Guest Post: Incorporating History and the Humanities into International Business

Chryssa Sharp is an Associate Professor of International Business in the Robert W. Plaster School of Business and Entrepreneurship at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri. She earned a PhD in Management from the University of Calgary in Canada and an MBA in International Management from the Thunderbird School of Global Management. Dr. Sharp’s industry experiences encompass aspects of marketing, strategic planning, and cross-cultural communications. She has also been involved with developing programs to support small business exporting.

globe-flags_moneyHistorical knowledge plays an important role in the international business field. Ironically, as programs in the humanities are forced to justify their relevance to administrators, elected officials, and the general public, we, as a society, are in need of those fields’ contributions to creating the desired “global citizen.”

Discussing globalization and international business in conjunction with other disciplines is particularly fitting. As “globalization” is defined by interdependence and integration. International business, my speciality, is interdisciplinary within the business fields. It incorporates elements of all the functional areas: accounting, marketing, finance, and management. It also intersects with the humanities at points. When talking about elements of international business, most people can recognize the need to recognize and understand cultural differences if one is going to engage in successful cross-border business transactions. For this reason, international business draws upon sociology, anthropology, and religious studies.

The particular focus of this post, though, is the importance that historical knowledge plays in the international business field and how I incorporate history into an introductory course on international business, a course that all business majors at my university must take. As the world grows more interdependent and integrated, the discipline specific silos which often exist in higher education appear to be growing stronger.

A standard approach to teaching international business involves placing business activities within a broader environment and discussing how that environment becomes more complex as one crosses borders. The ideologies which influence economic and political systems will vary from one country to another. The legal and regulatory structures are driven by both cultural values and the governing ideologies. There are also issues around what economists and business people refer to as the factors of production: the labor force, other resources (traditionally encapsulated in the term “land”), and capital. The quantity, quality and accessibility of these factors can vary dramatically from country to country and region to region.

History influences everything, with old alliances and animosities, and the attitudes attached to them, reaching deep into international business dynamics. Three of the world’s major economic powers—China, South Korea, and Japan—keep wary eyes on each other, not just as sources of business competition, but from a position of suspicion based on previous acts of aggression by the Japanese against both China and South Korea, and the role of China in the Korean War of the early 1950’s. Sakong Mok, a Visiting Scholar at the Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry, a Japanese based think tank, noted in 2012 that, “[it would be] wise for the new administration of both countries to deal with the diplomatic frictions such as territorial and historical issues to avoid future adverse effects on their economies.” Indeed, while cooperation and collaboration between Japanese and South Korean companies has grown dramatically in the past decade, there are still underpinnings of discomfort in working with former enemies.

The 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall this past November provided an opportunity to highlight the ongoing effects of what was once East and West Germany. I was reminded that what still feels somewhat like a current event to me, is, in fact, history to my students (most of whom were born after 1989). When talking about this in class one day, a usually fairly quiet student announced “I didn’t know there used to be two Germanys!” While it is easy to blame lack of quality instruction or lack of attention by the student for this, it just underscores the degree to which many students look at their high school years or their general education requirements as something they “just need to check off.” One of my goals in teaching international business is to underscore how interwoven the threads of their education are. The student later told me that he had started reading about both World War II and the Cold War. The idea that decades of history from the Cold War still influence economic disparities in the eastern and western regions of Germany is news to students, who have only known one Germany.

I also bring history into examples for specific terms. Strategic Trade Policy gets illustrated by Japan’s rebuilding of its economy after World War II and its planned development as an export power. One form of absolute advantage, first proposed by Adam Smith, is acquired advantage. This is when one country outperforms another—in absolute terms (as opposed to comparative advantage) based on the availability of a resource—in this case, a developed one. The fact that the Dutch and Portuguese were once expert traders and explorers is an excellent illustration of acquired advantage. The Dutch were such renowned traders that following the “Closed Country Edict” of 1635—Sakokurei—that led to over 200 years of isolation for Japan, the Japanese allowed a small community of Dutch traders to reside and operate near what is now Nagasaki. Returning to 20th century examples, I teach the concept of embargoes within the context of U.S. relations with Cuba and Iran.

As the world becomes more complicated, diverse, ambiguous and integrated, it is increasingly important that we teach students “how to learn” and how to connect what often appear to be disparate pieces of information with each other in a manner that will help students truly become “global citizens.” If anything, the need for interdependence and integration of fields of study in higher education is more important than ever, particularly between the humanities, social sciences, and pre-professional programs such as business.

6 responses

  1. Writing from Madrid, where I am (coincidentally) spending the week teaching students in an Executive MBA program cosponsored by IE and Brown. Professor Sharp is correct that business students are hungry for historical perspective, and also that they desperately need it! There seems to be some movement afoot, especially in Executive MBA programs, to stress “liberal arts content.” These students here are getting five 90-minute sessions on “Slavery and Capitalism,” where they read a good deal about the business history of the transatlantic slave trade and plantation complex (Justin Roberts, Stephen Behrendt, David Richardson and Paul Lovejoy), as well as the emergence of the Second Slavery and various technologies of coercion, finance, and accounting (Caitlin Rosenthal, Ed Baptist, Sven Beckert, et al.). A lot of this is news to these students, who are generally surprised to see slavery as an engine of modernity and who might otherwise presume that more markets automatically lead to more freedom. It had never occurred to me to want to teach business students, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised and I encourage other to take the leap if offered the opportunity.

    • I’ve had good experiences teaching business majors who occasionally show up in my history courses. (My university is STEM and professional program-centric, so I bring in bits of the history of business, science, etc, into my surveys.) I’ve found that when you can show how the lessons of history are relevant to the present, much as Chryssa does, they tend to respond well. For instance, your book, Scraping By, will serve as the underpinning for one of my lectures on the Early Republic this fall. And there will definitely be points at which Beckert, Baptist, etc, come in.

      • Dr. Parr, I’m glad those business students are appreciating your history courses! My students’ reactions to this “extra” material tends to be bi-modal: quite a few of them have those light bulb moments we professors live for and are drawn into the complexities; others, though, express frustration that they are expected to learn “more than business.” I can only hope that as they are exposed to more professors showing them the interdisciplinary connections, that they will start to accept the “more than” approach as the norm.

    • Dr. Rockman, thank you for your comment. I am delighted and intrigued to learn that history-focused sessions are being incorporated into an Executive MBA program. I also appreciate your encouraging other historians to follow your lead into business school classrooms. Of course, this also means that those of us working in business fields need to value the contribution of the humanities (and the social sciences) and create interdisciplinary opportunities for students and colleagues. Context is so important and we, as educators, are doing a disservice to students if we don’t help them see how the various academic fields support and enhance the study, and practice, of other fields.

      Also, thank you for the reading recommendations. I must confess that I was not familiar with these works. I am particularly looking forward to Dr. Rosenthal’s book, “From Slavery to Scientific Management.”

  2. Pingback: What We're Reading - May 28 - American Historical Association


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: