend to get omitted (or are systematically excluded) from the archival record. So too do the activities of a broad host of actors operating in the informal economy who actively cloak themselves from the gaze of the state to avoid becoming targets of persecution. In societies where the informal sector constitutes the largest part the economy (making up as much as 60% of economic activity in India or 80% in Bangladesh), to focus only on formal businesses is to neglect the preponderance of economic life. Working with corporate and state archives in these contexts thus becomes a process of "mastering the institutional matrix in which documents are embedded, and also finding ways of going around or exceeding any limitations that the matrix imposes" (Lipartito, 2014: 293). It also necessitates reading sources "against the grain," i.e. against the intentions of the people who produced them, to exhume "resistant" readings that draw attention to gaps, silences, and contradictions in the written accounts.
Secrets. In many LDCs, powerful actors assert autocratic control over access to historical records and the production of historical knowledge. For example, in China, after a long trend of increasing archival openness, state archivists have recently begun resecretizing previously accessible collections (Lu 2021) and imposing new barriers to historical research (Greitens & Truex 2020). In countries such as Turkey, corporate archives are controlled by large business groups that have kept most documents confidential (Colpan and Jones 2016). The decision-making processes that determine which archives are to be preserved, which are to be destroyed, which are to be opened, and which are to remain secret (or be resecritized) are often entirely opaque, resulting in a research environment of many unknown unknowns. At the same time, the arbitrary exercise of rules leads to inequalities in access. In some contexts, female scholars or scholars belonging to minority groups may face additional barriers to access. In others, only politically embedded researchers are granted access to records that may concern politically sensitive subjects. Doing business history research in LDCs thus entails navigating a terrain of sensitive and secretized information.
By engaging with these contextual challenges, rendering them explicit, and highlighting strategies to overcome them, this SI attempts to shed new light on the business history of LDC contexts and illuminate new paths forward. Specifically, the SI will explore how scholars of LDCs are drawing on unconventional sources, adapting methods from adjacent disciplines, developing new conceptual tools, and approaching business history from new directions. As we hope to show, the novel methods and frameworks deployed at what is, at present, the geographical and intellectual periphery of our discipline, can be productively integrated into "core" business history research to unlock new possibilities and opportunities.
At the same time, this work serves as a mirror that enables us to critically reflect on the dominant paradigms of the discipline and their corresponding limitations. Through these studies, we might ask, what constraints and path dependencies has the overreliance on corporate archives imposed on business history research? What blind spots have emerged? What actors and organizations have been ignored? Relatedly, who gets to participate in the production of business history? Whose voices are absent? In posing and seeking answers to such questions, we build upon previous calls to counteract biases implicit within the methods of business history research (Scranton and Fridenson 2013: 8), embrace a greater diversity of methodological approaches and research topics (Jones and Zeitlin 2008; Decker, Kipping, & Wadhwani 2015; Wilson et. al. 2022), and explore a larger variety of organizational forms (Amatori & Jones 2003; Wilkins et.al. 2010; Mackenzie et.al 2021).
In line with Business History's commitment to "widen and deepen its international scope by promoting research on under-researched regions, periods and topics," we seek to publish methodologically and conceptually bold studies of business in LDCs. Here, we have an explicit bias towards action-oriented research that not only explicates the challenges of doing business history within specific contexts but offers a creative solution to overcoming them. Submissions from scholars based in regions traditionally underrepresented in the discipline are especially welcome.
We ask that those interested produce an extended proposal 5-10 pages (double-spaced) that contains the following:
Abstracts should be emailed to Adam Frost (firstname.lastname@example.org).
The guest editors will manage the editorial and review process. Authors who submit a proposal will be invited to a virtual paper development workshop to receive constructive feedback before submitting full papers via Manuscript Central. All papers will be subject to the standard, double-blind review process of Business History. Authors of successful papers will be invited to a final (non-mandatory) in-person paper development workshop that is planned to be held in conjunction with the 2025 annual meeting of the Business History Conference (BHC). Papers will undergo a final review by the Editorial Board after conditional acceptance by the guest editors.
• March 2024: Submission of extended proposal
• April 2024: Paper development workshop with manuscript proposals (virtual)
• August– October 2024: Full paper submissions
• March 2025: Paper development workshop with R&R manuscripts at the BHC
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