Ethical Consumption Before Capitalism (2021-2022)


Is there a right type and amount of consumption? The idea of ethical consumption has gained prominence in recent discourse, both in terms of what we purchase (from fair trade coffee to carbon offsets) and how much we consume (from rechargeable batteries to energy efficient homes). These modes of ethical consumerism assume that individuals become political, as well as economic, actors through shopping. 

Concern with the morality of consumption is not new to capitalist societies and is present in the earliest discourses surrounding the market economy. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the central concept of a good’s value centered on its “just price,” which was meant to reflect the true value and usefulness of objects outside of the demands of the market. 

Medieval and Renaissance authors regularly debated the relationship between consumption and labor: did consumption have to be “earned” through appropriate levels of work? These questions and others like them were highly contested, and they have shaped modern discourse around the ethics of consumption, making it critical to understand how premodern people understood the relationship between consumer culture and living ethically.

Project Description 

This project seeks to build understanding of the nature of premodern discourses of ethical consumption through tracking the relationship between consumer culture and ethics in language. Understanding the premodern antecedents to the discourse of ethical consumption requires dual approaches: a qualitative one that carefully and closely reads the explicit exhortations in ethical literature toward behaving justly in the market, and a data-driven one that is capable of identifying how linguistic traces of this ethical discourse are created, borrowed, abandoned and reformulated over a large textual corpus. 

Building on the 2021 Data+ project’s research, team members will explore the traditional archives of both Duke and Birmingham-Southern College. The team will study the discourse of ethical consumerism using both computational methodologies and archival research. Team members will analyze the approximately 60,000 Medieval and Renaissance texts that were made available by the Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership in 2020. They will also identify, apply to and prepare a poster and/or oral presentation for an appropriate conference in the U.S.

Learn more about this project team by viewing the team's video.

Anticipated Outputs

Online publication organizing materials from both digital and traditional archives; conference presentations

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this project team will be comprised of 4 graduate students and 6 undergraduate students from a mix of STEM (particularly computer science, statistics or math) and humanities (particularly English and history) backgrounds. Graduate students interested in computational work and/or web design would be helpful. 

Undergraduate students will learn how to carry through a project from early data analysis to conference presentation. They will also learn both traditional literary and historical skills (working with rare/archival materials) and how they can be paired with computational textual study. Masters-level students will learn how data analysis can be applied in literary and ethical research. Ph.D.-level students (in the humanities) will learn to work with computational methodologies as well as how to teach students from different types of institutions (from a research institution to a small liberal arts college) and to manage undergraduate teams.

In Fall 2021, the team will meet on Tuesdays from 3:30-4:20 p.m.

Student travel opportunities are to be determined.


Fall 2021 – Spring 2022 

  • Fall 2021: Learn to work with traditional materials and archives; learn about early books and printing culture; consult with archivists; identify appropriate conference; prepare proposal
  • Spring 2022: Finish conducting research; learn to write a conference paper; prepare for conference; complete digital publication; attend conference


Academic credit available for fall and spring semesters

See related Data+ summer projects, Ethical Consumption Before Capitalism (2021) and For Love of Greed: Tracing the Early History of Consumer Culture (2020).


Image: Medieval, by June Yarham, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


Team Leaders

  • Astrid Giugni, English
  • Jessica Hines, Birmingham-Southern College

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Katherine Collins, Duke Libraries
  • Lee Sorensen, Duke Libraries

/zcommunity Team Members

  • G.K. Armstrong, Birmingham-Southern College Library