Australian Economic History: Transformations of an Interdisciplinary Field

Interdisciplinary research is the key to addressing the challenges of our current moment. Climate change, global development, pandemics and so on are infuriatingly complex, and rarely respect disciplinary boundaries. Interdisciplinary research integrates the insights of, and communicates between, larger groups, and is seen as the source of innovation and scientific breakthroughs, job-ready graduates and flexible real-world research. Despite widespread rhetoric in favour of interdisciplinarity, universities continue to reinforce the dominance of disciplines – everyone wants interdisciplinary research, but very few understand how to actively encourage it.

Economic history is one of the world’s oldest interdisciplinary fields. It has flourished in the empty spaces between the disciplines of economics and history, with its fortunes dependent on its ability to connect and prove relevant to these larger groups. This book is the first history of an interdisciplinary field in the Australian context, and the first account of Australian economic history that embeds the field’s progress with an understanding of interdisciplinarity and the practice and policy of the higher education sector. Through detailed analysis of texts, networks, ideas, and life histories, it examines the field’s key research themes, approaches, and interpretations. It highlights the lived experience of doing interdisciplinary research; the way scholars have connected with each other; and how they have navigated the opportunities and challenges of interdisciplinarity in Australian universities. The lessons from this field’s history are vital for scholars, universities and policymakers seeking to develop robust interdisciplinary conversations now and in the future.


Claire Wright, “Board games: Antecedents Australia’s interlocking directorates, 1910-2018’, Enterprise and Society, published online 14.01.2022.

The first systematic, longitudinal analysis of the antecedents of interlocking directorates in Australia. Argues that the network has been characterized by a relatively consistent long-run level of connection but substantial variation in the causes of interlocks. Interlocks have responded to the pragmatics of the board member occupation, with corporate governance regulations, the progress of the professions, banking and prudential practices, and the form of large organizations encouraging ties that were built on professional expertise and geographic proximity.

Claire Wright and Hannah Forsyth, ‘Managerial capitalism and white-collar professions: Social mobility in Australia’s corporate elite’, Labour History, 121.1: 99-127.

Examines the interdependence of managerial capitalism with the historical constitution of professional work in Australia. Uses data on the composition of top company board members to show a deep connection between the professional expertise and signals of legitimacy of the managerial class and the top layers of professional hierarchies. Low levels of professional enclosure in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries created opportunities for Australians from middle- and working-class backgrounds to move into the capitalist elite. As time went on these opportunities were reduced, as pathways to managerial roles themselves enclosed and managerialism – as a mode of production – increasingly dominated global capitalism.

Claire E. F. Wright, ‘The boarding pass: Pathways to corporate networks in early twentieth century Australia’, Australian Historical Studies, 50.4: 441-462.

Examines the network of board members of large Australian corporations in the 1910s. Social network analysis is used to identify the structure of the network, and prosopography is used to understand the characteristics of the group and the possible pathways through which interlocking directorates developed. The evidence reveals a heavily interlocked business sector in Australia in the 1910s. Multiple directorships were the result of professional skills, prior business experience, kinship, marriage, class, gender and empire.

Corinne Cortese and Claire Wright, ‘Developing a community of practice: Michael Gaffikin and critical accounting research’, Abacus, 54.3: 247-276.

This paper demonstrates the role of a community of practice in academic endeavour, focusing on the influence of place and the role of thought leaders in guiding academic development. Social network analysis (SNA) is used to visualize the 43 PhD supervisions undertaken by Michael Gaffikin during his career, and subsequent PhD supervisions of his students, and students of those students. SNA illustrates the structure of relationships, and the paths through which scholars learnt from one another, which we combine with qualitative analysis of recollections, acknowledgments, and doctoral theses. It highlights the importance of local communities for the development of research agendas, and the influence of PhD supervisors on the professional development of students.

Claire Wright and Simon Ville, ‘The evolution of an intellectual community through the words of its founders: Recollections of Australia’s economic history field’, Australian Economic History Review, 57.3: 345-367.

We interview a broad selection of academics who worked in the field of Australian economic history, approximately 1950–90, to provide a fuller understanding of the evolution of this interdisciplinary field. Our results confirm, complement and, in some cases, challenge conventional views.

Simon Ville and Claire Wright, ‘Neither a discipline nor a colony: Renaissance and re-imagination in economic history’, Australian Historical Studies, 47.2 (2017): 152-168.

