Ottoman Political Economies

September 26, 2022 | Blog
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by Camille Lyans Cole (University of Cambridge) and Peter Hill (Northumbria University)

This blog is based upon a grant awarded by the Economic History Society through its Initiatives & Conference Fund. The ‘Ottoman Political Economies’ workshop is being held at the University of Cambridge from 14-15 October.

The Ottoman Empire ruled a vast expanse of territory over six centuries. It was closely integrated into global trade networks and encompassed multiple forms of production, lifeways, and interactions between humans and non-human nature. The Ottoman state and its diverse subjects were constantly engaged in negotiating the allocation of resources, labour, and power. They developed sophisticated modes of producing wealth, collecting and withholding revenue and profits, negotiating forms of labour, and defining property and the economy through law and custom.


Figure 1.   The port of Suez

Source: Photoglob Co., c.1890-1910, Library of Congress, LOT 14192, no. 236.


The past few decades have seen growing interest in global history, the history of capitalism, and the political economy of the post-Ottoman Middle East. Yet, the question of the Ottoman world’s relationship to concepts of ‘economy’ or ‘capitalism’ has been little studied and seldom theorised since the cultural turn among historians. What role did Ottoman spaces, actors, and resources play in the construction of global capitalism? Where and when did this occur within the empire’s wide geography and long history? Did the Ottoman empire have its own distinctive modes of political economy—and if so, how should these be conceptualized? How do Ottoman legal constructions, practices, and experiences of power, production, work, exchange, or the household broaden our theoretical vocabulary and our understanding of the history of capitalism more broadly?


Over the past few years, an exciting body of work has begun to emerge—particularly from early-career scholars—that addresses these and related questions. The ‘Ottoman Political Economies’ workshop, which will be held at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities (CRASSH) at the University of Cambridge on 14-15 October 2022, builds on a successful online workshop designed to offer a rubric for collaboration among early-career academics working in these areas. Where the historiography of the Middle East continues to be dominated by cultural and intellectual approaches, the workshop aims to serve as a forum for this community of scholars who centre material questions, especially in conversation with other approaches. At CRASSH, we bring this work into conversation for the first time with a wider audience of economic and social historians, social scientists, anthropologists, and theorists of political economy. We also aim for the workshop to serve as a basis for more sustained collaboration, within the network and more broadly. The network already includes a number of members who specialize in non-Ottoman contexts ranging from early-modern England to revolutionary Greece. Ultimately, we hope that by cultivating a space for sustained collective thinking at the intersection of Ottoman and global material histories, the workshop can intervene in both fields.


The workshop will consist of six panels, each with two short pre-circulated papers. The papers will be loosely grouped into themes including concepts of property, political economy and law, governance and violence, state finance, and capitalism, and we intend that the panels serve as jumping-off points for broader thematic conversations. In focusing on topics like property, state finance, and capitalism, which were among the issues which most preoccupied Ottomanists in the sixties and seventies, we are not advocating for a return to the cliometric approaches which previously dominated Ottoman economic history. Instead, the work presented at the workshop considers questions of political economy in light of the insights of the cultural turn; as well as through newer lenses provided by subfields like environmental history and critical legal studies. Workshop participants take advantage of substantially increased access to Ottoman state archival sources in the last several decades, especially legal and financial sources, while also adopting a more expansive view of the source languages and genres which can contribute to a history of Ottoman political economy.


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