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Irresistible Empire? 20th Century U.S. Consumer Culture in a Trans-Atlantic Context


Admission requirements

BSA norm and a pass for both first year Themacolleges


Irresistible Empire? 20th Century U.S. Consumer Culture in a Trans-Atlantic Context
Modern consumerism has connected the world through processes of trade, consumption and activism. During the twentieth century, the United States played a key role in the development of a mass consumer culture and its spread around the world. In this course we will explore the development of the American consumer culture and its role in twentieth century transatlantic relations.

During the first half of the 20th century the United States developed into the first modern mass consumption society. As Lizabeth Cohen has argued, while initially “trumpeted as a means to promote the general welfare, mass consumption quickly outgrew its economic objectives and became synonymous with patriotism, social equality, and the American Dream.” During this time America’s role and influence in the world also grew immensely - not just economically and militarily, but also culturally , for example, through the transfer of goods and ideas.

The relations that developed between the United States and Western Europe were particularly close. Authors like Victoria de Grazia have argued that “the most significant conquest of the twentieth century may well have been the triumph of American consumer society over Europe’s bourgeois civilization”, thus developing cultural hegemony through an ‘irresistible empire’. But how and to what extent did American culture actually ‘invade’ Europe during the 20th century, thus ‘Americanizing’ the continent? How was American culture received in Western Europe and was this influence just a one way street or did Europeans also transform American culture? How do culture and consumerism relate to power, diplomacy and foreign policy? To find answers to these questions, students will study a variety of literature by scholars with different academic backgrounds and familiarize themselves with key debates as well as concepts such as ‘Americanization, ‘cultural transfer’, ‘globalization’, ‘cultural imperialism’ and ‘cultural hybridity’ and explore the ways in which they relate to each other.

This BA-Werkcollege is connected to the Kerncollege Global Connections.

Course objectives

General learning objectives

  • 1) carry out a common assignment

  • 2) devise and conduct research of limited scope, including
    a. searching, selecting and ordering relevant literature:
    b. organising and using relatively large amounts of information:
    c. an analysis of a scholarly debate:
    d. placing the research within the context of a scholarly debate.

  • 3) reflect on the primary sources on which the scholarly literature is based;

  • 4) write a problem solving essay and give an oral presentation after the format defined in the first year Themacolleges, including
    a. using a realistic schedule of work;
    b. formulating a research question and subquestions;
    c. formulating a well-argued conclusion;
    d. giving and receiving feedback;
    e. responding to instructions of the lecturer.

  • 5) participate in discussions during class.

Learning objectives, pertaining to the specialization

  • 6) The student has knowledge of a specialisation, more specifically:
    -in the specialisation General History : the place of European history from 1500 in a worldwide perspective; with a focus on the development and role of political institutions;
    -in the track American History: American exceptionalism; the US as a multicultural society and the consequences of that for historiography; the intellectual interaction between the US and Europe;
    -in the track History of European Expansion and Globalisation: the development of global networks which facilitate ann ever growing circulation of people, animals, plants, goods and ideas, and the central role of European expansion in this from around 1500;

  • 7) Knowledge and insight in the main concepts, the research methods and techniques of the specialisation, more specifically of
    -in the specialisation General History: the study of primary sources and the context specificity of nationally defined histories;
    -in the track American History: exceptionalism; analysis of historiografical and intellectual debates;
    -in the track History of European Expansion and Globalisation: the combining of historiographical debates with empirical research of primary sources and/or the combining of various historiographical traditions through the use of innovative research questions.

Learning objectives, pertaining to this specific seminar

  • 8) acquire knowledge and insight with regards to the development of American consumer culture and its role in 20th century transatlantic relations.

  • 9) become familiar with relevant academic theories related to concepts like Americanization, cultural imperialism, globalization, cultural hybritiy, etc.

  • 10) gain the ability to engage in relevant scholarly debates related to these subjects.


The timetable is available on the BA History website

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar (attendance required)
    This means that students have to attend every session of the course. If a student is not able to attend, he is required to notify the teacher beforehand. The teacher will determine if and how the missed session can be compensated by an additional assignment. If specific restrictions apply to a particular course, the teacher will notify the students at the beginning of the semester. If a student does not comply with the aforementioned requirements, he will be excluded from the seminar.

Course Load

  • Class meetings: 26 hours

  • Study of compulsory literature: 82 hours

  • Written assignments (on the basis of the compulsory literature): 20 hours

  • Preparation of oral presentation: 32 hours

  • Final paper (including the reading of the necessary literature): 120 hours

Total course load 10 EC x 28 hours = 280 hours

Assessment method


  • Written paper (6000 words, based on historiography, excluding title page, table of contents,footnotes and bibliography)
    measured learning objectives: 2-4, 6-7, 8-10

  • Oral presentation
    measured learning objectives: 3-4, 8-10

  • Participation
    measured learning objectives: 1,5-10

  • Web posts based on the required readings
    measured learning objectives: 1-2, 6-10


  • Written paper: 60%

  • Oral presentation: 10%

  • Particiation: 10%

  • Web posts : 20%

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.


Written papers should be handed in within the given deadline, as published in the corresponding Blackboard course.


The written paper can be revised, when marked insufficient. Revision should be carried out within the given deadline, as published in the corresponding Blackboard course.


Blackboard will be used for:

  • general communication, handing in assignments.

Reading list

To be announced.


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. Albertine Bloemendal