Interdisciplinary Studies Field

History and Culture of Capitalism

Field Description

The history and culture of capitalism is a sharply contested research field. Scholars debate how capitalism itself should be understood, whether it marks a stage in historical development identified with industrialization or whether it can be found in a variety of forms at different historical periods.  For all the disagreements, capitalism, however defined, has proven surprisingly resilient in the face of its many challenges.

Students interested in the history and culture of capitalism will find relevant courses across campus: in Sociology (and in ISF 100A) students read the classical theorists of capitalism and learn about the latest cultural and economic developments; in Economic History, Economic Geography, and Economic Anthropology, students study changes in the nature, scope and embeddedness of market activities across time and space as well as transformations of monetary systems; in Industrial Relations and Operation Research, students learn about the organization of the production process; in Development Studies and Political Economy, students read about the history of economic thought; in Public Policy and Political Science, students study the varieties of capitalism; and in Legal Studies, students study the juridical structure of property laws and contracts from both an empirical and a theoretical perspective.

Students may focus on a variety of historical topics in the study of capitalism including the reasons for its early developments, the relations between early capitalism, slavery, and colonization, the historic changes in business forms, the meanings of consumption choices and labor systems; or students may also focus on the modalities of the modern economy– such as Keynesian regulation, neo-liberalism, financialization, the new enclosures, network capitalism or the return of patrimonial capitalism. All these developments can be investigated with an emphasis on culture, social hierarchies, systems of governance, as well as isolated economic phenomena.

Note on Consumption and Consumer Society

Consumption is a research topic which overlaps different institutional areas in both the public and private spheres. Taking diverse historical forms, consumption invites scholarship from political economy, cultural studies, sociology, anthropology, geography, and benefits from works by social theorists such as Karl Marx, Max Weber, Walter Benjamin, Zygmunt Bauman, Jean Baudrillard, and Henri Lefebvre, to name a few.

Following in the footsteps of Thorstein Veblen, Pierre Bourdieu, and Frank Trentmann, students can pursue historical questions about sumptuary laws, the cultural consequences of conspicuous consumption, and the making of distinctions, expressed through participation in the consumer society.

When we say, “you are what you consume,” are we mistaking possession with consumption? Using archival research, students can investigate how consumption has emerged to be a more visible and vital factor in ‘post-industrial’ societies, in which we identify more as consumers than producers. Employing qualitative research methods, students can explore the constant reshaping and communication of the self through consumption. Entailing identity shift from ascribed to achieved status roots in urbanization and industrialization, individuals take on the opportunity and challenge to self-realization. The price of this freedom in constructing a neoliberal self is the loss of security, a ramification of which is what we now call the ‘Fear of Missing Out’. Beyond individual identity, consumption can also be studied from the perspective of collective identity, ethnicity, geographical location, a sexual orientation, or citizenry, hence, given the circumstances, consumption can be politicalized.

Students interested in the topic of consumption can also explore what the true cost of production in the global commodity chain means. From coffee growers in Latin America, to women in Bangladesh working for fast fashion brands, to actors and agencies involved in the promotion of fair trade. In this line of inquiry, modern consumption links consuming regions and wealthy consumers in the Global North with producing regions and impoverished producers in the Global South.

ISF is not intended for students who wish to learn how to create brand loyalty, marketing strategies, or business development. Rather, ISF explores the social and ethical context of global consumption, its influences on society, and how such choices impact our understanding of life.

ISF advisers will reject the applications of students whose research in consumption implies an interest in marketing or business development. These students will be referred to the Haas School of Business; or it will be recommended that they pursue an M.B.A. after graduation.

Recent ISF Senior Theses

  • Catalyst or Deterrent? The Role of Diplomacy in the European Sovereign Debt Crisis
  • An Analysis of Changing Trends in the International System of Capitalism Emphasizing the Role of Sovereign Wealth Funds
  • Corporations and the Public Interest: A Comparison Corporate Social Responsibility in India and the UK
  • Financial De-Regulation and the Spanish Real Estate Bubble
  • Inside a Meltdown: Failed Politics, Misguided Financial Institutions, and the 2008 Financial Crisis
  • Microcredit and the Discourse of Empowerment: The Case of Jinotega, Nicaragua
  • The Reminbi’s Rise in Historical Context
  • The Underside of Trade Liberalization: Unjustifiable Consequences of Bilateral Trade Agreements. The cases of Mexico and Colombia
  • IKEA: A Historical Analysis of the Origins of an “Environmental Retailer”
  • Swedish Social Policies and their Effects on Female Employment and Family Life, 1980-2010
  • Do We Need Their Money to Develop? The Economic and Cultural Dynamics of Tourism in Cambodia
  • Have the Policies Worked? Two Decades of Economic Transition in Romania, 1990-2010
  • Socially Responsible Companies? A Comparative Analysis of Multinational Corporations Operating in China and the United Kingdom

Relevant UC Berkeley Courses

  • Political Science 138E: The Varieties of Capitalism: Political-Economic Systems of the World
  • Sociology 120: Economy and Society
  • Sociology 127: Development and Globalization
  • Economics 115: The World Economy in the 20th Century
  • Economics 151: Labor Economics
  • Development Studies C100: History of Development and Underdevelopment
  • History 100AC: History of American Capitalism: Business, Work, Economy
  • History 159B: European Economic History
  • History 160: The International Economy of the 20th Century
  • Interdisciplinary Studies 100F: Theorizing Modern Capitalism: Controversies and Interpretations
  • Business Administration 132: Financial Institutions and Markets
  • Global Poverty and Practice 115: Global Poverty: Challenges and Hopes in the New Millennium
  • Geography 159AC: The Southern Border
  • Environmental Economics and Policy C151: Economic Development

Allen, Robert C. 2009. The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Appleby, Joyce. 2010. The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Baptist, Edward E. 2014. The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. New York: Basic Books.

