2011 NEH Summer Seminar


Ours is a consumer society. But where do the products we consume originate? What histories do they conceal? Popular histories like Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: a Biography of the Fish That Changed The World (1999) have raised awareness that the food we put on our tables, the clothing we wear and the objects with which we surround ourselves all contain embedded histories that open doors onto a wider world.

The Summer Seminar on “Production and Consumption in World History” sought, through the study of these embedded histories, to understand the successive transformation of the modern world economy over the period 1450-1914 and the role of individuals in it.

Using a variety of different materials (art history, material objects, histories of production and work, as well as of consumption and fashion, micro-histories and global histories) our seminar explored the making of the modern world from the bottom up. By linking the biographies of commodities (what Arjun Appadurai has called “the social life of things”) with the “social biographies” of ordinary (and sometimes not so ordinary) people, we captured the sweep of the world economy, while also putting people in the center of the lens.

The summer seminar on “Production and Consumption in World History” provided new ways for teachers and students to grasp how the world was made and remade, and the role of producers and consumers in this process of construction. It called upon them to look at the past from unfamiliar angles, and to think through the logic of how connections developed, changed and were sustained over time.

Our approach derived from Sidney Mintz’s 1986 Sweetness and Power, which asks us to see production and consumption as “inter-digitated” (that is, inescapably bound up with one another). Inspired by Mintz, this seminar used the interconnected histories of production and consumption for doing world history.

The curriculum integrated the history of the world economy from 1450 to 1914, as seen via the leading commodities in each historical era. Since I first began working with graduate students on world history three decades ago, I’ve become convinced that linking histories of individuals and world historical processes has the potential for transforming how we do world history.

During the seminar, participants developed a “commodity biography” and a “social biography” website project. The completed projects will be included here on our website. In addition to these projects, participants gained new perspectives on how the development of the world economy involved the linking of individuals and societies around the world by invisible threads of connection. They also participated in the collective project of the development of a major bibliography of “Commodities in World History,” a prototype model of which is also posted on our site’s bibliography page.