Professor of Social Science History
Tracy Dennison studies institutions and their effects on long-term growth and development. She is especially interested in the roots of economic divergence between east and west Europe, and uses serfdom as a lens through which to examine institutional change over time. Dennison is interested in how specific societies worked in the past – how societal rules and norms affected human behavior and how and why this varied over space and time.
Dennison's research to date has focused on these questions at the micro level, using local sources to investigate the ways that pre-modern entities like states, landlords, communities, and households influenced the economic, social, and demographic behavior of people in their everyday lives. In particular, she has studied estate policies and practices in imperial Russia, and the way that quasi-formal legal systems established by some wealthy landlords made it possible for their serfs to conduct property and credit transactions despite their ambiguous legal status. This was the subject of her 2011 book, The Institutional Framework of Russian Serfdom (Cambridge University Press), in which she argued that these micro-level practices had significant implications for the longer-term economic development of Russia.
In her current project, Dennison is investigating these questions from a top-down perspective rather than the bottom-up approach taken previously. Comparing the abolition of serfdom in Prussia and in Russia, this research explores larger questions of political economy and state capacity and their implications for institutions and institutional change. How did the institutional structure of serfdom in central Europe differ from that in Russia and how did these differences matter to the process and outcomes of reform in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries?
Dennison has also published on institutions and demographic behavior, comparative systems of serfdom, and on the importance of history and historical context in social science research. She is a regular contributor to Broadstreet Blog, an interdisciplinary forum which aims to bring research in historical political economy to a wider audience.
- Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellowship (LMU Munich 2015-17)
- HSS Brass Division Award for Excellence in Teaching (2016)
- Henry A. Wallace Prize for Best Book in Non-U.S. Agricultural History (2012)
- W. Bruce Lincoln Prize for Best First Monograph (2012)
- Economic History Society Prize for Best First Monograph (2012)
- NSF award for Imperial Russian Incomes Project (2010-11), as part of the Global Price and Income History Group (NSF: SES-0922531)
- Dennison, Tracy (2021) Context is Everything: The Problem of History in Quantitative Social Science. Journal of Historical Political Economy; Vol. 1: No. 1, pp 105-126.
- Dennison, Tracy (2021) Institutions and Material Conditions: The Problem of History in Piketty's Capital and Ideology. Œconomia (11-1). pp. 161-170.
- Dennison, Tracy and Klein, Alex (2021). The Socialist Experiment and Beyond: The Economic Development of Eastern Europe. In S. Broadberry & K. Fukao (Eds.), The Cambridge Economic History of the Modern World (The Cambridge Economic History of the Modern World, pp. 74-99). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Dennison, Tracy (2020) Overcoming Institutional Inertia: Serfdom, the State and Agrarian Reform in Prussia and Russia. In: A History of the European Restorations - Volume Two: Culture, Society and Religion. International Library of Historical Studies. Bloomsbury Academic, London, pp. 188-202.
- Dennison, Tracy and Ogilvie, Sheilagh (2016) Institutions, Demography, and Economic Growth. Journal of Economic History, 76 (1). pp. 205-217.
- Dennison, Tracy and Ogilvie, Sheilagh (2014) Does the European Marriage Pattern Explain Economic Growth? Journal of Economic History, 74 (3). pp. 651-693.
- Dennison, Tracy (2013) Contract enforcement in Russian serf society, 1750-1860. Economic History Review, 66 (3). pp. 715-732.
- Dennison, Tracy and Nafziger, Steven (2012) Living Standards in Nineteenth-Century Russia. Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 43 (3). pp. 397-441.
- Dennison, Tracy (2011). The Institutional Framework of Russian Serfdom (Cambridge Studies in Economic History - Second Series). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.