ANTHRO 1687: Wheat, Coffee, Cotton, Cannabis: Capitalism, Crops and the Making of the Modern World

This course tells the story of modernity as one of agrarian change. While we have come to associate the modern world with industry and cities, 60% of the globe’s population works in agriculture and 100% of the world depends upon it. The rise of industrial capitalism in Europe transformed peasant farmers into workers. The earliest factories organized on capitalistic lines, such as cotton and paper mills, organized laboring and plant bodies in new relations. The consolidation of modern nation states, global cities, and sustaining non-agricultural urban populations required direct techno-scientific interventions into plant-life and the industrial harnessing of nature. We will study the social history and contemporary economies of specific crops – cotton, sugar, tobacco, tea, wheat, rice and cannabis among others – to understand how the plants we eat, wear, write on and smoke are imbricated in the histories of colonialism, empire, race and slavery. Topics covered include theoretical approaches to agrarian change, bio-science and GM technology, the control of ‘criminal plants’ and the war on drugs, agri-business, the global food crises and the impact of climate change on hereditary farming communities around the world.


Aarti Sethi







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  • [Course titles in brackets] indicate that the course is not scheduled to be taught during the 2019-2020 academic year, but may be offered in an alternate year.
  • An asterisk (*) before a course number indicates that a student must obtain the instructor's permission in order to enroll in the course.

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