MPhil in Economic and Social History

Charles Booth, Life and labour of the people. Credit: Wellcome Collection

Charles Booth, Life and labour of the people. Credit: Wellcome Collection


Economic and social history has always formed an important part of the teaching and research in the Cambridge History Faculty, which is widely regarded as one of the best in the world. Much pioneering work in the ‘new’ social history of communities, demographic history, business history and the history of economic thought has been done here. The MPhil in Economic and Social History provides an extremely thorough training in statistical and social science methodology, while building on other strengths such as an emphasis on researching economic relations and institutions as cultural phenomena.

There are approximately 20 members of academic staff associated with the MPhil, ranging in specialisation from early modern economic history to modern Asian history. The course teachers are also associated with two major research institutions: the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure and the Centre for History and Economics.

Past and current topics for dissertations include: ‘The Evolution of Ownership and Control in British IPOs before WWI’; ‘Consumer protection in Britain from austerity to affluence, 1945-65’; ‘Plague of Poverty: The World Health Organization, Tuberculosis, and International Development c.1945-1980’; ‘Encouraging Emigration: An analysis of the Estado Novo regime’s approach to emigration in the early 1960s in Portugal’.

In addition to the course seminars there are also 16 faculty research seminars and around 320 other graduate students doing MPhils and PhDs. Combined with the excellent resources found in the University library this provides one of the most vibrant historical research cultures in the world.

At a glance

All students will submit a thesis of 15,000–20,000 words, worth 70 per cent toward the final degree.

Students also produce three 3,000–4,000-word essays, two in Michaelmas term and another in Lent term; each essay is worth 10% of the final degree grade.

All students admitted to the MPhil in Economic and Social History will be assigned a supervisor to work with them throughout the course, but crucially on the dissertation. Students will meet regularly with their supervisor for one-on-one supervisions throughout the course.

Students can expect to receive:

  • regular oral feedback from their supervisor, as well as termly online feedback reports;
  • written feedback on essays and assessments and an opportunity to present their work;
  • oral feedback from peers during graduate workshops and seminars;
  • written and oral feedback on dissertation proposal essay to be discussed with their supervisor; and
  • formal written feedback from two examiners after examination of a dissertation.

If you have any questions, drop us a line on

Hannah Hassani
MPhil student in economic and social history
The rich scholarly environment of the Faculty and colleges has pushed me to investigate ideas critically and fully, and then to articulate these thoughts clearly in seminars.

The Course

The course is composed of two formally assessed parts, as well as a number of ancillary non-assessed components designed to help students integrate into the Cambridge research environment.

Introduction to Research Resources and Seminars

This series of classes is designed to help students to discover what printed and non-printed sources exist anywhere in the world relating to their fields of interest.

The course offers lectures/classes on topics such as ‘Preparing a Bibliography’, ‘Reading early printed books’, ‘Oral history’, ‘Images’, ‘History and literature’, ‘Working on Early Modern and Modern British Records’, ‘Locating Research Materials on Continental European Research Topics’, ‘Locating Research Materials on Extra-European Research Topics’.

There are sessions devoted to the resources specifically in Cambridge, including the University Library, the collections of the Royal Commonwealth Society, the Faculty Library, the Churchill College Archives Centre and in other local research centres.  A visit to the National Archives is also arranged.

Introduction to Research Seminars

These three classes in Michaelmas term are designed to introduce students to an essential part of academic research – attending, engaging critically with, and presenting research at seminars. As well as helping new graduate students to get the most out of attending seminars, these classes provide training in four main areas: the evaluation of research methods; the critique of historians’ arguments; presentation skills; and the examination – broadly and comparatively – of what economic and social historians do.

