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Unfree Labour - HIS00074H

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  • Department: History
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Shane O'Rourke
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: H
  • Academic year of delivery: 2017-18

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching cycle
A Spring Term 2017-18

Module aims

The aims of this module are:

  • To enable students to undertake an independently chosen, designed and managed project;
  • To provide the opportunity to work extensively with original historical material;
  • To allow students to explore a chosen aspect of the past at length; and
  • To engage with opinions and debates around a specific topic using original research.

Module learning outcomes

Students who complete this module successfully will:

  • Grasp the key approaches and challenges involved in comparative history;
  • Understand a range of aspects of the topic or theme which they have studies;
  • Be able to use and evaluate comparative approaches to that topic or theme; and
  • Have learned to discuss and write about comparative history.

Module content

Unfree labour, ranging from apprenticeship and convict labour to serfdom and slavery, has been common across time and place. This module explores some of the main types of unfree labour in a variety of geographical and temporal settings, including ancient Greece, the post-emancipation USA, imperial Russia, and present-day Britain. It will not only test the thesis that capitalist economic expansion led to the disappearance of unfree labour but also evaluate the distinctive characteristics of unfree labour. In particular, the seminars will address such issues as: the legality or illegality of unfree labour; the relationship between the unfree labourer and his employer; the languages of unfree and free labour; the responses to unfree labour, including international treaties and resistance by unfree labourers; and gender differences and labour experiences. But the seminars will also pose more general questions about unfree labour. Why did certain societies prefer unfree to free labour? What is the link between capitalism and unfree labour? And how useful is the distinction between unfree labour and free labour?

Teaching Programme:
The module will be taught in weeks 2-10 of the spring term. Students prepare for and participate in nine weekly three-hour seminars.

Seminar topics are likely to include the following:

  1. Studying Unfree Labour: Definitions and Debates
  2. Serfdom
  3. Slavery
  4. Bonded Labour
  5. Tenant labour
  6. Convict Labour
  7. Labour Camps
  8. Transnational Migrant Labour
  9. The Unfree and Free Labour Distinction:Method of Analyis or Paralysis?


Task Length % of module mark
24 hour open exam
Unfree Labour
8 hours 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

Students will write a 2,000-word procedural essay for formative assessment using a comparative approach due in either week 5 or week 7 of the spring term.

For summative assessment students take a 24-hour open exam which takes place in the assessment period of the summer term, in which they answer one question.


Task Length % of module mark
24 hour open exam
Unfree Labour
8 hours 100

Module feedback

Formative assessments

  • Within two working weeks of the completion of the assessment task. For more information, see the Statement on Feedback.

Summative assessments

  • Within six working weeks of the completion of the assessment task. For more information, see the Statement on Assessment.

Indicative reading

For term time reading, please refer to the module VLE site. Before the course starts, we encourage you to look at the following items of preliminary reading:

Bales, Kevin. Understanding Global Slavery: A reader. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

Brass, Tom, and Marcel Van Der Linden, eds, Free and Unfree Labour: The Debate Continues. New York: Peter Lang AG, 1997.

Brass, Tom. Labour regime change in the twenty-first century [electronic resource] : unfreedom, capitalism, and primitive accumulation. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2011.

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.