Ethical Consumption Before Capitalism (2023-2024)


Is it ethically permissible to sell, buy and use luxury goods? What labor practices do we tolerate to make these goods available?

In the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, England was faced with an ever-growing supply of new and exciting goods, made possible by new trade routes to the “New World,” the African continent and India, as well as by the exploitation of indentured and enslaved laborers. Investors were asked to contribute to financially risky ventures; prospective settlers of the New World colonies were enticed by promises of moral and economic improvement. In the propaganda of the period, the inherent risks and hardships of these ventures were diminished to highlight the potential profits to be made.

However, the goods cultivated and traded through these new global markets were viewed by many with suspicion. From exotic dyes to tobacco and opium, these sought-after luxury items represented an uneasy mix of economic opportunity and ethical risk — some due to their addictive qualities, and others because of their production by slave labor. 

These and similar questions have shaped our modern understanding around the ethics of consumption and global trade, making it critical to understand how premodern people understood the relationship between consumer culture, trade and living ethically.

Project Description

Building on the work of previous teams, this project team will explore early discourses around consumerism and language pertaining to culture, trade and ethics. In order to understand premodern views of “ethical consumption” and global market relationships, the team will take two linked approaches. 

First, team members will take a qualitative approach through close reading and annotation of premodern literature found in the traditional archives at Duke. Second, they will take a quantitative, data-driven approach to identify how linguistic traces of this ethical discourse have been created, borrowed and reformulated over an expansive body of text.

The team will use the approximately 60,000 medieval and renaissance texts made available by the Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership (EEBO-TCP). This year’s team will expand the project by analyzing the reception of new luxury goods within English markets both by including an analysis of popular texts (such as ballads, news sheets and plays) and by tracking literature produced by specific trading companies.

The team will also focus on goods, labor and trading networks that are tied to gender-, class- and race-based discourses, such as luxury dyes and intoxicants, as well as the growing support of the colonial projects in the New World through the exploitation of a mix of indentured (Irish and British) and enslaved (African and Native American) labor.

Anticipated Outputs

Expansion of website showcasing research on the history of discourse around ethical consumerism, trade monopolies and forced labor; model for integrating undergraduate computational research in literary and historical teaching; presentation at a conference 

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this team will include 2 graduate students and 6 undergraduate students. Interested undergraduate candidates may include a mix of STEM (such as computer science, statistics or math) and humanities (particularly English and history) majors. The team is also seeking master’s students interested in computational work.

Undergraduate students will learn how to carry through a project from data analysis to improving code built by previous students to presenting at a conference. They will also learn both traditional literary and historical skills (working with rare/archival materials) and how these skills can be paired with natural language processing approaches. Master’s students will learn how data analysis can be applied in literary and ethical research.

In Fall 2023, the team will meet on Tuesday evenings from 5:00 to 6:00 p.m. in a tutorial format. Additionally, students will be required to meet at least once per week with fellow team members to produce a joint progress report. A graduate project manager will hold office hours in addition to the weekly group meeting. If possible, the students will meet regularly with the project manager to conduct research in the library archive.

The team may travel for a conference or  visit the Newberry Library in Chicago to access the Edward E. Ayer Collection, comprising accounts of early America (including exploration narratives and cartography from the 16th and 17th centuries). 

See the related Data+ project for Summer 2023; there is a separate application process for students who are interested in this optional component.


Summer 2023 – Spring 2024

  • Summer 2023 (optional): Data+ students: Perform large-scale text analysis; organize results in a series of visualizations and interactive app
  • Fall 2023: Work with archival materials and computational analysis; prepare and submit proposal for a spring conference presentation
  • Spring 2024: Finish conducting research; write conference paper; prepare for conference; work to expand existing website


Academic credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding available

See related Data+ summer project, Ethical Consumption Before Capitalism (2023), and earlier related team, Ethical Consumption Before Capitalism (2021-2022).


Image: Medieval Trade Routes, by Ines S., licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Section of old map showing medieval trade routes around Portugal.

Team Leaders

  • Astrid Giugni, Arts & Sciences-English
  • Jessica Hines, Birmingham-Southern College

/graduate Team Members

  • Emily Gebhardt, History-PHD

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Ava Bailey, Physics (BS)
  • Sophia Immordino, History (AB)
  • Sarah Konrad, History (AB)
  • Yumeng Li
  • Madison Nguyen

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Katherine Collins, Duke Libraries