Shining a Light on the Practice of Business History

This week on the blog, Monica Keneley (Deakin University) reflects on current (November 2020) Special Issue of the Australian Economic History Review. Professor Keneley has compiled a fascinating array of papers on new directions in business history, which are available for free for the next two months at the following link:

The successes, disappointments and more broadly the structure and practice of Australian business are investigated in the latest issue of the Australian Economic History Review. I begin the collection by surveying scholarly attempts to understand business organization and its history. From the early commissioned company histories and populist anti-capitalist theorizing the field has evolved into a refreshing analytical tableau that draws from a wide range of research domains in the quest to understand enterprise and market complexity.

A significant turning point in the development of the practice of business history was Alfred Chandler’s use of case studies to illustrate how the three S’s – Strategy, Structure and Systems – shaped corporate capability. Chandler’s influence was enormous, not least because his work encouraged the application of a wider range of methodologies and inter-disciplinary approaches. Economic, marketing, business strategy, corporate governance and organisational theories have opened to the door to new and exciting research that greatly enhances our understanding of corporate cultures, behaviour and strategies.

Other articles in this special issue illustrate the diversity and richness of a business history approach. David Merrett’s study of the remarkably stable Australian supermarket duopoly provides insights into the disappearance of small supermarket chains like “Tom the Cheap” and “4 Square”. Coles and Woolworths used their experience in constructing networks of discount variety stores as the basis upon which to build capabilities in the grocery market. The Australian story contrasts with trends in Europe and the USA where the genealogy of supermarket chains can be traced back to the grocery sector. Coming from a different background, Coles and Woolworths were able to leverage other skills and resources to rapidly attain market dominance.

A Coles supermarket in the 1960s. Source:

Aaron Graham creates a database of early companies that provides valuable clues about business operation in the early colonial era. Drilling down the data reveals that the majority of firms incorporating in the region were in the financial sector. Those incorporating in the United Kingdom tended to be mainly mining firms. The rise in financial incorporations from within the region indicates the growing sophistication of these economies as the development of specialised financial services evolved.

Robert Crawford uncovers the remarkable career of business woman Sylvia Ashby, founder of one of the first market research companies in Australia. A key insight from the  paper is to highlight the role of trust in  the operation of services such as market research. Crawford demonstrates how Sylvia Ashby was able to build the trust necessary to carry her business forward. She did so at a time when the value of market research was not recognised. Her approach reflects the entrepreneurial skills often identified as key facilitators by business historians.

Sylvia Ashby. Source: The Dictionary of Sydney,

Peter Gibson demonstrates the important contribution of Chinese immigrants and their market gardens. Using a microhistory approach Gibson shines a light on the commercial activities associated with the market gardens of Dark Dragon Ridge in NSW. This research uncovers detail on approaches to land management, the types of crops grown and the way in which these businesses were organised and operated. It provides a nuanced account of the lives of Chinese market gardeners in this region of Australia. Another key contribution is to show how lesser known sources can be utilised to provide a rich source of information about the lives of particular individuals and capture their experiences in their own words.

The contributions in this issue taken together reflect the diversity of research that engages business historians. They illustrate the way in which varying methods of inquiry can add to our knowledge of  the drivers of commercial activity. They reflect the willingness that is apparent amongst business historians to search and adapt novel approaches. They also demonstrate that trips to dusty archives, digging and delving into long forgotten records, are well worth the effort!

Monica Keneley

Deakin University


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