Conference “The power of corporate networks: A comparative and historical perspective”

University of Lausanne, August 27th-28th 2012

Organizers: Thomas David (Lausanne University), Gerarda Westerhuis (Utrecht University) and Stéphanie Ginalski (Lausanne University)

This conference explores one particular aspect of a country’s economic organization: the networks between companies and their leaders. Its purpose is to provide a unique long-term analysis of the rise, consolidation and decline of these networks in fourteen European and non-European countries in the 20th and early 21st centuries. These networks were at the heart of the functioning of national economies during the 20th century, but became increasingly questioned during the last thirty years, under the pressure of globalization and financialisation. This conference has both a historical and a comparative perspective and in this way contributes to both literatures on corporate networks and corporate governance.

The conference will contribute to the literature on corporate networks in two ways. First, it will revisit old debates in corporate networks literature such as the interactions between the industrial and financial sectors or the role of state-owned enterprises. By integrating studies from East European, Asian and Latin American countries, the comparative perspective of the workshop will get out from the developed European and/or Anglo-Saxon view which dominates until now the literature on corporate networks. New topics that have hardly been discussed in the existing literature on corporate networks will thus be raised. An example of a topic that would merit more attention are family ties, since they seem to play an important role in economic regimes in many countries in the early 20th century and even until the 1980s.

Second, the conference incorporates the analysis of corporate as well as interpersonal networks, combining two units of analysis (firms and individuals). This strategy will help to overcome a too deterministic view, focusing mainly on networks between firms and leaving aside the role of the corporate elites, which leads to the view that changes in corporate strategies regarding interlocks are simply an automatic and logical reaction to changes in the organization’s environment.

The conference raises new issues for research on the typology and the evolution of corporate governance. First, the analysis of corporate networks reveals other archetypes than the two models put forward by the Varieties of Capitalism literature: Liberal Market economies (LME) and Coordinated Market Economies (CME). Some scholars, working on corporate networks, have brought the state back in and put forward another variety called “state-influenced market economies”. Others have shown the importance of family capitalism as yet another type. Second, historical changes in the network structure reveal the different paths of economic regimes followed by countries. The existence of a strong corporate network, for example, can hinder economic regimes to change. Better and more detailed knowledge of network structures can thus contribute to our understanding why some economies change earlier and/or more profoundly to major external developments such as globalization and financialisation than others.

This conference is financed by the Swiss National Science Foundation, the Social and Economic History Institute, the Political and International Studies Institute and the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences of the Lausanne University.