ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Reflections on the Disciplinary Credibility of Business History

Can a change of nomenclature generate a new approach that may help reconceptualise the story, the history of Indian business? Business studies must take the archive much more seriously than it does, not as an inert repository of facts, and engage with the historical method with much greater rigour. Unless the practice and protocols of history writing are considered seriously and their location understood, it would be impossible for business history to have the productive conversation that it seeks.

 

This article takes its cue from a recent seminar that was convened under the auspices of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Ahmedabad to celebrate the life and labour of Dwijendra Tripathi (1930–2018), the late and distinguished faculty at the institute. Tripathi spent the greater part of his life researching the business history of India, giving it very definite contours and providing the discipline an identifiable mandate. Trained in the United States (US), he was probably more responsive than most scholars to the ways in which business history had emerged in the very specific context of management studies and institutional economics. The question of location was not unimportant as it meant business history did not immediately grapple with the range of questions and methodological challenges that history had to confront in the wake of either the linguistic turn or from the larger project of social sciences.

Tripathi himself preferred to see business history as a form of social history and not economic history, which had assumed specific configurations depending on the institutional location it thrived in. For him, the analysis of business communities in India, of the relationship between state and business, of the strategies that business groups adopted for staying afloat and for expansion particularly during challenging political conditions, of detailed histories of business families and firms (the monographs on Kasturbhai Lalbhai and his entrepreneurship, and the Bank of Baroda being instances in point) constituted the staple of business history (Tripathi 1981). The method was squarely located within the discipline of history; it was primarily archival and the emphasis was on mining available archives and finding new ones to be able to tell a story of business and entrepreneurial initiative in the high noon of imperialism and thereafter. The writings fitted well into the existing corpus of work and gave business history a definite fillip, making it worthwhile to move beyond the narrow history of the rise and fall of a business firm, to consider a broader empirical focus on business in society that could serve as the basis for making broader generalisations. Till the very end of his life and illustrious career, Tripathi battled for business history, urging a holistic approach and inviting suggestions for fortifying the discipline. And yet, as we survey the landscape today, we continue to debate on what makes business history different, or to put it differently, whether we can, as yet, identify a clear conceptual framework for the field.

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Updated On : 11th Oct, 2019

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