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How Cities Work: Urban Economies in Africa, Asia and Latin America in the 20th Century


Admission requirements

This course is part of the (Res)MA History Programme. It is not accessible for BA students.


Rapid urbanisation and the emergence of megacities in Africa, Asia and Latin America during the twentieth century have attracted much scholarly attention. It remains a puzzle how cities such as Kinshasa or Delhi can function, how they are supplied with food and how they manage to generate livelihoods for their multimillion populations. Even if the economic basis of their existence remains elusive, these cities continue to attract more inhabitants from rural and peri-urban hinterlands.

This research seminar will focus on the economic dynamics of these cities, questioning how they ‘work’. After a theoretical introduction, which will discuss the skewed relationship between urbanisation, economic growth, development and modernisation, different themes will be explored. These include rural-urban linkages and patterns of labour migration; urban food provisioning and urban agriculture; (in)formal economies; urbanisation without economic growth; and issues of urban planning, policy and infrastructure.

Students will be challenged to study and comprehend the economic dynamics of a city of their choice. They will engage with a variety of sources, from national development plans to World Bank reports, and from statistics to ethnographies and novels. In order to understand the economics of urbanisation the social, cultural and political aspects of urban centres have to be considered as well.

Course objectives

General learning objectives

The student has acquired:

  1. The ability to independently identify and select literature, using traditional and modern techniques;
  2. The ability to independently identify and select sources, using traditional and modern techniques;
  3. The ability to analyse and evaluate a corpus of sources with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;
  4. The ability to analyse and evaluate literature with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;
  5. The ability to independently formulate a clear and well-argued research question, taking into account the theory and method of the field and to reduce this question to accessible and manageable sub-questions;
  6. The ability to independently set up and carry out an original research project that can make a contribution to existing scholarly debates;
  7. The ability to give a clear and well-founded oral and written report on research results in correct English, when required, or Dutch, meeting the criteria of the discipline;
  8. The ability to participate in current debates in the specialisation;
  9. The ability to provide constructive feedback to and formulate criticism of the work of others and the ability to evaluate the value of such criticism and feedback on one’s own work and incorporate it;
  10. (ResMA only): The ability to participate in a discussion of the theoretical foundations of the discipline.

Learning objectives, pertaining to the specialisation

  1. Thorough knowledge and comprehension of one of the specialisations or subspecialisations as well as of the historiography of the specialisation, focusing particularly on the following;
    • in the subspecialisation Economic History also: the origin and outcomes of the Great Divergence, developments in political economy since ca 1600, increasing global interdependence throughout the centuries, the development of global governance in the twentieth century, as well as the most important debates in recent Economic History.
  2. Thorough knowledge and comprehension of the theoretical, conceptual and methodological aspects of the specialisation or subspecialisation in question, with a particular focus on the following:
    • in the subspecialisation Economic History also: the application of economic concepts, research methods or models; insight into the argumentation of current debates.

Learning objectives, pertaining to this Research Seminar

The student:

  1. Acquires the ability to apply an interdisciplinary approach (application of theories and methods from social sciences);
  2. Acquires the ability to engage with debates on the economics of urbanisation and the ability to study urbanisation from a comparative perspective (chronologically and geographically);
  3. Acquires the ability to work with a variety of primary and secondary sources;
  4. (ResMA only): Acquires the ability to interpret a potentially complex corpus of sources; the ability to identify new approaches within existing academic debates; and acquires knowledge of the interdisciplinary aspects of the specialisation.


The timetable is available on the MA History website.

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar

Course Load

Total course load 10 EC x 28 hours= 280 hours

  • Lectures: 13 sessions (2 hours weekly): 26 hours

  • Preparing for class/reading literature: 48 hours

  • Preparing presentations: 16 hours

  • Research and reading literature for written paper: 90 hours

  • Writing paper: 100 hours

Assessment method

  • Written paper (ca. 7500 words, based on research in primary sources, including footnotes and bibliography)
    Measured learning objectives: 1-8, 11-16

  • Oral presentation
    Measured learning objectives: 3-10

  • Assignment 1 (presentation of primary source material)
    Measured learning objectives: 2-4, 7, 9, 15

  • Assignment 2 (class participation and discussions)
    Measured learning objectives: 6-10, 16


Written paper: 60 %
Oral presentation: 20 %
Assignment 1: 10 %
Assignment 2: 10 %

The final grade for the course is established by determining the weighted average with the additional requirement that the written paper must always be sufficient.


Should the overall mark be unsatisfactory, the paper is to be revised after consultation with the instructor.


Blackboard will be used for:

  • Communication and course information

  • Literature

  • Powerpoints

Reading list

  • The compulsory and recommended literature will be announced via Blackboard and during the first week.

  • Articles can be downloaded via the Leiden University library website.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.
General information about uSis is available in English and Dutch

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable.


Dr. I. Pesa