Core Course: Central Concepts in Economic and Social History

This course consists of a series of seminars/classes in two main areas:

  • Economic theory and economic history
  • Social theory and social history

Social Science Research Methods Course

These are a set of research training courses in the social sciences organised on an interdepartmental basis. They provide research students with a broad range of quantitative and qualitative research methods skills that are relevant across the social sciences. The programme offered by the SSRMC consists of a series of core modules and open access seminars. The core modules are grouped in three categories: Foundations in Statistics, Advanced Statistics, and Qualitative Methods. They focus on giving students basic IT skills and introducing them to statistical, quantitative and qualitative research design, providing the foundations for a research career in the social sciences.

Students doing the MPhil in Economic and Social History must take a number of SSRMC options, to be published at the beginning of the year, and may choose to take additional modules. 

    Students are advised to check with their supervisors whether it would be advisable to attend other modules within The Social Science Research Methods Course relevant to their research, and they are encouraged to take as many modules as they wish beyond those required for the MPhil.

    Option Courses (in 2019-20)

    Convenors: Dr Pedro Ramos-Pinto and Dr Poornima Paidipaty

    We are 99%
    ‘We are the 99%’, New York 2011. From the collection of the International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam, IISG BG AA7/165

    Inequality has once more become a central topic of debate. Historians have long been interested in questions of distribution, power differentials and exclusion, whilst not necessarily using the language of economics, which has come to shape such discussions. Across the social and human sciences, approaches to inequality vary widely, and interdisciplinary conversations are difficult. Yet, such exchanges hold the promise of significant insights into how inequality is made and unmade throughout time. This course brings together economic, social and political perspectives in exploring how unequal outcomes (such as income, health or capability) have been created, sustained and challenged throughout history and across the globe.  It explores the concept of development, along with the history of ideas about equality and inequality, and the social history of the categories that sustain difference, including (but not limited to) gender, race and religion. How did early agricultural communities and medieval societies think about fairness, and how did people interact across marked social divides? How did traders, missionaries and sovereigns manage increasingly diverse empires, where new opportunities challenged established social hierarchies? How did European colonial expansion engage with social practices and economic relationships around the globe, and how did that affect both ideas and practices of equity in different parts of the world?  How did social categories such as race and gender feature in the postwar ‘Age of Equality’?  How and why has economic inequality come to define equity more broadly, and how does that alter debates about fairness and justice?  


    Seminar topics

    1. Dimensions of inequality: economic and sociological approaches.

    2. Pre-Modern Inequality: archaeology, anthropology and the distant past.

    3. Revolutions (Industrious, Emotional and Political): Inequality at the birth of Modernity.

    4. ‘The Great Divergence’: the globalisation of inequality.

    5. Inequality Naturalised: Bodies, knowledge and power in the colonial era

    6. Inequality Measured: Making ‘Inequality Knowledge’

    7. ‘Uncertain Victory’: The limits of equality in the post-war era

    8. Development, Globalization and Inequality

    Vaccine estimation apparatus, invented by H. Vincent. Credit: Science Museum, London

    Convenor: Prof Simon Szreter

    Most developed countries have experienced dramatic increases in health during the last two centuries, associated with the economic growth of the modern period. This paper examines more closely the relationship between economic growth and health according to the detailed historical record. The richly-documented British case will provide a central focus but comparative material will be considered. The course will explore the complexities of the relationship between economic growth and health, and the need to understand the crucial role of social institutions and political conflict in determining health outcomes for populations participating in rapid economic change. Students will be encouraged to pursue contemporary implications of policy relevance.



    Seminar topics 

    1. Post-war development orthodoxies and approaches to population health.

    2: Alternative interpretations of the core evidence: modern Britain's epidemiological history.

    3. 1750-1815

    4. 1815-1870

    5. & 6. 1850-1914

    7. Since 1914

    8. Critical reflections on health, politics and economic development

    British Industrialisation
    Interior of cotton factory showing use of child labour. Credit: Wellcome Collection

    Convenor: Dr Leigh Shaw-Taylor

    Until around 1800 economic growth was the exception not the rule and all economies were very poor by today’s standards. Malthusian pressures were the norm and increases in population were normally accompanied by declines in living standards. The Industrial Revolution saw the British economy escape from Malthusian constraints and marks the world’s first transition to modern economic growth. The course considers the processes by which Britain became the first nation to overcome growth constraints and embark on a path of sustained expansion of per capita income. It looks at the roles played by structural change, new sources of energy and raw materials, agricultural improvement, high wages, new technology, changes in labour supply and much else. The course covers key debates both on the causes of industrialisation and the consequences for the people who lived through it.

