Political Economy and Culture in Global History

The project’s original statement of intent:

This series of meetings will bring together historians and other scholars working on a wide range of geographical areas, to discuss the relations between political economy and cultural practices within the framework of global history. The project grows out of an earlier reading group held in Oxford through 2018, discussing ‘Modes of Production’ and related questions. Our aim is to build a network of historians working on problems of the relation between political and economic systems and cultural and intellectual practices, across a range of geographic areas and on a global scale. We propose to hold a series of discussion meetings over the first half of 2019. A particular speaker will be invited to choose and introduce readings for each meeting; all of these, however, will address a general agenda of questions, which I expect to evolve over the course of discussion.

This overall agenda aims to address the disconnect between much of the ‘global history’ that has come to prominence from the 1990s to the present, and an earlier wave of attempts to grasp global interconnections from the perspective of political economy. An important strand of the recent ‘global history’ focusses on intellectual-cultural interconnections and economic exchanges; another strand is comparative, and generally takes political formations (notably, empires) as its units of comparison. These strands often seem oddly unengaged with earlier debates which addressed many of the same problems. This earlier wave, which had its heyday from the 1960s to the 1980s, put forward paradigms that encompassed both interconnection and division, structured by power-relations on a large scale – it proposed theories of world-systems, dependency, and modes of production, some of which have been revisited more recently under the rubric of ‘new histories of capitalism’. I propose to ask whether problems raised by the newer global history can be addressed by drawing on perspectives associated with this earlier, more ‘materialist’ wave, and whether  further questions raised by this earlier wave are still relevant to global history? Can the diffusion of ideas and cultural practices from one location to another, for instance, be understood in terms of comparable or connected socio-economic conditions? Are comparisons between political units such as empires illuminated by juxtaposing them with comparisons of economic zones dominated by distinct modes of production? How should we determine the appropriate scale of analysis for a given historical phenomenon: in terms of cultural zones, political-economic systems, or other units?

Eight discussion meetings on these themes will be held in Christ Church, Oxford, between January and June 2019. They will take place roughly every fortnight within Oxford term, though this may shift to accommodate participants and speakers. The format will be somewhere between a seminar and a reading group. For each meeting, one scholar will be asked to set a number of readings which relate to their specialist interests as well as the general questions laid out above, and to introduce the discussion (about 15 minutes). The participants will then discuss the issues these raise. I will maintain an evolving agenda of questions that I want to pose, and keep minutes of the discussions, which will be circulated among participants afterwards.

Peter Hill, January 2019

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