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Societies & Economies in World History - HIS00086C

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  • Department: History
  • Module co-ordinator: Prof. Helen Cowie
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: C
  • Academic year of delivery: 2021-22

Module summary

This module is designed to enable students to compare the fundamental characteristics of human societies across time and space. We consider how societies were structured in the past, how changing ideas about class, race and gender shaped the rights and privileges of different social groups and how the form and function of the family unit evolved over time. We also explore how economic shifts impacted on the lives of people across the globe, triggering industrialisation, urbanisation and mass migration. The module emphasises the complex social dynamics of social and economic development, showing how demand for labour or commodities in one part of the world could dramatically impact societies in other continents. The growing European taste for sugar, for instance, accelerated colonial expansion in Brazil and the Caribbean and gave rise to a brutal slave trade in West Africa that saw some 12.5 million people forcibly shipped across the Atlantic. We also focus on the changing relationship between human beings and the natural world, exploring human efforts to control, exploit and conserve other species. The human race has impacted significantly on the planet, clearing forests, domesticating plants and animals and hunting some species to extinction – from the dodo to the Tasmanian tiger. But natural phenomena have also had a dramatic impact on human society, shaping agricultural practice, determining settlement patterns and sometimes causing major population crashes; the Black Death afflicted much of Asia and Europe in the 14th century, killing between 30-60% of the population, while the indigenous populations in the Americas suffered a demographic collapse in the sixteenth century following the introduction of Old World diseases. How did humans cope with phenomena such as earthquakes, drought and disease in the past and how did they interpret them? To what extent are the 21st-century challenges of globalisation and rapid climate change really ‘new’?

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Autumn Term 2021-22

Module aims

The aims of this module are:

  • To help students understand a broad sweep of social and economic history over the past 1500 years

  • To encourage students to explore a wide range of chronologies and approaches to the study of social and economic history, both Western and non-Western, across time and place

  • To familiarize students with the ways in which historians understand social and economic developments in past societies

  • To introduce students to many of the different areas of study available to them in Stages 2 and 3

Module learning outcomes

Students who complete this module successfully will:

  • Acquired a broad knowledge of, and some of the scholarship relating to, political history in Western and non-Western societies;

  • Demonstrated an ability to analyse critically, and make connections between, focussed studies from across time and place;

  • Practiced core skills necessary to a history degree, notably note-taking, critical analysis, and the ability to form arguments orally and in written work, through effective contributions to seminar activities, oral presentation, essay-writing, and group work

  • Demonstrated understanding of, and the ability to construct arguments about, political changes and continuities

Module content

Teaching Programme:

Teaching will be in 2 x 1 hour lectures each week, taught over 8 weeks. 1 x 1 hour discussion seminar in Weeks 1, 2, 4, and 6 and 8 and 1 x 2 hour discussion seminar with formative work session in Weeks 3, 5, 7, and 9. Each week students will do reading and preparation in order to be able to contribute to discussion and complete the formative skills tasks.

The provisional outline for the module is as follows:

1. Briefing session

Block 1: Population, Environment and Climate


1. People and the Environment in the Medieval World

2. Population Change in the Early Modern Period

3. (Hu)Man and Beast: Domestication, Exploitation, Extinction

4. Climate History as Human History


1. Disease

2. Extinction

Block 2: Social Structures

5. Insiders and Outsiders in the Medieval World

6. Communities of Obligation in the Early Modern World

7. The Mismeasurement of Man: Science and Race in the Age of Empire

8. Rich and Poor


3. Begging and Debt

4. Reckoning with Race

Block 3: Livelihoods

9. Labouring Relationships in the Medieval World

10. Early Modern Work

11. Industrialisation

12. Work Hard, Play Less: the ‘Industrious Revolution’


5. Women’s Work

6. Industrialisation and its Limits

Block 4: Global exchanges: Commerce, Capital and Migration

13. Silk and Spices (and Pots and Plates): Trade Routes in the Medieval World

14. Silver, Sugar and Enslaves People: Trade in the Early Modern World

15. Cotton, Rubber and Ivory: Global Commodities in the Nineteenth Century

16. Moving Money, Changing Lives: Globalisations Compared, c.1870 to Present


7. Sugar and Spice

8. Big Business


Task Length % of module mark
Essay 1500 words
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

Formative work:

Students will complete four formative assessment tasks during the autumn term, comprised of exercises on note taking; referencing; making an argument and structuring essays.

Students will work in groups to complete these tasks in tutor-led sessions, for which they will be expected to carry out preliminary reading and preparation.

Students have the option of submitting one formative essay (max 1,500 words) for each Introduction to World History module they take. These essays can be submitted in weeks 5, 6 or 7, at the student’s discretion. It is not recommended that students submit more than one essay in any single week. All students are encouraged to submit at least one essay.

Summative work:

Students will choose one of the four essay questions and submit a 1,500-word assessed essay in Week 1 of Spring Term. It is worth 100% of the course mark.


Task Length % of module mark
Essay 1500 words
N/A 100

Module feedback

Students will receive verbal feedback during the formative work classes and written feedback on optional formative essays within 20 working days of submission. For more information, see the Statement on Feedback.

For the summative assessment task, students will receive their provisional mark and written feedback within 20 working days of the submission deadline. 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, you might like to look at the following items of preliminary reading:

  • C.A. Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914 (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004)
  • Benjamin z. Kedar and Merry Wiesner Hanks (eds.), The Cambridge World History, Volume 5: Expanding Webs of Exchange and Conflict, 500CE–1500CE (Cambridge, CUP, 2015)
  • Giorgio Riello and Tirthankar Roy (eds.), Global Economic History (London: Bloomsbury, 2018)

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.