About the Program on the Study of Capitalism



Capitalism predominates over much of the globe today. As a political economic form it defines not only market dynamics but also governance structures, social relations, and repertoires of knowledge. The study of its development therefore attracts scholars from a wide variety of disciplines; their contributions powerfully stimulate mutual insight. As interest in exploring capitalism has exploded over the last two decades, our Program has organized a variety of workshops and conferences to provide a forum for the intensive interdisciplinary study of capitalism as a historically situated order. Our Program brings together faculty, graduate, and law students from departments within Harvard and beyond to engage in debates about the concept, framing, and operations of capitalism. Graduates of the Program now teach at universities around the world, and we welcome the next generation of students to join the expanding discussion.

We use capitalism as our framing concept because debating “capitalism” enables us to consider the connections between striking characteristics of the modern age from empire to the Industrial Revolution, from escalations in economic productivity to crises of worsening inequality, from financialization to racialized labor practices to global value chains.  We are particularly interested in the disciplinary developments that split the phenomenon of “the economy” off from the realm of “politics,” as if markets and states were separate spheres and could be analyzed that way.  At the same time, we are committed to understanding what scholars and others assume and imply when they talk about “capitalism.” 

The Program on the Study of Capitalism includes the following activities:

The Workshop on the Study of the Modern Political Economy

The Workshop is the anchoring research seminar of the Program.  Taught as a joint offering (history/ law) since 2005 by the Program’s chairs, Sven Beckert (FAS, History) and Christine Desan (HLS, Law), the Workshop brings graduate students from many departments into dialogue with scholars doing cutting-edge work on the history of capitalism. 


The Program sponsors a wide variety of conferences, including biennial conferences organized and oriented towards graduate students in the program (including 2017’s conference "Before the City/Beyond the City:  Capitalism in the Countryside,") and a series of conferences on “teaching capitalism.” 

Subject-specific conferences have included: "Money as a Democratic Medium," "Global E.P. Thompson: Reflections on the Making of the English Working Class," and "Slavery’s Capitalism."

Graduate Reading Group

Meeting bi-weekly, the reading group provides students with essential background in both historiographic and substantive material.  Students identify, analyze, and critique a broad range of readings that they choose, sharpening their analyses and building an understanding of the stakes of scholarly debate.

Dissertation Group

To provide further support for research-in-progress, a distinct dissertation workshop began regular meetings in 2012-2013. Convened on alternate weeks from the reading group, students connected with the Workshop present a dissertation chapter or article in progress, participants provide written peer feedback on the pre-circulated work, and the discussion is oriented towards building a law student and graduate student research community.


A wide variety of the scholarship researched, developed, and/or presented at the Workshop has been published in journals including American Historical Review, Law and Social Inquiry, and the William and Mary Quarterly.  In 2018, the Program chairs collected some of the most exciting work to come out of the Workshop:  Beckert and Desan, eds., American Capitalism:  New Histories (Columbia University Press).  The volume offers a sample of scholarship to introduce both undergraduate and graduate students to the study of capitalism.  It includes an historiographic essay about the changing shape of the field and new trends within it.

In the coming years, the Program aims to continue nurturing research and scholarship on capitalism, including debates over the very definition of the term and the nature of the field.  We welcome a broad range of methods and arguments and plan to develop the channels for intellectual exchange that we have established.   We will also innovate in several ways to expand our capacity.  We emphasize two areas for development below: 

First, we plan to expand the participation of teaching faculty in the Workshop and related activities.  Harvard University is home to a diversity of scholars who target capitalism in their work; they will bring new ideas, specializations, and pedagogies into the Workshop. In the future, different faculty teams will rotate teaching responsibility for the research seminar and associated groups.

Second, we have developed several focal areas within the study of capitalism.  They include initiatives on Commodity Frontiers (Beckert, Commodities), Global History (Beckert, GlobalHist) and Money, Monetary Design, and Democracy (Desan, Money&Democracy).  We encourage scholars and students who are particularly interested in those areas to contact us.  In the future, we hope to make each of these initiatives into a robust locus for research, resources, exchange, and exploration.