The Globalisation of Stuff: The Making, Trading, and Meaning of Everyday and Treasured Things ESH4074

  • Academic Session: 2023-24
  • School: School of Social and Political Sciences
  • Credits: 20
  • Level: Level 4 (SCQF level 10)
  • Typically Offered: Semester 1 (Alternate Years)
  • Available to Visiting Students: Yes

Short Description

This course examines the mining, planting, manufacturing, selling, and social impact of things important to our everyday world such as gold, diamonds, oil, silver, coffee, chocolate/cocoa, beer, wine, tea, tobacco, sugar, salt, cotton, bananas, rubber, salt, guano, coal, pencils, electric lights, cod, oysters, qat or khat, marijuana, opium, pencils, paper clips, lawn mowers, zips, corn, apples, tomatoes, potatoes, and so on. By tracing the hidden social life of ordinary (and not so ordinary) commodities and things, we uncover a hidden history of our everyday, interconnected, globalized world. We examine the rich human connections behind the making, selling, and consuming of such common commodities and technologies from their origins to their impact on human beings in time and space. As such the course bridges business, economics, industry analysis, history, and cultural studies. In many ways, cultural studies of consumption have pioneered such commodity studies, but we will also examine the business, industry dynamics, and trade behind such "stuff."


Lecture and/or film viewing: 1.5 hours per week

Seminar: 1.5 hours per week


Please note this course does not run every session. For the current course list please see:

Requirements of Entry

Enrolment in an MA (SocSci) or MA (Arts) Honours Programme 


Two-hour, closed book examination= 60%

Project work or research essay = 25%

Coursework (critical summary of literature) = 15%


The project work or research essay requires students to take an object, thing, or good ("stuff") and examine its value chain from its making/mining/growing, how it's distributed (traded), and its social/cultural place in a given society at a given time.

Coursework is a combination of short (less than half a page) responses, a key quote, and two questions that the day's reading raised.

Main Assessment In: April/May

Are reassessment opportunities available for all summative assessments? Not applicable


Course Aims

The broad aims of this course are:

■ To examine processes of globalization and the implications of global trade in a broad, accessible fashion through individual products, agricultural goods, and commodities

■ To demonstrate that products or "things" have a social life and how their cultural meanings have changed dramatically over time, which have reshaped the history of preferences and consumption patterns; this global demand, in turn, has had dramatic effects on specific regions and localities around the globe

■ To develop a critical awareness and spark curiosity in the history of everyday goods that shape lives at different junctures in time, a type of historical deconstruction of the everyday by examining the full "value chain" of individual goods from their inception to their design and place in everyday life

Intended Learning Outcomes of Course

On successful completion of this course students will be able to:

■ Explicate different phases of globalisation since the Columbian Exchange and key factors, means, or products that drove trade and demand in those periods

■ Through concrete examples, be able to describe economic concepts such as externalities, commodification, agency issues, the value chain, the "resource curse" or "commodity lottery", and issues surrounding collective goods

■ Develop a critical awareness of how production and trade have driven and changed consumer behaviour (preferences) and how consumer desires (meanings) influence production and trade; and appreciate that ordinary goods have deep symbolic meanings

■ Discuss and debate the social, environmental, and cultural impact of "things" and the ethics of both business practices and consumer behaviour around the world on people and the environment so that the desires in one part of the world affect-for good and for ill-the lives of others in other regions of the world

Minimum Requirement for Award of Credits

Students must submit at least 75% by weight of the components (including examinations) of the course's summative assessment.