MSt Global and Imperial History

Course Structure

The course comprises:

Historical methodology class

Like all branches of history global and imperial history must be approached through concepts and with a sense of awareness of the methods of historical inquiry that are being used. Indeed, anyone reading an historical account of the rise and impact of, for instance, the British or of any other European or indeed non-European empire will be struck by the way that certain key ideas and arguments frame the discussion. The fact that the role of imperialism and colonialism in world history has been intensely controversial has made the meaning of the terms used to describe them all the more contested. This course is designed to encourage debate and discussion of some of the key concepts in global and imperial history (including ‘race’, ‘class’, ‘nationalism’, ‘Orientalism’, and ‘imperialism’ itself) as well as exploring the contribution that gender, economic and social, environmental, and transnational history or international relations and human geography can make to the understanding of global and imperial history.

Advanced Option

This paper is taught in weekly classes during Hilary Term (and is assessed by two extended essays of up to 5,000 words).

This course examines some of the major features of Empires in Global History, among them: the geopolitical context of empire-building; the emergence of imperial ideologies and the anti-imperial ideas, the economic development and/or exploitation of colonial regions and subjects; systems of colonial rule and collaboration; the role of migration and settlement; the importance of indigenous resistance and racial domination; the impact of world war and depression; the growth of anti-colonial nationalisms; the onset of decolonization and the imperial legacy. The themes are studied in particular contexts. The course embraces both the ‘formal’ empire (coloured red or green on the map) and the informal zones where imperial influence predominated. It includes both ‘settlement colonies’ and colonies of rule in Asia, Africa the Pacific, and the Middle East.

There is considerable freedom to select themes, topics and regions of particular interest. The main requirement is to gain a breadth of perspective by studying the experience of empire in particular contexts and the course of their change over time.

It is complemented by the following tutorial streams for further in-depth study (please note that not every tutorial stream will be available each year, and that they are subject to change):

Settler societies could be found in every part of the world and were drawn from many different ethnicities, European, African, Indian, Chinese and Austronesian. This course takes a long view of the worlds that settlers made. It considers the ventures of medieval Europeans, the differences between European societies that were prone to settle, like the British and Spanish, and those that weren’t, and the divergent patterns of settlement in the American West, the British settlement colonies, Siberia and Latin America. The distinctive experience of Chinese settlers and migrants will also be discussed.

The course explores the interaction between African decolonisation and global superpower rivalries, from the late 1950s until the end of the Cold War. As much of the continent emerged from European colonial rule in the late 1950s and 1960s, the development of African independent nation-states interacted with the unfolding of the Cold War, on both a global and local stage. Both superpowers officially supported decolonisation, but the United States was sometimes persuaded by its European allies that African self-determination might open the door to communist influence on the continent. The Soviet Union’s vocal support for African liberation was only occasionally matched by a willingness to provide logistical and military backing to such efforts.

Many African political actors sought to remain neutral and ‘non-aligned’ in the Cold War, but others deliberately portrayed local conflicts in Cold War terms, so as to persuade reluctant superpowers to intervene in African contexts that they barely understood and which were usually not a high priority in Washington or Moscow. The ending of the Cold War brought some African conflicts to a close, but the continuation of others suggests the limited relevance of global ideological affiliations to wars that resulted from a complex interaction of global, national and local factors.

The course will explore the extent to which African states and political movements were the subject of manipulation by the superpowers. It will analyse the motivations underlying the policies of the United States and the Soviet Union (and their respective allies) in sub-Saharan Africa. It will also examine the role of other powerful states in Africa’s Cold War: the European colonial powers, China and Cuba. It will critically examine Westad’s ground-breaking approach, emphasising the agency of non-western actors in shaping the form and extent of superpower intervention (or the lack of it) in African contexts and conflicts.

It will also explore a range of source material including state documents, memoirs and film, to assess what we know (and still don’t know) about Africa’s Cold War.

This course focuses on modern Chinese History, considering topics such as the collapse of the late Qing dynasty (students might consider through their essays questions like ‘how important was opium to the collapse of the Qing dynasty?’ or ‘could the Qing state have coped better with internal rebellion?’), the May Fourth Movement (‘Why were May Fourth reformers so interested in ideas of “science and democracy”?’), the rise of Communism (‘How important was the peasant revolution to the Communist victory?’), China at war (‘How did the war against Japan change - 15 - Chinese society?’), and the cultural revolution (‘Was the Cultural Revolution ultimately about power, not ideology?’).

