MA History / Course details

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
Capital & the Making of Modern Society

Course unit fact file
Unit code HIST66331
Credit rating 15
Unit level FHEQ level 7 – master's degree or fourth year of an integrated master's degree
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


It is impossible to understand the history of the modern world without understanding capitalism’s role in it. Issues of class and gender, race and nation, war and peace, religion and culture are inextricably bound up with the rise of capital. This module therefore asks two central questions: how did capitalism come to dominate the world? And what did and does it mean for society?

If we’re to find answers to these questions, we must think of capitalism in the long run, from its germination in the middle ages through to its global supremacy (and simultaneous state of crisis) in the twenty-first century. We will cover a broad geography: from Britain to Italy, from the U.S. to Africa, and from China to India. This also requires multidisciplinary perspectives: students will find that social and cultural approaches are just as valuable in understanding capitalism as are economic and intellectual history.

Following an initial chronological introduction, the module will address a number of important and on-going debates: What is money? Do markets need rules? Why did Europe grow rich while Asia did not? Does capitalism inevitably create inequalities of social class, gender and race? Can capitalism be ‘tamed’?

A crucial learning outcome will be that capitalism represents neither a recent nor an exclusively economic phenomenon: it is, and has always been, both culturally and socially embedded. By tapping into the rich history of capitalism’s experiences, successes, failures, variations and mutations, students will gain a deeper understanding of the world in which they live and the key issues facing policy-makers today.


Capital and the Making of Modern Society is an intellectually challenging and rewarding module that develops analytical, practical and interdisciplinary skills. It enables students to:


  1. explore key texts in order to gain a sound knowledge of historiographical issues and debates;


  1. acquire a solid understanding of the boundaries of social, cultural and economic history, as well as how those fields contribute to the study of capitalism;


  1. develop a critical understanding of the nature and limitations of primary sources available to historians, and so learn how to apply historical methods in appropriate contexts;


  1. explore how the study of history has benefited from dialogue with other academic disciplines (inter-/multi-disciplinarity);


  1. undertake in-depth investigation of case-studies of capitalism in Europe and the world across the early modern/modern period.


  1. understand basic concepts in economic history and some basic traits of the intellectual developments that have informed recent ‘mainstream’, neoliberal as well as heterodox narratives on capitalism.


The module draws upon the diverse expertise of Manchester’s economic and social historians. It is designed to equip students with those techniques and approaches that form the essential building blocs for undertaking independent historical research. Students will also develop transferable employment skills relevant to a range of careers including journalism, banking and finance, economic and social policy research, teaching, and academia.

Knowledge and understanding

  • Understand that capitalism is culturally embedded;
  • Engage critically with historical concepts, methods and theories of capitalism and their application to the writing of social and economic history in general;
  • Analyse histories of capitalism in a broad and comparative global historical context;
  • Apply historical approaches to contemporary debates on capitalism, economy, policies and practices;
  • Develop long-term perspectives on the history of capitalism that go beyond the twentieth century;
  • Understand how to work and think like historians, drawing on a wide range of written and non-written primary sources as well as secondary literature.

Intellectual skills

  • Undertake wide-ranging and sophisticated critical reviews of scholarly literature on capitalism and develop an independent and comparative perspective;
  • Select insights and approaches from one period, region or discipline and apply them to another;
  • Formulate an individual research question based on scholarly literature and primary sources, and adopt an appropriate method for addressing and answering that question;
  • Develop analytical skills which can be applied to primary or secondary material;
  • Synthesize and interpret in an incisive manner a wealth of information gathered and analysed through independent research;
  • Identify and assess the significance of historical context for contemporary debates and issues.

Practical skills

  • Apply and evaluate modern approaches to historical research;
  • Acquire practical experience in the use of primary sources, and understand how social and economic historians examine and critically engage with different materials;
  • Develop oral and written presentation skills to facilitate the effective communication of ideas;
  • Develop key skills in research preparation and career development, including organisational planning and self-management of goal-directed work.

Transferable skills and personal qualities

  • Develop and apply oral and group study skills by participating in seminars and taking an active role in group discussions & assignments [verbal communication skills and teamwork skills];
  • Engage in the critical evaluation of a range of primary source materials [analytical and critical reasoning skills];
  • Write reflective and well-structured pieces of work thereby demonstrating evidence of an ability to frame and develop an argument in a sustained manner appropriate to Masters level [written communication skills];
  • Work independently, both within seminars and through individual research [independent study skills];
  • Present work visually and orally via a poster presentation [verbal communication skills and design skills].

Assessment methods

Method Weight
Written assignment (inc essay) 100%

Feedback methods

  • Written (summative) feedback (BlackBoard/Tii) on final assignment (essay)
  • Additional one-to-one (formative) feedback (provided during office hours or by appointment)

Recommended reading

Joyce O. Appleby, The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010)


Edward Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014)


Sven Beckert Empire of Cotton: A Global History (London: Penguin 2014)


Francesco Boldizzoni, The Poverty of Clio: Resurrecting Economic History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011)


Jürgen Kocka, Capitalism. A Short History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016)


Katrine Marcal, Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? A Story about Women and Economics (London: Portobello, 2015)


Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-first Century, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (London: Belknap, 2014)


Prasannan Parthasarathi, Why Europe Grew Rich and Asia Did Not: Global Economic Divergence, 1600-1850 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011)


G.R. Searle, Morality and the Market in Victorian Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998)


Frank Trentmann, Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First (London: Allen Lane, 2016)

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Seminars 33
Independent study hours
Independent study 117

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Philipp Roessner Unit coordinator

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