    Seminar topics:

    1. Industrialisation – introduction to the course.

    2. Explaining the population explosion.

    3. Quantifying economic growth

    4. The agricultural revolution

    5. Explaining technological change

    6. An Industrious Revolution?

    7. Industrialisation and women - implications for the measurement of welfare

    8. Industrialisation and the standard of living - qualitative assessments and quantification

    Convenor: Dr Anthony Hotson

    The Bank of England and the Royal Exchange
    The Bank of England and the Royal Exchange

    The history of London’s money and credit markets is one of intermittent crises interspersed with successive attempts to find ways and means of stabilising the system. The currency reforms of the eighteenth century and the banking ones of the nineteenth were followed by a period of remarkable confidence in London’s financial institutions that lasted until the 1960s. Recent scholarship has emphasised the importance of the Bank of England’s role as lender of last resort, and its modern extension, deposit insurance. Less heed has been paid to various principles of sound banking practice, developed in the late nineteenth century, that helped to stabilise London’s markets. These principles informed a range of market practices that sought to limit aggressive forms of funding, and discourage speculative lending. A tendency to downplay the importance of these regulatory practices encouraged a degree of complacency about their removal, and the deregulation that started in 1971 created a financial structure that disregarded these principles of banking. The events of 2007-8 suggest a reappraisal is needed, and this course offers a revised interpretation of developments in London’s markets since the great currency crisis of 1695.

    Seminar topics

    1. Locke and Lowndes on mint price policy.

    2. Currency policy and the coinage from 1663 to 1799.

    3. Thornton and Bagehot on the systemic role of the Bank of England.

    4. Evolution of three banking models since the 1820s.

    5. Building societies and the problem of maturity transformation.

    6. Duration mismatching and the efficacy of interest rate policy.

    7. Bankers against speculation.

    8. Money and the management of its basis risk.

    Convenor: Prof Gareth Austin

    Tata's iron and steel works
    Tata's iron and steel works, Jamshedpur, India. Opened 1907.

    The incomplete process of global industrialisation continues to transform the world. We examine the history of industrial growth and industrialisation beyond the West, focusing on the debates about how far, and why, ‘late’ industrialisations have differed from the original industrial revolution and from Western models generally, notably in the role of the state, the organization of production, and the relative preference for capital and labour intensive technologies respectively. We focus on the economic strategies and changes in their domestic and international political contexts, and (more briefly) discuss the social and cultural dimensions. Not least, we consider the interactions of economies with their physical environments. While the weekly seminars will be framed comparatively, students may focus on individual regions or countries for their essays. The overall aim is to enable students to acquire a critical understanding of the key concepts, empirical methods, and evidence adduced in the debates on this theme.



    Seminar topics

    1. Concepts of ‘late’ economic development

    2. The Industrial Revolution and ‘Great Divergence’: their implications for subsequent development

    3. Manufacturing growth and the ‘imperialism of free trade’, c.1850-1914

    4. Industrialization and ‘de-globalization’, 1914-45

    5. State-led economic development, 1945-c1980

    6. Industrialization and economic liberalization, c1980-present

    7. ‘The Great Convergence’ amid the ‘Anthropocene’?

