Production and Consumption in World History, 1450-1914

2011 NEH Summer Seminar Overview

Planting the Sugar CaneOurs is a consumer society. But where do the products we consume originate? What histories do they conceal? Popular histories like Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: a Biography of the Fish That Changed The World (1999) have raised awareness that the food we put on our tables, the clothing we wear and the objects with which we surround ourselves all contain embedded histories that open doors onto a wider world.

The Summer Seminar on “Production and Consumption in World History” seeks through the study of these embedded histories to understand the successive transformation of the modern world economy over the period 1450-1914 and the role of individuals in it.

Using a variety of different materials (art history, material objects, histories of production and work, as well as of consumption and fashion, micro-histories and global histories) our seminar will explore the making of the modern world from the bottom up. By linking the biographies of commodities (what Arjun Appadurai has called “the social life of things”) with the “social biographies” of ordinary (and sometimes not so ordinary) people, we can capture the sweep of the world economy, while also putting people in the center of the lens.

The summer seminar on “Production and Consumption in World History” provides new ways for teachers and students to grasp how the world was made and remade, and the role of producers and consumers in this process of construction. It calls upon them to look at the past from unfamiliar angles, and to think through the logic of how connections developed, changed and were sustained over time.

Our approach derives from Sidney Mintz’s 1986 Sweetness and Power, which asks us to see production and consumption as “inter-digitated” (that is, inescapably bound up with one another). Inspired by Mintz, this seminar will use the interconnected histories of production and consumption for doing world history.

The curriculum integrates the history of the world economy from 1450 to 1914, as seen via the leading commodities in each historical era. Since I first began working with graduate students on world history three decades ago, I’ve become convinced that linking histories of individuals and world historical processes has the potential for transforming how we do world history.

During the seminar, participants will develop a “commodity biography” and a “social biography” website project. The completed projects can be included in the website of the University of California Santa Cruz Center for World History (see website for examples). In addition to these projects, participants will gain new perspectives on how the development of the world economy involved the linking of individuals and societies around the world by invisible threads of connection. They will also participate in the collective project of the development of a major bibliography of “Commodities in World History,” a prototype model of which is also posted on the Center’s website.