The modern invention of 'culture': Empire, globalism, and the persistence of history, 1776--1876

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Linda Shires


Cultural history, Globalization, Postcolonialism, Colonialism, William Makepeace Thackeray, Jane Austen

Subject Categories

Anthropology | Arts and Humanities | English Language and Literature | Literature in English, British Isles | Social and Behavioral Sciences | Social and Cultural Anthropology


This dissertation examines the economics of colonialism and empire as they impact the invention of the modern 'culture' concept in Britain in the long nineteenth century. I apply a transnationalist cultural studies approach to the history of this young idea--a narrative begun by Raymond Williams. I argue that a neglected globalism in perspective unites the otherwise diverse 'culture' writing of this period in ethnography, social theory, political economy, and domestic fiction. My contribution addresses a contemporary concern, the meaning of 'culture' in globalization for the interdisciplinary humanities.

My account is structured around exploding some of the most important myths of this key concept in social theory. In the first half of this study, I disrupt origin myths of 'culture' that focus primarily on the West or that downplay the role of European colonies in this idea's invention. show the geopolitics of early genesis myths of 'culture' by using Joseph-François Lafitau's eighteenth-century missionary-travelogue to excavate "New World" and colonial dimensions of this concept's early use. I then track how 'culture' is imported back into metropolitan social theory in Adam Smith's unexpected use of the idea in The Wealth of Nations (1776)--a text that uses 'culture' to figure the labor of African slaves and the Caribbean plantation economy into British global hegemony.

In the second half of this study, I turn to resistant uses of 'culture' in the work of several canonical authors in the influential literary history of 'culture' from the Romantics to Matthew Arnold. I show how Jane Austen uses 'culture' in Emma (1815) to satirize a romanticized English countryside central to this concept's humanist lineage. I then examine how William Makepeace Thackeray's Anglo-Indian perspective adds a spatial dimension to his temporal critique of hyper-commercialized Victorian society in Vanity Fair (1847-8). Last I explore conflicts of spirit and materiality in George Eliot's Daniel Deronda (1876) as they involve spaces and identities beyond England. Throughout this dissertation I argue that a nineteenth-century globalism, so much a part of the historical-textual record, remains neglected in modern memory and in our maps of cultural history and theory.


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