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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: 2023-24

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 Semester 1 2023-24

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 have:

  • Acquired a broad knowledge of, and some of the scholarship relating to, social and economic history in Western and non-Western societies;
  • Demonstrated an ability to analyse critically, and make connections between, focussed studies from across time and place;
  • Practised 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

Students will attend a 1-hour briefing in week 1, then two lectures and a 1-hour discussion group in each of weeks 2-4, 6-8 and 10-11. Weeks 5 & 9 are Reading and Writing Weeks (RAW). Students prepare for and participate in sixteen lectures and eight discussion groups in all.

Lecture and discussion group topics are subject to variation, but are likely to include the following:

Block 1: Population, Environment and Climate

People and the Environment in the Medieval World
Population Change in the Early Modern Period
(Hu)Man and Beast: Domestication, Exploitation, Extinction
Climate History as Human History

Discussion groups:

Block 2: Social Structures

Insiders and Outsiders in the Medieval World
Communities of Obligation in the Early Modern World
The Mismeasurement of Man: Science and Race in the Age of Empire
Rich and Poor

Discussion groups:
Begging and Debt
Reckoning with Race

Block 3: Livelihoods

Labouring Relationships in the Medieval World
Early Modern Work
Work Hard, Play Less: the ‘Industrious Revolution’

Discussion groups:
Women’s Work
Industrialisation and its Limits

Block 4: Global exchanges: Commerce, Capital and Migration

Silk and Spices (and Pots and Plates): Trade Routes in the Medieval World
Silver, Sugar and Enslaves People: Trade in the Early Modern World
Cotton, Rubber and Ivory: Global Commodities in the Nineteenth Century
Moving Money, Changing Lives: Globalisations Compared, c.1870 to Present

Discussion groups:
Sugar and Spice
Big Business


Task Length % of module mark
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

For formative assessment work, students will produce a 1500-word essay in week 5.

For summative assessment, students will submit a 2000-word essay in the assessment period.


Task Length % of module mark
N/A 100

Module feedback

Following their formative assessment task, students will receive written feedback that will include comments and a mark within 10 working days of submission.

Work will be returned to students in their discussion groups and may be supplemented by the tutor giving some oral feedback to the whole group. All students are encouraged, if they wish, to discuss the feedback on their procedural work during their lecturers’ student hours. For more information, see the Statement on Feedback.

For summative assessment tasks, students will receive their provisional mark and written feedback within 25 working days of the submission deadline. Lecturers will then be available during student hours for follow-up guidance if required. For more information, see the Statement of Assessment.

Indicative reading

For semester-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:

  • 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 Tirthanker 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.