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Tracy K. Dennison

Professor of Social Science History
Tracy Dennison headshot
Contact information for Tracy K. Dennison
Contact Method Value
Mail Code: MC 101-40
Office: 309 Dabney Hall
Phone: 626-395-1742
Administrative Assistant:
B.A., Bucknell University, 1992; M.Phil., University of Oxford, 1999; Ph.D., University of Cambridge, 2004. Assistant Professor, Caltech, 2006-09; Associate Professor, 2009-11; Professor, 2011-.

Research Interests

Pre-revolutionary Russia and Eastern Europe; Demographic History; Institutions and Economic Growth; History of Ideas about Peasant Societies


Economic History; Social Science History


Tracy Dennison is interested in understanding how societies worked in the past: how did societal rules and norms affect the decisions people made about their lives? Her research to date has focused on this question at the micro level, considering the ways in which pre-modern institutions such as states, landlords, communities, and households influenced the economic, social, and demographic behavior of ordinary people in everyday life. In particular, Dennison has studied the role of landlords' policies and practices in imperial Russia, and the way that the quasi-formal legal systems established by some wealthy landlords that made it possible for their serfs to conduct property and credit transactions despite their ambiguous legal status. This subject was explored in her 2011 book, The Institutional Framework of Russian Serfdom (Cambridge University Press), in which she argues that these micro-level practices had important 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 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 affect the process and outcomes of reform in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? 

The question of institutions – what they are and how they function – is central to Dennison's research. Beyond questions about the impact of specific institutions on local behaviors, she is interested in the way that institutions fit together in any given society to form a larger institutional system, the workings of which are often hidden from the view of observers. 

Selected Publications