Samantha Iyer

Assistant Professor of HistorySamantha Iyer Profile Image 2016
Email: [email protected]
Office: Dealy Hall 618

  • University of California at Berkeley, Ph.D. in History, 2014

    University of Chicago, B.A. in Sociology, 2004

  • I am a historian of international political economy and political ecology in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and my work focuses on the United States, the Middle East, and South Asia. In it, I seek to make sense of large-scale political, economic, and ecological change, without ignoring the insights that social and cultural historians have taught us about the significance of everyday conflicts over race, class, and gender in shaping our world.

    My forthcoming book, Agrarian Superpower, considers through the prism of food and agriculture how the United States emerged as a global power by the mid-twentieth century out of a British imperial era. It takes as its starting point an often ignored, yet fundamental characteristic of the United States in the post-World War II era: In contrast to imperial Britain, an industrial power that was dependent on its colonies and former colonies for food and other raw materials, the United States was an agrarian superpower in a world of national economies. Over the course of the twentieth century, its farmers produced bewildering quantities of crops using the ingredients of fossil fuels, biotechnology, and government farm credit. With the establishment of its food aid program in 1954, the United States became the dominant exporter of food staples to industrializing countries in the Third World. Two former British colonies—Egypt and India—became two of the largest importers of U.S. food aid after their independence. The book investigates the origins and effects of this U.S.-centric food order by examining changing modes of producing, organizing, calculating, distributing, and consuming agricultural surpluses in Egypt, India, and the United States, from late nineteenth century to the early 1970s. It argues that food aid became such a powerful instrument of U.S. global power during the Cold War because it offered a tool for managing Third World national economies.

    The book project is part of a larger effort to grapple with a methodological question—the problem of scale—that has been inadequately addressed in the fields that are now called global history and history of capitalism. My work tries to locate and understand systemic changes in an interconnected world. But it insists that actors who commanded capital, political power, or intellectual influence over large swathes of the globe did not act autonomously in making this world. Drawing on international archival research that relies heavily on non-European language sources, it shows how large-scale political, economic, and intellectual shifts bore the imprint of the ideas and activities of peasants, workers, and consumers.

    Two lines of separate research have emerged out of the research on the book. The first examines how population science in late British colonial India shaped the twentieth- century concepts of “developed” and “underdeveloped” worlds. I have published this work in “Colonial Population and the Idea of Development,” Comparative Studies in Society and History (2013). The second line of research investigates the mid-twentieth- century history of the domestic counterpart to U.S. food aid: the surplus commodity and food stamp programs. One piece of this research will be published in a forthcoming article in Past and Present, “Agricultural Workers, Tenant Farmers, and the Midcentury U.S. Welfare State: A View from the Lower Mississippi Valley.” It shows how these food programs mimicked older agrarian credit relations between black workers and tenants and their white employers and landlords in cotton-producing regions of the Mississippi Valley. They thus reinforced racial and class hierarchies, even as life in the region was overturned with the adoption of mechanized and petrochemical-based farming.

    My work has been supported by various external fellowships, including the Kluge Fellowship, the ACLS Fellowship, the American Institute for Indian Studies’ Senior Fellowship, the Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship, the SSRC’s International Dissertation Research Fellowship, and the Fulbright.

  • Undergraduate:

    HIST 1100 - Understanding Historical Change: American History

    HIST 3868 - Culture and Capitalism in the U.S.

    HIST 4727: Economic Life and British Colonialism

    HIST 4726: Questions of Global Capitalism


    HIST 5300: History, Theory, Methods: The Historian’s Tools 

    HIST 5600: History of Economic Life: Capitalism and Its Others 

  • Iyer CV 2024