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Falling for Growth: Capitalism in the Modern World - HIS00122M

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  • Department: History
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Venus Bivar
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2020-21

Module summary

Growth as an economic category first emerged in the United States and Britain, as part of state efforts to manage the deleterious economic and social consequences of the Great Depression. John Maynard Keynes published his landmark The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money in 1936 and the nascent field of macroeconomics took off, encouraging states to take responsibility for the functioning of the economy and the creation of opportunities for increasing the personal wealth of its citizens. The promise of growth quickly went global, extending from the trading floors of Wall Street to job creation in western Europe and irrigation in west Africa. The new endgame was adopted everywhere: capitalist or communist, rich or poor, 'developed' or 'undeveloped'.

In this course we will examine the recent literature on economic growth, which is fast becoming a sub-field within the history of capitalism. While the term itself was not coined until the mid-twentieth-century, one of the primary aims of this course is to evaluate the degree to which economic growth was an operational category in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, masquerading under the language of increase, progress, and expansion. That said, we will also analyse how the growth of the twentieth century differed from these earlier manifestations, tied to the consolidation of the nation state and the rise of national income accounting.


Geographically, the course will cover Europe, the United States, and their empires. Students are, however, welcome to stray further afield in their own research projects.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching cycle
A Autumn Term 2020-21

Module aims

The module aims to:

  • Develop skills of source analysis and interpretation;
  • Assess a range of source material and relevant secondary works; and
  • Develop students’ powers of evidence-based historical argument, both orally and in writing.

Module learning outcomes

After completing this module students should have:

  • an understanding of how the recent academic interest in economic growth relates to the existing literature on the history of capitalism;
  • the ability to distinguish between twentieth-century forms of economic growth and its precusors of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries ;
  • familiarity with a variety of historical examples of how growth was pursued by state and economic interests in different national and international contexts, as well as the ability to draw conclusions about the nature of growth by comparing these different examples.

Module content

Teaching Programme:

Students will attend eight weekly two-hour seminars in weeks 2-9.

The provisional outline for the module is as follows:

1. Growth and Capitalism
2. Growth in the Eighteenth Century
3. Capitalism and Coal
4. GDP: The World's Most Important Number
5. Growth and the Third World
6. Self-Devouring Growth in Botswana
7. Capitalism and Oil
8. The Limits to Growth


Task Length % of module mark
Essay 4,000 words
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

Students will complete a 2,000-word procedural essay for formative assessment, due in week 6 of the autumn term. They will then submit a 4,000-word assessed essay for summative assessment in week 2 of the spring term.

For further details about assessed work, students should refer to the Taught Masters Degrees Statement of Assessment.


Task Length % of module mark
Essay 4,000 words
N/A 100

Module feedback

Following their formative assessment task, students will receive written feedback consisting of comments and a mark within 10 working days of submission. All students are encouraged, if they wish, to discuss the feedback on their procedural work during their tutor’s student hours. 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. The tutor will then be available during student hours for follow-up guidance if required. For more information, see the Statement of 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:

Hannah Appel. The Licit Life of Capitalism: US Oil in Equatorial Guinea. Duke University Press, 2019.

Fredrik Albritton Jonsson, "The Origins of Cornucopianism: A Preliminary Genealogy," Critical Historical Studies 1, No. 1 (Spring 2014), pp. 151-168.

Philipp Lepenies. The Power of a Single Number: A Political History of GDP. Translated by Jeremy Gaines. Columbia University Press, 2016.

Julie Livingston. Self-Devouring Growth: A Planetary Parable as Told from Southern Africa. Duke University Press, 2019.


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.