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Option Courses

Option Courses

Student 1

Students are required to select two options, normally one in Michaelmas Term and one in Lent Term. All options are taught as two-hour weekly discussion seminars over eight weeks and attendance is compulsory.

For each option, students will be required to write a 3–4,000 words essay which will count towards 10% of the overall mark.

Please note that this list of options changes from year to year and options may not run depending on demand and staff availability.  

At the discretion of the MPhil Director and Course Convenor, 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. 

Options for 2019-20

  • Inequality: A Global History
  • Health, Politics and Economic Growth since 1750
  • British industrialisation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries
  • British currency and credit markets since the seventeenth century
  • ‘Late Development’: the uneven spread of industrialisation in Asia, Africa and Latin America
  • African economic history
  • Language and power in Early Modern Britain and the wider world, c.1500-1800
  • Issues in women's (and men's) work, 1300-2000
  • Institutions and Development (course taught by MPhil in Development Studies)

Inequality: A Global History

Convenors: Dr Pedro Ramos-Pinto and Dr Poornima Paidipaty


We are the 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

Health, Politics and Economic Growth since 1750

Convenor: Prof Simon Szreter

Vaccine estimation apparatus, invented by H. Vincent. Credit: Science Museum, London
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 in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

Convenor: Dr Leigh Shaw-Taylor

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


British Currency and Credit Markets Since the Seventeenth Century

Convenor: Dr Anthony Hotson

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.


'Late Development': The Uneven Spread of Industrialisation in Asia, Africa and Latin America

Convenor: Prof Gareth Austin


Tata's Jamshedpur 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.


African economic history

Convenor: Prof Gareth Austin


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


Language and power in early modern Britain and the wider world, c.1500-1800

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’ English


Issues in women's (and men's) work, 1300-2000

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

Institutions and Development

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.