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History and Culture of Capitalism

Field Description

The history and culture of capitalism is a sharply contested research field. Scholars debate how capitalism itself should be understood, whether it marks a stage in historical development identified with industrialization or whether it can be found in a variety of forms at different historical periods.  For all the disagreements, capitalism, however defined, has proven surprisingly resilient in the face of its many challenges.

Students interested in the history and culture of capitalism will find relevant courses across campus: in Sociology (and in ISF 100A) students read the classical theorists of capitalism and learn about the latest cultural and economic developments; in Economic History, Economic Geography, and Economic Anthropology, students study changes in the nature, scope and embeddedness of market activities across time and space as well as transformations of monetary systems; in Industrial Relations and Operation Research, students learn about the organization of the production process; in Development Studies and Political Economy, students read about the history of economic thought; in Public Policy and Political Science, students study the varieties of capitalism; and in Legal Studies, students study the juridical structure of property laws and contracts from both an empirical and a theoretical perspective.

Students may focus on a variety of historical topics in the study of capitalism including the reasons for its early developments, the relations between early capitalism, slavery, and colonization, the historic changes in business forms, the meanings of consumption choices and labor systems; or students may also focus on the modalities of the modern economy– such as Keynesian regulation, neo-liberalism, financialization, the new enclosures, network capitalism or the return of patrimonial capitalism. All these developments can be investigated with an emphasis on culture, social hierarchies, systems of governance, as well as isolated economic phenomena.

Note on Consumption and Consumer Society

Consumption is a research topic which overlaps different institutional areas in both the public and private spheres. Taking diverse historical forms, consumption invites scholarship from political economy, cultural studies, sociology, anthropology, geography, and benefits from works by social theorists such as Karl Marx, Max Weber, Walter Benjamin, Zygmunt Bauman, Jean Baudrillard, and Henri Lefebvre, to name a few.

Following in the footsteps of Thorstein Veblen, Pierre Bourdieu, and Frank Trentmann, students can pursue historical questions about sumptuary laws, the cultural consequences of conspicuous consumption, and the making of distinctions, expressed through participation in the consumer society.

When we say, “you are what you consume,” are we mistaking possession with consumption? Using archival research, students can investigate how consumption has emerged to be a more visible and vital factor in ‘post-industrial’ societies, in which we identify more as consumers than producers. Employing qualitative research methods, students can explore the constant reshaping and communication of the self through consumption. Entailing identity shift from ascribed to achieved status roots in urbanization and industrialization, individuals take on the opportunity and challenge to self-realization. The price of this freedom in constructing a neoliberal self is the loss of security, a ramification of which is what we now call the ‘Fear of Missing Out’. Beyond individual identity, consumption can also be studied from the perspective of collective identity, ethnicity, geographical location, a sexual orientation, or citizenry, hence, given the circumstances, consumption can be politicalized.

Students interested in the topic of consumption can also explore what the true cost of production in the global commodity chain means. From coffee growers in Latin America, to women in Bangladesh working for fast fashion brands, to actors and agencies involved in the promotion of fair trade. In this line of inquiry, modern consumption links consuming regions and wealthy consumers in the Global North with producing regions and impoverished producers in the Global South.

ISF is not intended for students who wish to learn how to create brand loyalty, marketing strategies, or business development. Rather, ISF explores the social and ethical context of global consumption, its influences on society, and how such choices impact our understanding of life.

ISF advisers will reject the applications of students whose research in consumption implies an interest in marketing or business development. These students will be referred to the Haas School of Business; or it will be recommended that they pursue an M.B.A. after graduation.

Recent ISF Senior Theses

  • Catalyst or Deterrent? The Role of Diplomacy in the European Sovereign Debt Crisis
  • An Analysis of Changing Trends in the International System of Capitalism Emphasizing the Role of Sovereign Wealth Funds
  • Corporations and the Public Interest: A Comparison Corporate Social Responsibility in India and the UK
  • Financial De-Regulation and the Spanish Real Estate Bubble
  • Inside a Meltdown: Failed Politics, Misguided Financial Institutions, and the 2008 Financial Crisis
  • Microcredit and the Discourse of Empowerment: The Case of Jinotega, Nicaragua
  • The Reminbi’s Rise in Historical Context
  • The Underside of Trade Liberalization: Unjustifiable Consequences of Bilateral Trade Agreements. The cases of Mexico and Colombia
  • IKEA: A Historical Analysis of the Origins of an “Environmental Retailer”
  • Swedish Social Policies and their Effects on Female Employment and Family Life, 1980-2010
  • Do We Need Their Money to Develop? The Economic and Cultural Dynamics of Tourism in Cambodia
  • Have the Policies Worked? Two Decades of Economic Transition in Romania, 1990-2010
  • Socially Responsible Companies? A Comparative Analysis of Multinational Corporations Operating in China and the United Kingdom

Relevant UC Berkeley Courses

  • Political Science 138E: The Varieties of Capitalism: Political-Economic Systems of the World
  • Sociology 120: Economy and Society
  • Sociology 127: Development and Globalization
  • Economics 115: The World Economy in the 20th Century
  • Economics 151: Labor Economics
  • Development Studies C100: History of Development and Underdevelopment
  • History 100AC: History of American Capitalism: Business, Work, Economy
  • History 159B: European Economic History
  • History 160: The International Economy of the 20th Century
  • Interdisciplinary Studies 100F: Theorizing Modern Capitalism: Controversies and Interpretations
  • Business Administration 132: Financial Institutions and Markets
  • Global Poverty and Practice 115: Global Poverty: Challenges and Hopes in the New Millennium
  • Geography 159AC: The Southern Border
  • Environmental Economics and Policy C151: Economic Development

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