[We’re pleased to welcome authors Birgit Helene Jevnaker and Atle A. Raa of the Norwegian Business School, Oslo. They recently published an article in Management Learning entitled, “Circles of intellectual discovery in Cambridge and management learning: A discourse analysis of Joan Robinson’s The Economics of Imperfect Competition,” Below, Jevnaker and Raa describe the inspiration for the study and key findings:]
We share an interest in how ideas in management learning can originate from early thinkers and books. For instance, we are interested in how classic economic thinking has influenced management learning and practice. In our article, we elaborate and discuss how Joan Robinson – in interaction with a circle of other Cambridge economists – developed a new theory of the firm in imperfect competition. In her opinion, imperfect competition was the normal market situation. It could be a limited number of firms that represented the total supply of a consumer product like carbonated soft drinks.
Joan Violet Robinson was a member of an informal group of a younger generation of economists in Cambridge, UK. Through her first book, The Economics of Imperfect Competition, she actually became an innovator of new ideas and concepts. In this book, published in the wake of the Great Depression in the early 1930s, she explains new principles of how markets operate in different ways depending on the nature of the competition. By recognizing that some enterprises can affect prices and competition, this opened up for later, new thinking of how firms act and learn differently.
We were surprised by two things:
- First, she became a transformer of earlier ideas of perfect competition into ideas of imperfect competition. It is remarkable that a young woman economist, without any formal position in the academy of Cambridge, could quickly synthetize new thinking of how markets are different.
- Secondly, we noted that a younger generation of academics engaged collectively in critical and alternative theorizing. Robinson and her friend, the economist Richard F. Kahn, as well as other companions met regularly and discussed the strengths and weaknesses of each other’s arguments. We call this “epistemic interaction”. By this we understand mutual or reciprocal actions or influence in developing the grounds of knowledge and understanding among agents. In Greek, knowing and its possibility of understanding is episteme.
Through our discourse analysis of Robinson’s 1933-book and its emergence, we seek to explain our story beyond the perspective of a great economist finding new ideas by herself. Her book uncovers several important contributors; Robinson herself anchors her book in both established and new theorizing of firms and markets.
Joan Robinson points to the common existence of a limited number of firms with monopoly power over their offerings. Inspired by the 1930s reality as well as earlier writings, she offers new concepts, for example for exchange situations with only one buyer (monopsony). This is a situation where exploitation of labour can emerge, she points out. Robinson no doubt had a certain pedagogical style. She made many of the complicated economic ideas easier to understand by examples and metaphoric language. She claimed that the tool-users had been given “stones for bread” from the toolmakers (the economic thinkers). Still, she stressed that economics is one of the social sciences that study how society works.
From the circle of young economists’ debating in the 1930s, it is worth noting that firms and managers can be commonly acting within dissimilar or “imperfect” market conditions rather than principally “perfect” ones where firms are facing similar price mechanisms, often discussed in past economic literature. This critique and shift in understanding eventually opened up for management studies recognizing also fundamental differences in managerial knowledge, learning and strategizing. We think that more research on how earlier economic thinking has influenced management practice is a fruitful approach to the study of how management learning have developed through most of the 20th century up to our days. It is of general interest how new academic ideas come about.
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