Boltanski, Luc, and Eve Chiapello. 2007. The New Spirit of Capitalism. London, England: Verso.

Bowles, Samuel. 2005. Understanding Capitalism: Competition, Command, and Change. New York: Oxford University Press.

Braudel, Fernand. 1981-1984. Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century. 3 Vols. New York: Harper and Row.

Brewer, John, and Roy Porter, eds. 2013. Consumption and the World of Goods. New York: Routledge.

Centeno, Miguel A., and Joseph N. Cohen. 2010. Global Capitalism: A Sociological Perspective. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Chang, Ha-Joon. 2012. 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism. New York: Bloomsbury Press.

Collins, Randall, Michael Mann, Craig Calhoun, Georgi Derluguian, and Immanuel Wallerstein. 2013. Does Capitalism Have a Future? New York: Oxford University Press.

Cudd, Ann, and Nancy Holmstrom. 2011. Capitalism, For and Against: A Feminist Debate. New York: Cambridge University Press.

De Vries, Jan. 2008. The Industrious Revolution: Consumer Behavior and the Household Economy, 1650 to the Present. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Eichengreen, Barry. 2008. Globalizing Capital: A History of the International Monetary System. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Esping-Anderson, Gosta. 1990. The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Frank, Andre Gunder. 1998. ReORIENT: Global Economy in the Asian Age. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Frieden, Jeffry A. 2007. Global Capitalism: Its Fall and Rise in the Twentieth Century. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Fulcher, James. 2004. Capitalism: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gereffi, Gary, and Miguel Korzeniewicz, eds. 1993. Commodity Chains and Global Capitalism. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Gerschenkron, Alexander. 1962. Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Belknap Press.

Goldstone, Jack. 2008. Why Europe? The Rise of the West in World History 1500-1850. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.

Hall, Peter A., and David Soskice, eds. 2001. Varieties of Capitalism: The Institutional Foundations of Comparative Advantage. New York: Oxford University Press.

Harvey, David. 2005. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. Ad

Hirschman, Albert O. 1997. The Passions and the Interests. Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Hobsbawm, Eric. 1996. The Age of Capital: 1848-1875. New York: Vintage.

Li, Tania Murray. 2014. Land’s End: Capitalist Relations on an Indigenous Frontier. Durham, NC: Duke University Press Books.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. [1848]1994. “The Communist Manifesto.” Pp. 157–86 in Karl Marx. Selected Writings, edited by Lawrence H. Simon. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company.

McCloskey, Deirdre N. 2010. Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

McDonough, Terrence, Michael Reich, and David M. Kotz, eds. 2010. Contemporary Capitalism and Its Crises: Social Structure of Accumulation Theory for the 21st Century. New York: Cambridge University Press.

McKendrick, Neil, John Brewer, and J. H. Plumb. 1982. The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Mueller, Dennis C., ed. 2012. The Oxford Handbook of Capitalism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Parry, Jonathan, and Maurice Bloch, eds. 1989. Money and the Morality of Exchange. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Piketty, Thomas. 2014. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Polanyi, Karl. 1944. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Pomeranz, Kenneth. 2001. The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy. Revised edition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Rajan, Raghuram G., and Luigi Zingales. 2003. Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists: Unleashing the Power of Financial Markets to Create Wealth and Spread Opportunity. New York: Crown Business.

Robinson, William I. 2004. A Theory of Global Capitalism: Production, Class, and State in a Transnational World. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Rodinson, Maxime. 2007. Islam and Capitalism. London, England: Saqi Books.

Sayer, Andrew. 2005. The Moral Significance of Class. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Schumpeter, Joseph A. 2008. Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. New York: Harper Perennial.

Sennett, Richard. 2007. The Culture of the New Capitalism. 1 edition. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Smith, Adam. 1976. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Smith, Thomas C. 1989. Native Sources of Japanese Industrialization, 1750-1920. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Solow, Barbara L., and Stanley L. Engerman, eds. 2004. British Capitalism and Caribbean Slavery: The Legacy of Eric Williams. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Speth, James Gustave. 2009. The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Stearns, Peter N. 2012. The Industrial Revolution in World History. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Thompson, E. P. 1966. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Vintage.

Tsuru, Shigeto. 1996. Japan’s Capitalism: Creative Defeat and Beyond. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Wallerstein, Immanuel.  2004. World-System Analysis: An Introduction, Duke University Press, Durham, NC.

Williamson, Oliver E. 1985. The Economic Institutions of Capitalism. New York: Free Press.

Weber, Max. 2002. The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism and Other Writings. Edited and translated by Peter Baehr and Gordon C. Wells. New York: Penguin Books.

Zelizer, Viviana A. 2013. Economic Lives: How Culture Shapes the Economy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Campus Resources