Professor Per H. Hansen, Copenhagen Business School (CBS) Interview with Sebastian Alvarez, Oxford, May 2019.
Q1) How does the 'uses of the past' framework shape your research and how has it helped you to improve your understanding of policymaking?
As human beings, history is a fundamental condition. We cannot not have a history, and it contributes to shaping the way we see the world and therefore our practices. My main point is the idea that we understand history only in the shape of narratives that compete about making sense of past, present and future. Narratives establish order, direction and causality, in short create meaning, in an otherwise rather chaotic world. This is my entry point into uses of the past, although I prefer to call it uses history, but that’s another story, I guess.
Moreover, historical narratives are performative, meaning that they DO something through assigning meaning to phenomena. Narratives shape identities and communities; they legitimize some things and ideas while marginalizing others; they enable us to remember certain events and relations while silencing others by excluding them. History, through narratives, shape perceptions of the past and the present and they are, therefore, useful for envisioning alternative futures.
Finally, given that narratives shape perceptions, it is important to understand that they also frame our understanding of a particular situation or problem. This is, of course, of the utmost significance when we are trying to understand decision-making, whether political or organizational. Narratives and, by implication, analogies are not only useful in decision-making, they also constrain the way we can understand the information available for decision-making through their shaping of our perception, and they create blind spots through the silencing already mentioned.
The way I think about uses of history is tightly linked to my ontological and epistemological positions, which I have outlined in ”Business History: A Cultural and Narrative Approach” (Business History Review, vol. 86, Winter 2012, 693-717). This means that when I do research, depending on the research question, I am not necessarily focused on finding the truth, with capital T, about an event or problem. I am more interested in how historical actors have struggled to make sense of and assign meaning to their world through narratives, and how these narratives have shaped the actors’ perception and have been used to categorize and make decisions about their world. This means that I often look for actors’ narratives in the archives and try to identify different ways of making sense of and framing an issue and how this framing represents competing interests, rationales and ideologies.
In particular, the need for sensemaking increases during times of great uncertainty because well-known and stable identities, relations, etc become unstable. There’s a meaning loss, which calls for a new narrative that is capable of reinstating or reimposing some sort of order and direction in our perception of the world and may assist us in imagining and enacting a different future. In such situations, decision-makers often search for relevant historical analogies to assist them.
The fact that narratives are performative, constraining our range of choices and creating blind spots, means that they are closely connected to power and will always be contested. So, where there’s a narrative, there are almost always one or more counter-narratives. When uncertainty increases, for instance due to some sort of crisis or conflict, there will be a power struggle between competing narratives and the interests they represent to define the solution to the problem at hand, and therefore an imagined future.
In my own research, I have tried to apply this line of thinking to various topics ranging from how Danish modern furniture design managed to conquer the Danish and many other consumers’ living rooms in the post war period. In Danish Modern Furniture, 1930-2016. The Rise, Decline and Re-emergence of a Cultural Market Category (2018), I show how Danish Modern was constructed as a market category through a narrative that – to this day – has framed the furniture as representing a unique combination of modernity and tradition.
In relation to another of my research interests, financial history, I have analyzed how Danish savings banks in the 1970s and 1980s consciously and strategically managed to get – or capture – the de-regulation they wanted and to transform themselves from non-profit self-governing organizations to profit-oriented joint stock companies. I develop this argument in the article, “Organizational culture and organizational change: the transformation of Savings Banks in Denmark, 1965-1990” (Enterprise & Society, vol. 8, no. 4, 2007, pp. 920-53) and show how both the savings banks and other groups used history in a struggle about the legitimacy of this process.
A narrative approach, as already indicated, is not necessarily linked to ‘uses of history’ questions but in my work this has most often been the case one way or another. In the two articles “Making Sense of Financial Crisis and Scandal. A Danish Bank Failure in the Era of Finance Capitalism” (Enterprise & Society, 2012, vol 13, no. 4, 672-706) and “From Finance Capitalism to Financialization: A Cultural and narrative perspective on 150 years of financial history” (Enterprise & Society, vol. 15, no. 4, 2014, pp. 605-42), I focus on the field of finance and how narratives are used as tools to make sense of the world, but more importantly, how they contribute to shaping this world by serving as a lens through which you see the world and providing a blueprint for practices related to that world view. I show how different narratives will lead to different outcomes in, for example, financial regulation or overall institutional frameworks and cognitive frames.
Q2) How could policymakers benefit from the past to make better decisions?
I am not a big believer in the idea that we can learn lessons from the past. Even if there were lessons to be learned, they are always contested and hardly ever directly applicable, especially since the context will always be different. This is apparent in the description above of how narratives compete, not least in times of crisis. So, what lesson you “learn” from the past depends a great deal on what world-view you subscribe to and which narrative you find the most convincing and fitting. The Great Depression and the Great Financial Crisis are cases in point. As economic and business historians know well, there is not just one singular lesson to be learned from the Great Depression and applied to the 2007-2009 financial crisis. It all depends on what epistemic community you belong to.
At best, perhaps, the lesson to be learned from history, in whatever kind of decision-making situation you, a group, or an organization is in, may be to consider several available scenarios or analogies in order to try to deal with the uncertainty immanent in virtually all kinds of decisions. In other words: being conscious about the presence of several narratives including counternarratives. Surely, you cannot expect history to deliver directly applicable lessons, since “history” will never be objective. There is no neutral observation point from which the historian – amateur or professional – can outline a singular history. For the same reason, I am deeply sceptical about the idea that history can be “mis-used”, though for ideological and ethical reasons I definitely sympathize more with some uses than others. At the end of the day, it boils down to ideology and power, i.e. who has the power to define, which particular use of history is correct and what use is mis-use. There are only uses of history and it always comes to us through narratives told by someone with a specific world-view.
It’s important to stress though, that this doesn’t make history useless and it doesn’t mean that anything goes, either. History is, after all, an empirical discipline. And history is an important part of the ongoing conversation about the world, of the process of making sense of that world and of the struggle over what future we want. As such, history is always an important part of decision-making whether political, organizational or personal and whether it is used explicitly and strategically or implicitly and unconsciously. Again, you cannot not have a history.
A final word. Needless to say, I stand next to, and on, the shoulders of many scholars who have helped me developing my ideas about the issues addressed above. At the Centre for Business History at Copenhagen Business School we explicitly work with narrative approaches to history both in organizational and business history as well as political and economic history. Colleagues at CBS such as Mads Mordhorst, Ander Ravn Sørensen, Christina Lubinski and Stefan Schwarzkopf as well as other scholars such as Dan Wadhwani, Roy Suddaby, Mich Rowlinson and Charlotte Linde, and many others are all working with these ideas in different research areas related to business and economic history.