Harvard historian captivates students and staff

30 Oct 2014 - 14:15

Pictured above: Dr Agostino Inguscio (Economic History lecturer, UCT) with visiting Professor Sven Beckert (Harvard University)

Professor Sven Beckert visited the University of Cape Town from 13 to 17 October 2014 to host a four-day workshop on the Global History of Capitalism. Professor Beckert is Laird Bell Professor of History at Harvard University and is also an author and authority on the history of capitalism. The visit was arranged by the Historical Studies department and coincided with the launch of a new UCT Taught Masters programme in Economic History scheduled for 2015.

Professor Beckert is known for his extensive scholarship in the field of economic history. His work examines the manner in which capitalism has and continues to shape world politics, industry and the economy. Renewed interest in this field has been attributed to the global  financial crisis of 2008 and the events that followed. In 1996, Beckert developed an undergraduate module titled The History of American Capitalism which has since become one of the most popular courses for Harvard students. Other institutions have followed suit. His much anticipated visit to UCT included a public lecture, book launch as well as seminars for academic staff.  The workshops on the Global History of Capitalism/ doing transnational economic history were also attended by postgrduate students from various cognate disciplines at UCT. The interactive sessions covered historiography, methodology and studies of global economic history incorporating perspectives from Africa, Latin America and China. “The purpose of Beckert’s visit was to build and strengthen the intellectual community engaged in the resuscitation of economic history as a discipline at UCT and beyond. Our students were extremely excited and enthused about the the ideas to which they had been exposed as these opened up possibilities for their graduate research” said Professor Anne Mager, UCT Department of Historical Studies.

An Institute for Humanities in Africa (HUMA) seminar on the 14 October provided an opportunity to analyze Beckert’s latest book ‘The Empire of Cotton’. The book describes the significance of cotton as a trading commodity and its impact on the 19th century global economy. His public lecture on 15 October, titled: ‘The global history of capitalism’ attracted a 120 strong audience comprised of academics from several institutions as well as representatives from the NGO sector. The lecture was introduced by UCT Deputy Vice Chancellor Professor Sandra Klopper. Dr Alan Hirsch, former economist in the Treasury and current professor in the Department of Economics commented that it had been a ‘brilliant and beautifully constructed’ presentation. A lively discussion followed the public lecture. 

According to Mager, the visit from the Harvard scholar has boosted interest in the new Masters programme and in other postgraduate programmes in Economic History. It has also led to the formation of new linkages and interdisciplinary collaborations between students from other departments. “The feedback from both staff and students is that they have been inspired to engage more rigorously in economic history research, to extend the focus of such research beyond narrow studies bounded by nation states and to think regionally and globally,” said Mager.