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New interdisciplinary initiative explores capitalism

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Melissa Osgood

Capitalism has shaped our world, from slave-powered plantations to Wall Street banks, from state-owned factories to oil pipelines.

A new History of Capitalism initiative from Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences and the ILR School brings together scholars from across the university to examine the nature of capitalism, its relationship with democracy and other forms of politics, and its effects on areas such as law, social mobility, inequality and the environment. Plans for the initiative include conferences, workshops, a speaker series, digital archives, reading groups and a proposed minor.

“It’s a perfect topic to bring people together,” says Larry Glickman, professor of history. “Many students – many Americans – have become interested in the last decade about what we can learn from history about shaping economic growth to ensure opportunity for everyone. And with a democratic socialist running in the current presidential campaign, understanding what capitalism means is more relevant than ever.”

The History of Capitalism initiative builds on a current collaboration among the Department of History, the ILR School and faculty in other departments and programs that resulted in a major conference last fall on “Histories of American Capitalism.” With 100 participants, it was the largest conference yet in the field.

“Because of that conference, Cornell is already seen as a center of strength in this area,” says Glickman. A second conference is being planned for fall 2016 that will emphasize global and comparative studies in the field.

Glickman notes many scholars at Cornell work in areas critical for understanding the history, meaning and impact of capitalism, including those at the Center for the Study of Inequality, the Law School, and departments such as science and technology studies, economics, sociology, development sociology and government, among others. This cross-disciplinary concentration of scholars ensures Cornell’s strength in the field and will provide a rich pool for collaborative efforts arising from the History of Capitalism initiative.

History professors Victor Seow and Sandra Greene and ILR economist George Boyer add a global perspective to the initiative as core leaders, with Seow’s research on China, Greene’s focus on West Africa and Boyer’s emphasis on Europe, while history professor Edward Baptist offers expertise on the history of American capitalism.

“What’s really notable to me is the way that framing the key questions of American history in the context of the history of capitalism course is exciting to students,” says Baptist. “Teaching the history of the U.S. among other things as the history of capitalism helps students find tools for thinking about their present.”

Says Glickman: “Many of our students are deeply interested in applying history to issues of social concern. The History of Capitalism project connects historical scholarship with student’s lives and engagement.”

Graduate student Kwelina Thompson says it has been exciting to be part of building the initiative, which is one of the things that drew her to Cornell. She’s particularly interested in broadening the conversation about capitalism to include more discussions of gender, such as women’s labor history.

During the summer, ILR professor Louis Hyman, member of the field of history in the College of Arts and Sciences, offers a History of Capitalism “boot camp” that has drawn graduate students and faculty from across the country to learn economic basics.

Linda B. Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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