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Stanford humanities scholars put the human back into economics

In a new workshop at the Stanford Humanities Center, scholars from a range of disciplines explore how historical and cultural analysis offers crucial insight about our capitalist economy.

Among the legacies of the Great Recession of 2008, one has stood out especially to a group of Stanford humanities PhD students: The economy is too important to be left only to economists.

"We need to stop treating the economy, capitalism or the market as the static backdrop against which social, intellectual and cultural processes takes place," said Destin Jenkins, a doctoral student in U.S. history who is writing a dissertation on the history of San Francisco's municipal bond market.

Steve CastilloDestin Jenkins

Destin Jenkins is the graduate student coordinator of the 'Approaches to Capitalism' research workshop.

Last September, Jenkins and fellow graduate students in the fields of anthropology and history launched a new Geballe Research Workshop at the Stanford Humanities Center, titled "Approaches to Capitalism." The organizers wanted to expand our current knowledge of economics by making the analytical tools of the human sciences more central to figuring out how the economy actually works.

Chief among these tools is sensitivity for context. Historians and anthropologists do not believe that economic processes unfold uniformly across time and space, insisting instead that human economies emerge out of the social and cultural structures of a specific historical context.

"Instead of taking capitalism as an already formed structure or logic, we are asking how it is generated out of people's heterogeneous ideas, sentiments and life projects," said Professor Sylvia Yanagisako, chair of Stanford's Department of Anthropology and an advising faculty member of the workshop. "In other words, we conceptualize capitalism as always historically situated and culturally produced."

Asked Jenkins: "How do race, class and gender – the 'holy trinity' of humanities research – inform and sustain capitalism rather than vice versa?"

Once a month, faculty and graduate students meet at the Humanities Center, where they attend guest lectures by scholars hailing from a variety of humanities and social science disciplines. As in other Geballe workshops, the format is designed to push participants to think across disciplinary divides.

"The problem in the U.S. is that historians have hesitated to make economic life central to their work. As a result, the field has been left to a small subset of scholars of business history and economics," said Branden Adams, a second-year PhD candidate in U.S. history and a founding member of the workshop.

"The workshop is designed as a first step toward changing that," Adams noted.

"Anthropologists have long studied the economic aspects of non-capitalist societies," said Yanagisako. "What we learned was considered irrelevant to understanding modern, capitalist society. Increasingly, however, we have been investigating present-day capitalism as the product of beliefs and practices that are always culturally mediated," added Yanagisako, whose research focuses on cultures of capitalism in modern Italy and the United States.

"Because of this, we have a lot to learn from an interdisciplinary dialogue with historians and other humanists," she said.

Natalie Marine-Street, a PhD candidate working on the intersections between gender and business in U.S. history, said: "So far, the workshop has been successful in a dual sense. On the one hand, we have built a brand new forum that recognizes and supports humanities scholars working on economics and questions of capitalism.

"On the other hand, the workshop has given us the chance to assemble a dream team of guest speakers to interact with. It's allowing us to stay at the forefront of this fast-growing field of research."

History Assistant Professor Jennifer Burns, one of the workshop's faculty sponsors, emphasized that the workshop benefits faculty, too.

"It has been tremendously invigorating to my own research to have such a dynamic and committed group of graduate students interested in these questions," she said. "They really are the ones who will define the future of this new field, so I am following their lead."

Capitalism over time

In turning toward the study of the economy, the Stanford group is joining a nationwide development in humanities research, with similar reading groups and workshops forming at institutions such as Columbia, Cornell, Harvard and Princeton.

At Stanford, the workshop's approach has been to focus on the practical rather than the philosophical side of the study of capitalism.

Steve CastilloZephyr Frank

Zephyr Frank, associate professor of history, shows workshop participants how digital mapping tools can be used for economic research.

"Rather than begin by defining capitalism in theory, we wanted to first examine how the system operated in particular places and at particular moments in time," said Jenkins. "So, we started reading more recent scholarship like Jonathan Levy's history of risk in America."

Paying attention to how capitalism is actually practiced in specific historical contexts allows students to figure out what they need to focus on, and when.

"Is it mandatory to include businesses and firms in studies on capitalism? To what extent should 'class' be a unit of analysis? Just how much quantitative expertise is required to make sense of how capitalism works?" said Jenkins.

Adams, whose research focuses on the political economy of coal mining in North America, pointed out that "many interpretations of capitalism tend to fall into either one of two camps: on the one hand, a leftist critique that vilifies capitalism as the source of all evil, and on the other hand, the right's insistence that capitalism may be humanity's only hope."

"Neither of these explanations is very good at accounting for how, when and where the world of capitalism has changed in the past," he added. "All of the roads not taken are washed over, and we are currently faced with a lack of credible alternative interpretations.

"To get at a workable alternative, we're approaching the topic from multiple angles, from the history of economic thought to voting patterns' relationship to the income tax and interstate roadway building. There are a variety of methodologies. Our focus is on contingency and change over time."

Developing a shared vocabulary

Last October, historian Robin L. Einhorn of the University of California-Berkeley presented her current work on the political economy of taxation in 20th-century America.

"Thinking in terms of political economy allows us to zero in on the close relations between the state and markets," said Jenkins. "Neither is independent of the other, an assumption that all too often pervades research in economics."

In December, Stanford historian Zephyr Frank, director of the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA), and Clayton Nall, a political scientist at Stanford, offered a joint presentation on how the tools of mapping and digitization can be used to uncover how capitalism unfolds in geographic space.

"Seeing how scholars in different disciplines and subfields are approaching capitalism has already been very fruitful for my own work," said Marine-Street. She found that the session offered by Frank and Nall spoke directly to her research, which examines the spread of a new type of business model in 19th-century America and its impact on ordinary people.

"Spatial analysis would be a perfect fit for my project," she said. "Our conversation at the Humanities Center definitely sparked new ideas about how I might approach the issue."

The "Approaches to Capitalism" workshop continues through spring quarter, with numerous speakers scheduled to visit Stanford. Up next on March 6 is historian Jürgen Kocka, a senior fellow at the Centre for Contemporary History in Potsdam, Germany. Kocka has published widely on entrepreneurship, family capitalism and liberalism in Europe and the United States.

"Ultimately, the idea is to develop a shared vocabulary and literacy about the flows of money and goods throughout the world and throughout history," said Adams. "It's going to be an exciting quarter of conversations about how capitalism actually works."

"Approaches to Capitalism" is one of 17 workshops currently being sponsored by the Stanford Humanities Center. Faculty and graduate students from both the humanities and social sciences are encouraged to submit workshop proposals for the 2014-15 academic year by April 2.

Benjamin Hein is a doctoral candidate in history at Stanford. For more news about the humanities at Stanford, visit the Human Experience.