New directions in economic history at the AHA conference

24 July 2019

The annual Australian Historical Association (AHA) conference was held in early July, hosted by the University of Southern Queensland in Toowoomba. This year’s theme was ‘Local Communities, Global Networks’, emphasising the role of connections, trade, and flows in global history. Economic historians were particularly well-placed to contribute to this theme, and for the second year the EHSANZ hosted a dedicated stream at the conference. This brought together a fantastic group of scholars to discuss new work in Australian economic and business history.

First up was a session on ‘Trade and Invasion’, with Nick Ferns (Monash), Henry Reese (University of Melbourne) and Troy Gillan (University of Queensland) discussing international economic history and the impact of transnational connections on national economies. Next were papers on ‘Colonial Economies’. Rohan Howitt (University of Sydney) discussed a colonial company failure in the Auckland Islands, Matthew Birchall (Cambridge) compared the Van Dieman’s Land Company to other colonial ventures, and David Stuart (Independent) examined early US maritime contact with Sydney. In the first of two sessions on ‘Knowledge and Class’, Roland Wettenhall (University of Melbourne) described the diverse class structure of friendly society membership, and Michael Pearson (ACU) discussed the professionalisation and changing perception of motor mechanics in early twentieth century Australia. An excellent panel on experts, professions and universities in the 1920s and 1930s followed. Tamson Pietsch (UTS), James Waghorne (University of Melbourne), Yves Rees (La Trobe), and Hannah Forsyth (ACU) examined the ways in which universities and war were entangled with the development of professions and legitimacy in Australian society. Finally, in the second session on ‘Knowledge and Class’, Claire Wright (Macquarie) discussed perceptions of the corporate elite in early twentieth century, and Hannah Forsyth demonstrated the link between economic change, workforce flexibility, institutional crises, and Australia’s post-professional middle class since 1970.

All of the sessions were extremely well-attended and sparked fascinating discussion about the integration of economic history and other histories of Australian culture and society. The strong presence of postgraduate and early career researchers testified to the interest of junior historians in economic and business history, and the innovative approaches they are bringing to our community.

The EHSANZ postgraduate and ECR prize was again awarded for the best paper/presentation in the economic history stream at the AHA. This year Henry Reese walked away with the win, for his paper entitled “Protecting the National Soundscape: The Gramophone Industry and the Nation in the 1920s”. Reese gave a lively and interesting discussion of the rhetoric used to justify the Tariff on the Gramophone industry in the 1920s, arguing that agents invoked assumptions about aesthetics, music, gender, and class in their discussion of trade policy. In the spirit of Toby L. Ditz and Kenneth Lipartito, Reese’s paper was an excellent example of the fruitful connections that can be made between histories of culture and the economy. Congratulations Henry!

The next AHA conference will be held at Deakin University in July 2020. The EHSANZ will again be hosting economic history sessions, and all those who are interested are encouraged to attend.

Claire Wright
Macquarie University

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