Thursday, 5 August 2010

A reading list for BH101?

It is of course, at present the summer vacation for most academics, which means that thoughts turn to research rather than teaching. Time is fast approaching to look at next year's syllabus however. As a result of a discussion some time ago I produced a reading list for a hypothetical 'BH101' course, which could be presented, in a modified form, as the basis for a course on business history. There are bound to be plenty of things that I've missed that should be there - and I'd be interested to hear from you what else should be included.

BH101 Reading List

1. R. Coase, ‘The Nature of the Firm' (November 1937) 4(16) Economica 386-405.

You really need to know what a firm is before you can start analysing them. Coase tells us in a neat little article what a firm is and how its size is determined (in his opinion).

2. J. Kay, 'Foundations of Corporate Success' (1993).

A good book, though aimed at the management market, but with lots of good case studies and examples. It includes some good stories, like Glaxo’s Zantac failure, and also introduces Game Theory and why it is important in business strategy (an often neglected issue).

3. G. Boyce and S. Ville, 'The Development of Modern Business' (2002)

A very readable look from an economic angle that looks at the development of modern business in the context of principal-agent problems and transactions costs.

4. M. G. Blackford, 'The Rise of Modern Business in GB, US and Japan' (1998 - there is a more recent version that chucks Germany and China into the mix too)

A very good book to introduce the historical side, written for undergraduates but which attempts to cover absolutely everything and gives the reader a very good overview of the general trends in business history in more developed countries. Adding China in the most recent volume did not add as much of interest as might have been hoped, though it is an interesting diversion.

5. A. D. Chandler, 'Strategy and structure : chapters in the history of the industrial enterprise' (1962).

Now we get to Chandler. This might be the most important business history book ever written, because it probably founded the genre as we know it. In his first book Chandler starts off with a general chapter about US business then looks at four companies in detail - du Pont, General Motors, Sears Roebuck and Standard Oil of New Jersey, but draws lessons from his examination of the history of these four companies.

6. A. D. Chandler, 'The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business' (1977).

Important because in this Chandler looks at why the structure and form of US business was so important in establishing a visible hand to reply to Adam Smith’s invisible hand. This book looks at important ideas like the three prongs and the establishment of a managerial bureaucracy and is probably Chandler’s most important book.

7. Naomi R. Lamoreaux, Daniel M. G. Raff, and Peter Temin, Beyond Whig History, Enterprise and Society , 5 (Sept. 2004), pp. 376-87.

Probably the best, and a nice and short, summary of where Business History should be beyond Chandler. This article looks at how the corporate world has changed since Chandler’s environment of the 1950s-80s, even in the US, and looks at how smaller units can in reality gain more corporate advantage for themselves.

8. J. F. Wilson, 'British Business History 1720-1994' (1995).

In his Scale and Scope Chandler called British capitalists Personal Capitalists, and claims that they didn’t invest in his 3 prongs enough to guarantee their success. But Chandler forgets that they had a good 150 year run before any of his US companies really got going. Wilson tells us the alternative story of how British business developed and prospered through the industrial revolution - British firms were the first to operate in an industrial environment, and I think its valuable for students of Business History to have at least some idea of how UK business operated.

9. S. N. Broadberry, 'The Productivity Race' (1997).

This book takes a totally different approach to the strategy based volumes above. Broadberry analyses productivity levels in US, UK and German manufacturing business and comes up with some perhaps not surprising conclusions (UK is ahead at first but falls behind etc.). But an excellent reference guide for the whole subject to use, as it is incredibly comprehensive and definitely should be of interest to anyone taking a quantitative approach to comparative Business History.

10 Y. Cassis 'Big business: the European Experience in the twentieth century' (1997).

For business in Europe, I this book is an excellent starting point. Continental Europe is often ignored in favour of Anglo-Saxon or Japanese practice yet offers some interesting examples.


11. Chandler’s 'Scale and Scope' (1990)

Relegated to optional because although this book is a good work in comparative business history it has recently come under attack from Les Hannah, who I have time for, as an example of how not to do business history! Hannah argues that this book is very inaccurate in many of its comparisons (and not just its critique of British business). However, it is Chandler’s best work on subjects outside of the US, although he relied on the help of research assistants for Germany and Japan, so is still perhaps worth a look.

12. L. Hannah, 'Marshall’s ’trees’ and the global ’forest’ : were ’giant redwoods’ different?' (1996).

LSE discussion paper in which Hannah looks at (I think) 500 of the world’s biggest enterprises in 1912 and again in the 1990s and sees what has changed; and draws attention to the importance of military production companies in Russia and that sort of thing among others. Well worth looking at for anyone who has a lot of firms in their sample, and an extremely good essay.

13. Michael Porter’s 'Competitive Advantage or Competitive Advantage of Nations'

The Chandler of the management world, Porter looks at how companies aquire competitive advantage and what exactly this magical property is. Also important for his ‘diamond’ theory of competitive advantage. But not pure history, so doesn’t make the top ten (worth a look for some light reading).

14. 'The Oxford handbook of business history' - edited by Geoffrey Jones and Jonathan Zeitlin (2008).

Gives a good overview of the subject while providing useful chapters linking Business History with Economics and Management Studies, among others.


  1. Looks good. I use Blackford and McCraw's Creating Modern Capitalism as texts, and the rest forms much of the the basis for my lectures. This this year I will also have them watch The Corporation ( to encourage connections between the historical business forms and modern day popular representations of business.

  2. The Blackford book is a definite good one, he even mentions in the preface that it was deliberately designed to teach undergrads with no previous knowledge about the subject. McCraw is something I could easily also have considered. I also like the Boyce and Ville textbook. The Corporation sounds like an interesting hint and would also be relevant to MBA students - thanks for that tip, I might look at using it at the OU.

  3. I am a little out of my depth in this specialization, but I am curious about whether you introduce primary sources into business history classes. I assume the majority are students pursuing business degrees as opposed to history degrees. Would someone like Adam Smith come up, or is that reserved for economics? (Thanks for the list, I plan on printing it out for my own education!)

  4. I use Blackford and McCraw's Creating Modern Capitalism as texts, and the rest forms much of the the basis for my lectures. Day Light Savings 2010



About Me

London, United Kingdom
I'm Lecturer in Management at The York Management School, at The University of York, UK. I teach strategic management to undergraduate and masters students, as well as running the masters dissertation module. My research focuses on business and management history.