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 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 postgraduate 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 2023-24

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 13 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.

This course introduces the theory and practice of the various institutions that have facilitated international trade and wealth creation since the nineteenth century. Some of these emerged organically, others were planned responses to economic collapse and global conflagration. All relied upon some level of credibility and cooperation between competing nation states. We look at the emergence of the classical Gold Standard that underpinned globalisation in the late nineteenth century. The First World War shattered the intricate web of international trade and, despite the attempt to reconstitute the pre-war Gold Standard, the global economy collapsed with the competitive devaluations and protectionism of the 1930s. At Bretton Woods in 1944, the planners of the post-war international economy sought to combine the discipline of the Gold Standard with the flexibility of adjustable exchange rates. Over the next quarter-century, the world enjoyed unprecedented economic growth as international trade returned to levels not witnessed since before the First World War. However, the Bretton Woods Gold Exchange Standard contained the seeds of its own destruction, and its collapse in the early 1970s marked the abrupt end of the Golden Age of Capitalism. The leading European nations used the ensuing period of economic improvisation to develop the European Monetary System that ultimately gave birth to the European single currency. The course finishes by examining how the flaws within this system led to the Euro crisis. It places the crisis in historical perspective by showing today’s policy makers wrestling with essentially the same theoretical and practical issues as their predecessors over the past century.

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 also be considered. The course will explore the complexities of the relationship between economic growth, urbanization 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 and policy relevance.

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

Economic thought has undergone extensive transformations since the 18th century. It emerged both as an empirical language for government purposes and a set of arguments over the natural order of economic life. It became a domain of abstract principles about value, a subversive theory of capitalist mode of production, a subjectivist conceptualization centred on the analysis of choice and the behaviour of an economic agent dealing with scarce means, and a mathematical science. At first, it aspired to universal knowledge, later aimed for exactness on a par with hard sciences. It was nevertheless, and still is, uncommonly marked by internal deep disagreements and bitter epistemological conflicts. It has established itself as a highly formalised academic science but has not ceased to also constitute a source of popular and radical writing.

This option course explores the nature, the significance, and the multiple meanings of this in some respects unique discipline by drawing on intellectual history and history of social science. We will place economic ideas in their economic, political, and social context, to understand how theoretical constructions intertwined with other ways of thinking, such as political thought and psychology, but also ideology, moral feelings, and sentiments. By discussing the recent methodological developments, we will bring how economists thought and worked to light. We will analyse both canonical texts and archives and adopt different approaches and dimensions: biography and prosopography, teaching, business journalism, national tradition and transnational circulation, academic controversy, public discourse, and relationship of economic ideas to policy. The course is chronologically organised. Thematic focuses on subjects such as wealth, value, distribution, markets, labour, money, and power will allow us to cross references between authors of different periods. The aim is to introduce students to the thoughts of some of the most prominent economists of the last three centuries. Their views were at the heart of the important political and social debates of the times and have contributed to shape our understanding of human beings and society.

In this seminar we will examine debates and methodologies that have shaped the History of Capitalism field over the past two decades. We explore the different ways in which historians of the 16th to 19th centuries have approached the question of what capitalism is, and when capitalism became the dominant mode of socio-economic organization. We will discuss the role that European colonialism, commodity production, and enslavement played in shaping capitalism, and ask if there are different capitalisms at a global scale? We will debate key concepts such as commercial capitalism, financialisation, and the corporation. Finally, the seminar will interrogate the relationship between capitalism as we know it today and the history of financial, commercial and technological innovations and ideas about the economy.

This course will introduce students to major themes in environmental politics and understanding as it has developed over the past one hundred and seventy years, predominantly but not exclusively in the anglophone world. Each week will develop a major theme around which arguments and positions have coalesced in environmental politics, drawing on sources from different time periods within each theme. This will allow students to assess and debate genealogies of environmental argument, but also to consider sources in their own context, and how issues have been understood over time.

Students will consider questions such as: Were there key ‘foundational’ moments in environmental politics that have shaped different debates over the long-term? Is there a danger in overstating continuities in environmental thought and making false analogies between different moments of crisis and contestation? How much has environmental understanding been influenced by developments in science? How has environmental thought been incorporated – or ignored – in different strands of economics? Are environmental problems themselves caused by particular historical moments, technologies, ideologies, economic developments or governmental action? Is it helpful to frame environmental history as a search for ‘origins’ which both identifies the causes of modern environmental problems and imagines alternatives through the historical actors who contested change at the point of origin? Is it possible or desirable to develop an environmental history that is not framed by political and ethical judgements on the present? How important were ideas about history themselves to actors who made environmental arguments at particular points in time?

The course will consist of eight two-hour classes with a focus on primary sources. As well as introducing students to a range of primary sources covering leading environmental thinkers (and their opponents) the course aims where appropriate to introduce students to the core theoretical and technical techniques employed in studying the environment in environmental and ecological economics.

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; 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. 


Applying to the course

To apply to the MPhil in Economic and Social History, you will need to consult the relevant pages on the Postgraduate Admissions website (click below).

Since applications are considered on a rolling basis, you are strongly advised to apply as early in the cycle as possible.

On the Postgraduate Admissions website, you will find an overview of the course structure and requirements, a funding calculator and a link to the online Applicant Portal. Your application will need to include two academic references, a transcript, a CV/ resume, evidence of competence in English, a personal development questionnaire, two samples of work and a research proposal.

Research proposals are 600–1,000 words in length and should include the following: a simple and descriptive title for the proposed research; a rationale for the research; a brief historiographic context; and an indication of the sources likely to be used. The document should be entitled ‘Statement of Intended Research’. Applicants are encouraged to nominate a preferred supervisor, and are invited to contact members of the Faculty in advance of submitting their application to discuss their project (see our Academic Directory:

Below are some anonymised examples of research proposals, submitted by successful applicants to the MPhil in Economic and Social History. You may use these to inform the structure of your submission. Please note that they are purely for guidance and not a strict representation of what is required.

Economic and Social History - Research Proposal 1

Economic and Social History - Research Proposal 2

Economic and Social History - Research Proposal 3


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.