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Scandinavian Economic History Review

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Politics back in business? State-owned enterprises in recent history

Abstract deadline
30 April 2024

Manuscript deadline
30 October 2024

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Special Issue Editor(s)

Pasi Nevalainen, University of Jyväskylä
[email protected]

Ola Innset, Norwegian Business School
[email protected]

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Politics back in business? State-owned enterprises in recent history


The financial crises, the global pandemic, and the recent escalation of global political tensions have thrust the imperative of states to safeguard their strategic economic interests into the spotlight (Megginson, 2017; Tihanyi et al., 2019). While the concept of state capitalism spans a wide spectrum of industrial policy tools for proactive government intervention (Wright et al., 2021), the enduring presence of state ownership in companies offers a tangible avenue for delving into the ever-evolving interplay between government and business (Musacchio et al., 2015; Musacchio & Lazzarini, 2014). State-owned enterprises (SOEs) navigate the delicate equilibrium between political imperatives and commercial pursuits, reflecting the historical dynamics between the two spheres.

In public discourse, SOEs primarily gain attention due to their non-business dimensions. For instance, on June 17th, 2023, The Economist reported on Brazilian, Chinese, Egyptian, Indian, and Russian SOEs closely aligned with nationalistic goals. These objectives encompass promoting domestic industries potentially at the cost of environmental concerns, nurturing a nation's technological prowess, and utilizing state-owned entities for purposes such as espionage, military reinforcement, or the pursuit of geopolitical agendas. Interestingly, state involvement extends beyond these specific economies. Numerous Western governments exhibit a growing inclination to secure strategic resources and semi-finished products through diverse forms of corporate support.

In the realm of business history, SOEs have emerged as pivotal contributors to the economic progress of 20th-century Europe, where they served as central instruments of industrialization policy (e.g., Kuisma, 1993; Lie, 2016; Colli et al., 2016). However, from the 1990s onwards, research began to emphasize the deregulation of former state monopolies and the privatization of state-owned companies (e.g., Toninelli, 2000; Parker, 2009, 2013). In the context of economic globalization, SOEs traditionally linked to nationalistic industrial policies seemed to lose their relevance and legitimation. Consequently, their eventual disappearance, especially from Western economies, was anticipated (Toninelli, 2008). Subsequent research predominantly focused on the adaptation of remaining SOEs to market liberalization and privatization (e.g., Friedl & Lakomaa, 2022; Iwashita, 2022; Nevalainen, 2017) as well as to other dimensions of industrial policy (Lamberty & Nevers, 2020; Nevalainen & Yliaska, 2020).

Despite recognizing that the SOEs has transformed rather than dissolved (e.g., Clifton et al., 2006; Christiansen, 2011), there has been limited exploration of those SOEs that retained their state ownership. Meanwhile, the 2010s once again witnessed a growing interest in state ownership, but this time within the international business research, and with a focus on emerging economies like China (Bruton et al., 2015). In this context, state-supported companies were seen as exceptions that challenge central assumptions of the globalizing free trade. While mostly quantitative studies largely reaffirm established notions, such as SOEs’ lower efficiency and innovativeness compared to private companies (Megginson, 2017; Cuervo-Cazurra & Li, 2021), these studies typically fail to delve deeply into the dynamics of the state, institutional contexts, and business (Aguilera et al., 2021).

Remarkably, state ownership remains a significant phenomenon in developed Western nations too. According to the OECD (2018), state ownership continues to exert considerable influence in several member countries, particularly notable in Norway and Finland. In contrast, other Nordic countries Sweden and Denmark have taken divergent paths. Recent research has indeed acknowledged this issue and called for a more nuanced consideration of the institutional context (cf. Fellman et al., 2008; MacKenzie et al., 2021). In the economic history of Nordic nations, SOEs have often served as instruments for nurturing national industries, frequently accompanied by nationalist and protectionist attributes (Lie, 2016;  Nevalainen & Yliaska, 2021; Christensen, 2023). However, SOEs now operate more in alignment with private enterprises, especially since formerly regulated markets have opened to international competition (Colli & Nevalainen). The enduring presence of state ownership in companies underscores SOEs’ adaptability to adapt to changing institutional landscapes (Bruton et al., 2015). The paradox in the development of recent decades is that while state ownership has been surprisingly permanent, state ownership has been accompanied by a consensus that states refrain from active ownership policies (see Grøgaard et al., 2019; Christensen, 2023), which challenges the established notions of state ownership.

Nonetheless, there are instances where politics assumes a significant role in shaping a company's activities. Cheung et al. (2020) argue that while state-owned companies may conform to market logic, state ownership also enables a swift return to statist logics of operation. Recent cases indeed encompass state-supported airlines or energy companies. Many of these cases have already raised a public debate about goals and means of state owner control, especially when a company operating under market conditions has been deemed to be doing favors for its state owner. Consequently, the concept of state ownership in companies in developed countries remains enigmatic.

Aims and Scope of This Special Issue

The primary objective of this special issue is to achieve a deeper comprehension of the history of state ownership in companies, particularly post-1970s, within the framework of developed economies. We extend a cordial invitation to empirical papers that thoroughly scrutinize state ownership in companies from diverse perspectives. These papers can address shifts in state ownership policies, ownership management, specific industries, or individual companies to name but a few possible avenues for research. The research can encompass multiple countries, focus on a single country, company, or even individual experiences. While various theoretical discussions can underpin the studies, they must align with the domain of historical research. We also encourage papers to present fresh insights into the phenomenon of state ownership from entirely new and innovative perspectives.

Submission Instructions

Potential topics could encompass themes such as:

  • Change in the foundations of state ownership after the 1970s:
    • Rationales of state ownership
    • Legitimacy of state ownership in different stakeholder groups
    • Corporate governance structures and companies’ attachment to the government policies
  • Corporate cases that illustrate the impact of state ownership:
    • How and what kind of political objectives have been incorporated into state-owned companies’ strategies?
    • Cases that illustrate political interventions in companies’ daily operations
    • The ways in which state-owned companies try to influence politicians, regulation and ownership control
    • Transformation of the national “state-owned company model”
  • Topics related to state ownership and state capitalism more generally:
    • Cases which illustrate government (private) business relationships
    • Support for national flagship companies
    • Corporate political activity


  • Paper development workshop in connection with EBHA 2024 or/and Baltic connections 2024. Participation is not a prerequisite for the acceptance of the paper in the special issue.
  • Accepted papers will be published by December 2025. Please note that the final publication decision is made by the Editor-in-Chief of SEHR.

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