This graduate course offers a broad introduction to the socio-cultural and intellectual history of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Japan in transnational and global perspective. The course introduces various methods, approaches, theories, and concepts that could be applied to re-examine the time and space of ‘modern Japan’, while also serving as an introduction to the transnational and intellectual history of Japan.

By the end of the course, you will have acquired foundational knowledge and skills to open up new directions in modern Japanese history writing. See the Nissan Institute website for more details.

One can argue that Muslim societies—spread across Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa, and in the last centuries in diasporas even further afield—form a unitary subset of humanity that can and should be productively studied together. On the other hand, the great diversity of the Islamic world can prompt comparative historical thinking. This paper will allow students to contrast different Muslim societies over the last three centuries, examine points of confluence for geographically- or culturally-distinct Muslim peoples in the modern era, and/or focus on the history of one society in a wider Islamicate context. Starting from the Muslim reformers of the eighteenth century and ranging to the end of the twentieth century, key themes include theological change, Islamic empires, experiences of European colonialism, Islam and nationalism, and globalisation in Muslim societies. 

This course will explore the history and character of India’s democracy by focussing on the way it has been shaped by a number of constitutional and other crises. These include struggles over executive power, separatism, caste reservations, a uniform civil code and religious nationalism. Each of these critical events will be examined through a variety of primary and secondary sources, as well as from more than one disciplinary perspective, to provide a rich and complex understanding of India’s democracy in action. From the narratives of high politics to ethnographic description and popular culture, students will have the opportunity to engage with the logic and contradictions of the defining events in India’s independent history. 

This paper will cater to students whose main interest lies in South Asia's early modern, rather than its colonial history. The paper will pay particular attention to India's economic dynamism in the centuries before the coming of colonialism, and the way in which the imperial and regional states of the subcontinent encouraged and facilitated openness to increasingly global networks of trade and cultural exchange. New and mobile classes of scribal specialists, bankers, merchant and military entrepreneurs played a key role in opening the states and societies of the subcontinent up to these new forces of early globalisation.

Students will be encouraged to consider how far South Asia developed in these centuries some of the attributes of 'modernity' usually associated only with the coming of colonialism. 

Gender relations and identities were of great symbolic, as well as practical importance, in colonial India. British missionaries, reforming colonial officials, Indian social critics and Indian nationalists all found in the status of Indian women a ground on which wider questions about Indian identity, civilizational values and fitness for political freedom could be discussed.

Theories about India's 'martial races' brought Indian understandings of masculinity and the body into the political arena in new ways. Gender likewise came to be important in the construction of religious community identities, with new regimes of bodily strengthening coming to the fore in early Hindu revivalist organisations. Changes in colonial law helped to reshape the Hindu joint family, with important consequences for marriage law and property rights. For India's Muslims, a separate realm of Muslim 'personal law' came to stand as an important marker of a distinctive Indian Muslim identity.

Using records of the colonial state, legal records, contemporary periodical literature and autobiographies, students will explore the history of these shifts in colonial gender relations, and their longer term consequences for the gendered construction of citizenship in independent India. 

The period of colonial rule in most parts of sub-Saharan Africa was only brief, but is thought to have profoundly and irreversibly transformed the continent. One important aspect of that transformation concerned the changes in the organisation of production and commercial exchange, which is the subject of this course.

The main aim of this course is to encourage students to think creatively about the intricate relationship between changes occurring in the economic sphere - that is changes in the organisation of labour, production, and commercial exchange - and those taking place in the social sphere - that is in the realm of society, culture and politics. The starting points for the analysis are particular instances of change in the organisation of labour under colonial rule. It will be asked how these changes came about, whether these were imposed by the colonial state from above or initiated by the colonial subjects themselves from below, and what these changes had meant for the societies concerned, their social structures and political institutions, their belief systems and social values, in particular local figurations of class and gender relations. The course is meant to be an open inquiry into the making of contemporary Africa. 


A dissertation of up to 15,000 words on an agreed topic. The dissertation is submitted during Trinity Term, but students will begin to formulate and plan their dissertation in conjunction with their supervisors from the beginning of the course.


Please also explore the Oxford China Centre for further information.

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