A Global History of Unemployment

History (HIST) 29518 - Spring 2018 - University of Chicago

Instructor: Aaron Benanav
Class Time: Tu/Th 12:30pm-1:50pm
Classroom: Classics XXX

Course Description

What is unemployment? Is it a simple economic category or complex historical construction? In this course, we examine the problem of unemployment as it was discovered—or as some would say, invented—in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Europe and the United States. In addition, we look at problematic but generative attempts to extend the category of unemployment to the developing countries after World War II. We read a mixture of theoretical texts, policy documents, case studies and novels that seek to describe, explain, categorize and/or control the unemployed. We also look at various projects aimed at ending the scourge of unemployment, whether via public-works programs, the export of “unemployables” to colonies, insurance-schemes, full employment policies, guaranteed income proposals, and socialist revolution. Time and again, crises of unemployment have have played key roles in the transformation of the institutions that measure and govern the economy. Such crises have also provided occasions for posing questions about the ultimate ends of economic development.

Required Texts

Available at the Seminary Coop

Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers (Random House)
Standing, The Precariat (Bloomsbury)

All other texts will be made available online

Optional Background Literature

Placed on Reserve at the Regenstein

Baskerville and Sager, Unwilling Idlers (on Victorian Canada, 1988)
Baxandall, Constructing Unemployment (on the First and Second Worlds, 2004)
Bix, Inventing Ourselves out of Jobs? (on US automation debates, 2000)
Burnett, Idle Hands (on the experience of the unemployed in the UK, 1994)
Casson, Economics of Unemployment (on the history of economics, 1984)
Castel, From Manual Workers to Wage Laborers (on France, 1995)
Davis, Planet of Slums (on slum-dwellers in the Third World, 2006)
Garraty, Unemployment in History (a general history, 1978)
Godfrey, Global Unemployment (on the history of economics, 1986)
Keyssar, Out of Work (on turn-of-the-century Massachusetts, 1986)
Perry, Bread and Work (on inter-war UK, 2000)
Portes, Castells, and Benton, The Informal Economy (on informality, 1989)
Salais, L’Invention du Chômage (on France, 1986)
Sethuraman, The Urban Informal Sector in Developing Countries (1981)
Stedman Jones, Outcast London (on London, 1971)
Walters, Unemployment and Government (on the UK, 2000)

Breakdown of Grades

Attendance and Classroom Participation, 20 percent
One In-Class Presentation, 10 percent
Weekly Response Papers (due every Thursday), 20 percent
Paper Proposal (due Tuesday of 8th Week), 10 percent
Research Paper (due Tuesday of Finals Week), 40 percent

Course Expectations

Class time will be spent discussing and contextualizing primary-source documents from the history of unemployment. The course will work best if it is a collective effort in which we all participate. For that reason, your attendance is required. One absence per quarter will be excused, as long as you notify me of your absence by email before the start of class (exceptions will be made for emergencies). Unexcused absences will result in the loss of 3.33 points off of your final grade. 

Of course, not only attendance but also participation in discussion is essential for a successful seminar. Please take notes by hand rather than on a computer, as screens put distance between classroom participants. Students are expected to bring their own, printed-out, marked-up copies of the readings to class. Read all of the required reading and to be prepared to discuss it in detail. Over the course of the quarter, you will be also expected to complete a series of writing assignments and do one presentation.


Short In-Class Presentations. On the first day of class, I will provide a sign-up sheet for in-class presentations. You will each do one presentation this quarter. For these presentations, you will briefly outline what you see as the key concepts for the day’s readings, highlight any controversies or debates, relate themes from the day’s readings to concepts in the course as a whole, and draw attention to what you find striking, surprising, or provocative. These short presentations will take at the minimum 5 minutes and at the maximum 10 minutes. I would prefer that you present informally on the texts, if you can. In other words, try not to read your presentation from a sheet of paper, but feel free bring notes or an outline.

Weekly response papers. These response papers are due in class every Thursday at the beginning of class. They should be 300-500 words, single-spaced, with parenthetical citations as needed. These are meant to be “exploratory” writings. Use writing as a way to figure out what you think about one or more readings for the week. Summarize their contents and explain their significance. Analyze authors’ standpoints and place their interventions in historical context. These short assignments will be graded on a full/half/no-credit basis. You will be given a check for any writing that shows you are making a real effort. For all assignments, include your name, my name, and the course number at the top. Give your paper a title.

Paper Proposal. Whether you choose to dig deeper into a subject we cover as a class or identify a research topic of your own, your research paper is a chance for you to develop your own scholarly interests. Your paper must be historically minded and contain a significant research component. It can relate to any issue of unemployment, underemployment, and informality, or any attempt to end or reduce these issues via full-employment policies, basic-income schemes, socialist revolution, etc. On Tuesday of 8th week, you will turn in a proposal of at least 500 words, as well as an annotated bibliography of 5-8 sources. You should meet with me in office hours in advance of this date to discuss your proposed topic.