    8. Connections, comparisons and conclusion.

    Tema- Ghana
    Tema- Ghana

    This option explores the economic history of Sub-Saharan Africa, currently one of the liveliest fields of new research in the whole of economic history, focusing upon (a) theories, methods and sources and (b) key debates. We assess the uses and limitations of different kinds of sources, consider how to get the most from a range of quantitative and qualitative methods, and explore external and internal, institutional and resource-based explanations of the region's relative poverty today. The specific historical issues are examined in broadly chronological order, from c.1700 to the present. Within that, recurrent themes include the long transition away from land abundance and labour scarcity; gender, labour coercion, and welfare; cultures and the market; state formation and state behaviour; entrepreneurship, adaptation and innovation; economic growth and the question of industrialization. Prior knowledge of economic theory or African history is not required. The overall aim is to enable students to develop their critical understandings of the evidential foundations of the major interpretations of the subject, and to equip those who plan research in this or related fields with analytical tools for the purpose.

    Seminar topics

    1. An introduction to the central problems and debates in African economic history.

    2. Sources and methods in African economic history.

    3. The late pre-colonial period: resources, productive techniques and institutions

    4. Slavery and slave trading, from and within Africa

    5. Political economy of settler colonialism and settler states

    6. Political economy of ‘peasant’ colonies

    7. State-led economic development policies, 1945-c.1980

    8. Economic liberalization and after, c.1980-present

    Convenor: Dr Hillary Taylor

    In the early modern period, language and power were connected in a variety of ways. According to their rank, status, and gender, individuals were meant to speak (or remain silent) in socially appropriate ways in order to preserve ‘harmony.’ States were sensitive to and sought to police ‘subversive’ language in order to maintain their authority. But such ideals – with their emphasis on order and stability – were not always realizable. Furthermore, to the extent that they valorized stasis, they were ill-suited to a world that was undergoing significant change. In this period, socioeconomic developments generated new (and sometimes pejorative) ways of thinking about the relationship between social position and speech. Travel, imperial expansion, and trade – in both goods and people – created new opportunities for cross-cultural exchange and conflict.

    In this module, we shall think about language and its relationship to the power structures of the early modern world. How did language reflect, reproduce, and generate tensions within existing social and political hierarchies? To what extent did it facilitate the creation of new ones over the course of the period, particularly in imperial and colonial contexts? Is it possible to reconstruct the ‘voices’ of marginalized social groups that left little trace in the historical record? And what sorts of sources might enable us to go about answering these questions in the first place?

    Seminar topics

    1. Interdisciplinary perspectives on language and power

    2. Language and hierarchies

    3. Subversive and seditious speech

    4. Rumour, gossip, and defamation

    5. Legal speech: credibility, agency, and coercion

    6. Imperial and colonial encounters

    7. Trade, travel, and cultural exchange

    8. Linguistic and social change: emergence of ‘standard’ Engl

    Convenor: Dr Amy Ericksson

    This course will introduce students to the debates, conceptual tools, and empirical findings that are central to issues of labour and gender in the long run. The great majority of people have spent and still spend most of their adult lives working. The type of work they did/do, the training they received, how and if they were/are remunerated, all depend to some degree on their sex. Taking a thematic approach, we will look at the many ways in which that influence varied over time and place, and at the long-term patterns in structures of work and remuneration. Discussion of female labour force participation rates, wage rates, and the cultural valuation of work will be incorporated throughout the eight weeks.

    Both qualitative and quantitative historical approaches will be considered. For more than a century, efforts have been made to understand women’s labour as part of the economy ‘more broadly’. This course examines how successfully those efforts have been integrated into the ‘mainstream’ narrative and the gender issues affecting the way in which we tell economic stories about development, industrialisation, inequality, and institutions. Students will gain an understanding of the current state of debate, historical methods in the study of labour, and of the fundamental importance of labour in shaping social as well as economic structures, and cultural identities.

