Entrepreneurship and Business History: Renewing the Research Agenda

by Geoffrey G. Jones & R. Daniel Wadhwani

Overview — This paper identifies major opportunities to raise entrepreneurship as a central research issue in business history and to build on the strong roots that are already in place in that discipline. Historical research on entrepreneurship began in the 1940s and 1950s, much of it at Harvard Business School, but then lost momentum. Nevertheless the paper shows the major achievements in exploring how context shaped the structure of entrepreneurship, and identifying the wide variation in organizational form and entrepreneurial behavior. It concludes with the main contributions of business history to the study of entrepreneurship, and proposes a renewed research agenda. Key concepts include:

  • Business historians are uniquely situated to integrate social science research with studies of the special character of entrepreneurship.
  • It is important to research the historical effect of culture and values on entrepreneurial behavior, using more careful methodologies than in the past.
  • There are major opportunities to establish the precise relationship between institutions and entrepreneurial performance.
  • Historical research may help management researchers to understand how entrepreneurship needs to be understood within the context of time and place.
  • Context may matter as much as the characteristics and behavior of the entrepreneurs themselves.

Author Abstract

During the 1940s and 1950s business historians pioneered the study of entrepreneurship. The interdisciplinary Center for Research on Entrepreneurial History, based at Harvard Business School which included Joseph Schumpeter and Alfred Chandler, and its journal Explorations in Entrepreneurial History were key institutional drivers of the research agenda. However the study of entrepreneurship ran into formidable methodological roadblocks, and attention shifted to the corporation, leaving the study of entrepreneurship fragmented and marginal. Nevertheless business historians have made significant contributions to the study of entrepreneurship through their diverse coverage of countries, regions and industries, and—in contrast to much management research over the past two decades—through exploring how the economic, social, organizational, and institutional context matters to evaluating entrepreneurship. This working paper suggests that there are now exciting opportunities for renewing the research agenda on entrepreneurship, building on the strong roots already in place, and benefiting from engaging with advances made in the study of entrepreneurial behavior and cognition. There are opportunities for advancing understanding on the historical role of culture and values on entrepreneurial behavior, using more careful methodologies than in the past, and seeking to specify more exactly how important culture is relative to other variables. There are also major opportunities to complement research on the role of institutions in economic growth by exploring the precise relationship between institutions and entrepreneurs.

Paper Information

  • Full Working Paper Text
  • Working Paper Publication Date: July 2006
  • HBS Working Paper Number: 07-007
  • Faculty Unit(s):