About the Workshop

The workshop explores the political economy of modern capitalism during the past five hundred years. This topic is unparalleled in importance. Capitalism predominates over much of the globe today. As a political economic form it defines not only market dynamics but also governance structures and social relations. The study of its growth and development therefore attracts scholars from a wide variety of fields; their contributions could powerfully stimulate mutual insight. The workshop aims to provide a forum for the intensive interdisciplinary study of capitalism as a historically situated order by bringing together faculty and graduate students from different departments within Harvard and beyond.

Historians and historically minded scholars in allied fields have long recognized that political and economic forces inform one another. They investigate the effect of economic structures on individuals and groups, produce accounts of political change sensitive to material interests, and identify agency within given political economic orders. But in doing so, they often treat the socio-political and economic worlds as discrete and intrinsically separate entities, implicitly endorsing the modern conception of the polity and economy as separate "spheres." Recent historiographic and disciplinary divisions have reinforced that tendency. Much historical research in the last several decades has eschewed political economic inquiry altogether for new questions about the power of culture and the play of race, gender, and religion in social order. At the same time, the disciplinary divide between economics and other disciplines has deepened. Economic historians—increasingly to be found in Economics rather than History departments—have approached the market order with tools, including mathematical models and cliometrics, developed to understand phenomena particularly defined as economic, often downplaying the political, cultural, and social embeddedness of markets.

Increasingly, historically oriented scholars (in History and Economics departments, as well as fields like law) are recognizing the limits of existing approaches to political economy. Explorations of competing influences, political and economic, can entrench the assumption that those fields have their own logics. Sometimes, that assumption produces naturalizing narratives of change. In other accounts, political organization itself moves, like the market or as part of market development, in almost evolutionary fashion toward modern forms of organization. Other scholarship produces rich accounts of social struggle and contrasts "efficiency" goals with cultural considerations, but fails to interrogate the definition of "efficiency" or reifies and abstracts cultural or social considerations. Such limits to our scholarship are especially troublesome given the importance of understanding capitalism as it becomes an increasingly global order.

The workshop aims to identify emerging approaches to political economy and to facilitate interdisciplinary thinking on this important topic among students and faculty at Harvard. It seeks to tap the energy of new scholarship, working across the conventional boundaries that have constrained past work. In particular, we hope to create a unique forum for intellectual exploration and productive research.

Toward that end, the graduate-faculty research workshop is structured to bring together interested faculty and students on a continuing basis. The workshop will include both reading sessions designed for graduate students and research sessions during which students and faculty participants will present current research. Faculty participants will be drawn from a number of schools.