    Seminar topics:

    1. Introduction: what is work?

    2. Structures of labour

    3. Care as work

    4. Sex as work

    5. Skill and expertise

    6. Wages and other forms of reciprocation

    7. The illusion of economic structure I: guilds

    8. The illusion of economic structure II: GDP

    Convenor: Dr Shailaja Fennell (MPhil in Development Studies)

    This paper explores the role of institutions in human development. The course is devised using a wide canvas with the intention of exploring the manner in which institutions have been conceptualised and analysed across individual disciplines in the social sciences. The lecture course brings together theoretical perspectives alongside both historical and current evidence on the interrelations between institutional structures and social and economic actions. The course undertakes an institutional analysis drawing on concepts and frameworks provided by the disciplines of economics, sociology, political science, law and anthropology. The lectures examine the institutions of the state, notably the role of the bureaucracy and judiciary; societal institutions such as NGOs and social groups, customary norms such as culture and caste that affect human development. Individual lectures explore institutions such as the market, firm and the state, examine the perspectives of different academic schools such as New Institutional Economics, Marxism, Human Development and Capability theory on institutional changes, and give due consideration to how key development concerns such as poverty, environment and education can be examined through an institutional lens.


    The MPhil in Economic and Social History combines taught and research elements over a 11-month full-time programme.  The outline in this section is illustrative of a typical course.

    Core Course: Central Concepts in Economic and Social History

    • two-hour seminar per week over eight weeks
    • Assessment: 3–4,000 word essay (10% of the overall mark)

    Social Sciences Research Methods Course

    • Assigned modules; pass/fail by attendance and completion of assessments

    Usually one option per term

    Option 1

    • two-hour weekly discussion seminars over eight weeks and attendance is compulsory
    • Assessment: 3–4,000 word essay (10% of the overall mark)

    Preparatory dissertation work

    Other options

    At the discretion of the MPhil Director and Course Convener, students may be able to take options from the Faculty's other MPhil courses in place of an option on their home MPhil, or they may be able to audit additional classes. 


    Assessment & Dissertation

    Part I

    Each of three modules in Michaelmas and Lent (one Compulsory Core, and two Options) will require a 3,000-4,000 words essay (or equivalent), which may be under timed conditions.

    Each will count toward 10% of the final degree mark, for a total of 30%.  Taken together, these are Part I, and students must receive passing marks in order to move to Part II.

    Students will also prepare a 4,000-word dissertation proposal essay due early in the Easter Term. This is assessed on a Pass/Fail basis but where a student fails the essay it must be compensated with a mark of at least 63% in the dissertation. Students will meet with their Supervisor to discuss the essay and get feedback in preparation for the dissertation.

    Part II

    The thesis is Part II of the MPhil in Economic and Social History.

    All students will submit a thesis of 15,000-20,000 words in mid-August, worth 70% of the overall mark.

    At the discretion of the Examiners the examination may include an oral examination on the thesis and on the general field of knowledge within which it falls.

    Practical assessment

    All students will present their work at least once during the academic year and will receive feedback from academics and peers on their work-in-progress. This is not an assessed element of the course but is a valuable feedback tool for the dissertation.

    Students are also required to pass the Social Sciences Research Methods courses, and may be required to take a practical assessment as part of these courses.

    The formation and execution of the dissertation project on a subject in economic and/or social history is the largest and most important part of the student’s work in the MPhil in Economic and Social History. It is expected that it accounts for approximately 60 percent of the student’s time over the eleven months of the course.

    Candidates are required to design, research and write up a dissertation on a subject in the fields of economic and/or social history that has been approved by the Faculty of History. The dissertation must be between 15,000 and 20,000 words in length, inclusive of tables and appendices, and exclusive of footnotes and bibliography.

    Candidates must demonstrate that they can present a coherent historical argument based upon a secure knowledge and understanding of primary sources and they will be expected to place their research findings within the existing historiography of the field within which their subject lies.  The dissertation must represent a contribution to knowledge, considering what may be reasonably expected of a capable and diligent student after eleven months of MPhil level study.

    Ben Schafer
    MPhil student
    The opportunity to work with accomplished faculty and engaged colleagues on some of the most important historical questions of our time and in an enchanting, historic community like Cambridge is unmatched.

    Where next?

    If you have any questions, drop us a line on