Research Paper. This paper should be 3000-4000 words, double-spaced, and in 12pt, Times New Roman font with one-inch margins. It should have a title and page numbers. It should use Chicago-style footnotes for citations. In your essay, be sure to explain what theoretical problem or question you will address. Then, put forward an argument based on your reconstruction, contextualization, and evaluation of texts we read in class as well as materials that you found outside of class. Essays should be well organized and well written. Each paragraph must have a clear topic sentence that advances the argument by one step. You should back up the points you make using both reasoning and evidence. At the end of your essay, be sure to explain the significance of the history you have reconstructed as well as of your evaluations (why does any of this matter?). Also, please include a works cited section with proper bibliographic information.



Week 1

March 28th

March 30th
Selections from The Poor Law Commissioners’ Report of 1834
Booth, Life and Labor of the People of England (1889), Part 1, Ch. 1-2, 5-6

Week 2

April 4th
Booth, Life and Labor of the People of England (1889), Part 2, Ch. 1; Part 3, Ch. 1 & 4

April 6th
Hobson, The Problem of the Unemployed (1896), Ch. 1-6, 8

Week 3

April 11th
Beveridge, Unemployment: A Problem of Industry (1910), Ch. 1-5

April 13th
Beveridge, Unemployment: A Problem of Industry (1910), Ch. 6-10
Selections from The National Insurance Act (UK)

Week 4  

April 18th
Lazarsfeld et. al., The Marienthal Study (1933), Ch. 1-8

April 20th
William Green, “Labor Versus the Machine” (1930)
IWW, Unemployment and the Machine (1934)
Keynes, “Economic Problems of our Grandchildren” (1930)
Keynes, “The General Theory of Employment” (1937)

Week 5

April 25th
Selections from Social Insurance and Allied Services (1942)
Beveridge, Full Employment in a Free Society (1944), Parts 1-3

April 27th
Beveridge, Full Employment in a Free Society (1944), Parts 4-5 & 7


Week VI

May 2nd
ILO, The Declaration of Philadelphia (1944)
Robinson, “Disguised Unemployment” (1936)
Rosenstein-Rodan, “Economically Backward Areas” (1944)
Lewis, “Economic Development with Unlimited Supplies of Labor” (1954)

May 4th
Ad-Hoc Committee, “The Triple Revolution” (1964)
Boggs and Boggs, The American Revolution (1963), Ch. 1-4, 7-8
Boggs and Boggs, “The City is a Black Man’s Land” (1966)
Cleaver, “On Lumpen Ideology” (1972)

Week VII

May 9th
Franklin, “Employment and Unemployment” (1969)
Morse, Director’s Report: The World Employment Programme (1969)

May 11th
Hart, “Informal Income Opportunities and Urban Employment in Ghana” (1971)
Selections from ILO, Employment, Incomes and Equality in Kenya (1972)
Breman, “A Dualistic Labor System?” Parts 1-3 (1976)
Seutherman, “The Urban Informal Sector” (1976)


May 16th
Singh, “Institutional requirements for full employment” (1995)
Friedman and Friedman, “Cradle to Grave” (1979)
Lucas, “Unemployment Policy” (1978)
Standing, “On the Concept of Voluntary Unemployment” (1981)

May 18th
Tokman, “The Employment Crisis in Latin America” (1984)
Cordova, “From Full Time Employment to Atypical Employment” (1986)
Jamal and Weeks, “The Vanishing Rural-Urban Gap in Africa” (1988)
Tchernina, “Unemployment and Poverty in Russia” (1994) 
Emmerij, “The Employment Problem and the International Economy” (1994)

Week IX

May 23rd
Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers (2012)
Breman, “Life and Death in Annawadi” (2012)

May 25th
Standing, The Precariat (2011), Ch. 1-4

Week X

May 30th
Standing, The Precariat (2011), Ch. 5-7
Breman, “A Bogus Concept” (2013)
Standing, “Why the Precariat is not a Bogus Concept” (2014) 

June 1st

Appendix: Additional Course Policies

Disabilities: Please contact me and Student Disability Services (https://disabilities.uchicago.edu/request-review) by the end of the second week if you have a documented disability so we can make reasonable accommodations. All discussions will remain confidential.

Citations: For essay assignments, cite by author, title and page number any ideas that are (a) not common knowledge and (b) not your own idea. Anything covered in lecture counts as common knowledge. Put quotations in quotation marks and, again, identify their source. When possible, paraphrase from sources (and cite them) rather than quoting them directly. For citation style, I prefer the Chicago Manual of Style, which uses footnotes for citations. If you are unfamiliar with this citation style, please see: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/717/03/

Academic Dishonesty: Acts of plagiarism, cheating, or copying work from other students, as well as other sorts of academic dishonesty, are serious violations of university policy. Do not copy ideas, quotations, portions of papers or entire papers from friends, websites, books, articles, or term-paper mills. You will get caught, either in this course, or in a later one. The consequences of cheating for your education and your moral character will last a lifetime.

Discrimination, Intimidation & Harassment: It is the right of all students to have equal access to course content in an environment free of prejudice, discrimination, and harassment. Learn your fellow students names. Treat them with respect regardless of differences of perspective.

Questions: If you have any questions, do not hesitate to visit me in office hours. I will also answer emails pertaining to the course, but I will do so only during office hours. In other words, I prefer that if you have a substantial question, you ask me in person. If you cannot come to my office hours because of a scheduling conflict, or for any other reason, we can always arrange to meet at another time. I am also regularly in my office, so feel free to come by and say hello.