Examines the intellectual and professional changes in the economic history field, particularly the failed experiment of economic history as a separate discipline, and the impact of major economic events have conspired to produce a renaissance in the field of study in the last decade and a half. We argue that economic history derives its main strength from its role as an interdisciplinary research field that draws upon and integrates with its closest disciplines.

Claire Wright, ‘Good wives and corporate leaders: Duality in women’s access to Australia’s top company boards, 1910-2018’, Business History special issue on women in corporate networks, published ahead of print 09.12.21.

This article examines Australian women in corporate leadership since 1910, revealing the role of networks and personal characteristics for access to positions of corporate influence. From 1910 to 1964, corporate women were cast as the ‘good wife’, with marriage and kinship affording some the ability to influence the networks of corporate men, and the fortunes of the companies they controlled. Since the 1980s, the number of women directors has grown substantially, and women have come to occupy central positions in director network. Efforts by government, regulators and professional associations have improved the number of women in leadership, their importance in the community, and their ability to integrate with core male board members. These insights highlight the multi-dimensional progress of Australian female board members, and the effectiveness of both external pressure and internal advocacy for improving corporate diversity.

Claire Wright, Simon Ville and David Merrett, ‘Quotidian routines: The cooperative practices of a business elite’, Enterprise and Society, 20.4: 826-60.

Investigates how quotidian interactions built trust and routines among a group of major firms in the Australian wool trade—a sector that required regular interaction to be effective. Deploying extensive archives of their meetings, we use social network analysis to examine interactions among the key group of firms and individuals. Through content analysis we infer the behavior and atmosphere of meetings. Finally, an evaluation of meeting agendas and outcomes demonstrates cooperation and a shared commitment to improving the operation of the wool trade in the 1920s.

Simon Ville and Claire Wright, ‘Buzz and pipelines: Knowledge and decision-making in a global business services precinct’, Journal of Urban History, 45.2: 191-210.

Provides a historical analysis of an urban services district through its examination of the Melbourne wool trade precinct in the 1920s. It is a study of both a local and global community whose social and spatial interaction facilitated large-scale trade of a complex commodity that has rarely been examined. Archival and geographic information systems (GIS) evidence reveals the “buzz” of the Melbourne precinct, created by local social and professional connections among wool brokers and buyers. “Pipelines” to wool growing and textile regions were developed through overseas branches of firms, with global knowledge exchanged through correspondence, telegraph, and migration. These features shaped the progress of the trade, facilitating improvements in its infrastructure and in the ability of Melbourne’s wool brokers and buyers to fulfill their role as intermediaries in the global supply chain for this complex commodity.

Claire Wright and Simon Ville, ‘The university tearoom: Informal public spaces as ideas incubators’, History Australia, 15.2: 236-254.

Informal spaces encourage the meeting of minds and the sharing of ideas. They serve as an important counterpoint to the formal, silo-like structures of the modern organisation, encouraging social bonds and discussion across departmental lines. We address the role of one such institution – the university tea room – in Australia in the post-WWII decades. Drawing on a series of oral history interviews with economic historians, we examine the nature of the tea room space, demonstrate its effects on research within universities, and analyse the causes and implications of its decline in recent decades.

Claire Wright and Simon Ville, ‘Visualising Interdisciplinary Agency: the life cycle of economic history in Australia’, Minerva, 55.3: 321-340.

Examines the nature and progress of interdisciplinary research fields. It argues that disciplinary and interdisciplinary research are complementary and that communicating infrastructures foster communication and integration between disciplines and the interdisciplinary research field to generate innovative knowledge. We apply this to the experience of economic history in Australia in the second half of the twentieth century to demonstrate the life cycle of a semi-permanent interdisciplinary research field.

Claire Wright, ‘The 1920s Viennese Intellectual Community as a Centre for Ideas Exchange: A Network Analysis’, History of Political Economy, 48.4 (2016): 593-634.

Visualises and analyses the network of scholars living and working in Vienna in the 1920s. By linking the structure of social relationships to differences in ideas between individuals and groups, argues that the nature of this intellectual community meant that scholars could easily move between different disciplines and that certain individuals assisted this process by acting as intermediaries between domains of knowledge.



ARC DECRA Fellow at UTS Business School


I acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of country throughout Australia and their connections to land, sea and community. In particular, I acknowledge that I live and work on the unceded lands of the Dharawal and Gadigal people. This always was, and always will be Aboriginal land. I pay my respect to their Elders past and present and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander peoples today.

All thoughts and opinions posted on this website are my own, and not reflective of the institutions I may represent.

Copyright 2022 Claire E. F. Wright