Global Houses: Thinking through the East India Company at Home

As scholarly interest in global and ‘deep’ history continues to develop and strengthen, the question of scale has become ever more pertinent within historical scholarship.[1] Shifting parameters have prompted scholars to consider historical change as it occurred across vast geographical spaces, long temporal periods and for a range of historical actors (both human and non-human). As such the unit of analysis that scholars choose becomes an ever-more pressing question in our examination of the connections and encounters that shaped the past. The findings of The East India Company at Home project have further highlighted the need to question scale and rethink the units of analysis used to write global and imperial histories.

Some studies, such as Giorgio Riello’s recent book on cotton (outlined in the keynote lecture at the East India Company at Home’s mid-project conference last year), have looked to particular commodities to explore how different societies and cultures came to encounter each other in new ways during the early modern and modern periods. While commodities and companies provide points of entry, other historians have looked to people. For example, in her 2007 work The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: A Woman in World History, Linda Colley looked to an individual woman to explore the global. Tracking unusually cosmopolitan individuals has proved a particularly compelling route to revealing the broad processes that shaped their lives.[2] Nevertheless such an approach is problematic. By following the mover rather than the moved, the cosmopolitan rather than the provincial, such histories understand ‘the global’ as a particular kind of historical force. In doing so they fail to capture the static standpoint and the processes of coming together, leaving, absence, return and imagining that were important (as our project has shown) to the increasing number of lives lived on a global scale in the eighteenth century.

Global histories and the large-scale synthesised forms they often take, also often fail to capture subjectivities formed through shared experiences and meanings. The intimate politics of life were increasingly shaped by global forces and were themselves important in shaping how global connections and encounters operated. As Ann McGrath has argued, the micro and macro need to be understood as ‘mutually informative’.[3] In imperial history such complexities have been productively mined, by historians such as Durba Ghosh, Antoinette Burton, Catherine Hall and Margot Finn, through their focus on the unit of the family.[4] But as many of these scholars note, it is important that we consider who was ‘of ‘ the family, as well as who was ‘in’ it. Eighteenth-century families, particularly imperial families, did not just include children born of the husband and wife that headed the family. Similarly, families were bolstered, not only by the work of family members, but often by household members such as servants, ayahs and stewards. All these actors played important roles within the family unit and the way in which family was formed and reproduced. It remains problematic then they have featured little within the East India Company at Home project.

A still broader range of agents might also need to come into considerations of the intimate and everyday politics of life – asking us to move beyond the family to a different unit of analysis. As The East India Company at Home has demonstrated armorial porcelain, handkerchiefs, houses and horses acted as important agents within small-scale social worlds. Bruno Latour’s work encourages us to take these things seriously, as actors in their own right. He argues that ‘any thing that does modify a state of affairs by making a difference is an actor’.[5] Things might not determine outcomes, but neither can they be understood as mere backdrops to human action. Rather they were important agents in the assemblages through which and between which social worlds were formed. It is important that histories are written that capture and analyse the interactions that occurred between a wider range of actors, in order that we understand how people, objects, animals and houses shaped the intimate politics of the micro. We also need to understand how global forces produced particular assemblages of people and things within specific sites and the impact of these assemblages on the global and imperial. It is through capturing all these different engagements and interactions that richer histories of the global can be produced.

Such histories were not the original purpose of The East India Company at Home project. Nevertheless the project has shown the necessity of examining assemblages that include people and things. What is the unit of analysis that we could use to do this? Moving beyond the individual, the commodity and the family, what would happen if global histories were written through houses and households? What might the global house look like? The household switches our focus to offer a static site through which and in which people, objects and animals interact and encounter each other and takes each seriously. The house offers up a space (and the sources) through which we as historians could consider the effects of the global upon those that did and did not move and how such movements were negotiated through and between things, space and people.

In conclusion then, The East India Company at Home project has prompted new questions about scale and the units of analysis we employ to understand global and imperial histories. By being situated first in the Global History and Culture Centre at the University of Warwick and then UCL History, with its focus on the transnational and imperial, this project has been uniquely positioned to engage with and begin to ask such questions.

Kate Smith

Please note that this think-piece was first published on in August 2014. For citation advice visit: ‘Using the website’.



[1]Sebouh David Aslanian, Joyce E. Chaplin, Ann McGrath and Kristin Mann, ‘AHR Conversation – How Size Matters: The Question of Scale in History’, American Historical Review, (Dec 2013), pp. 1431-1472.

[2]Another example of this is Natalie Zemon Davis, Trickster Travels: In search of Leo Africanus, a sixteenth-century Muslim between worlds (London: Faber, 2007).

[3]Aslanian, Chaplin, McGrath and Mann, ‘AHR Conversation – How Size Matters’, American Historical Review, p. 1436.

[4]See for example Durba Ghosh, Sex and the Family in Colonial India: the making of empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Emma Rothschild, The Inner Life of Empires: an eighteenth-century history (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2011); Elizabeth Buettner, Empire Families: Britons and late imperial India (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); Esme Cleall, Laura Ishiguro and Emily J. Manktelow (eds), Special Issue: ‘Imperial Relations: Families in the British Empire’, Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, 14:1 (2013).

[5] Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social An Introduction to Actor Network Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 71.