Economic history is a vast and complicated discipline; and it is only natural that when you get an opportunity to choose a topic to write an essay on you may feel overwhelmed. It is a common misconception that freedom of choice makes such job easier; it doesn’t. It certainly makes the things much more interesting, but there is something deeply comforting about having a topic defined for you.
When choosing a topic for your essay, you can make use of the dubious nature of the discipline itself. After all, neither historians nor economists have a very clear idea of what, when all is said and done, economic history is (at least they tend to offer extensive explanations with numerous minute details, contradicting and opposing each other more often than not). What is economic history? The study of how economies performed in the past? The study of economic aspects of past societies? The history of the ways resources, labor and capital tended to be used? Take your pick, research the matter, offer your own opinion – write an essay.
Or you may take a diametrically opposite approach, and instead of generalizing your topic narrow it down as much as possible. Take some historical event or phenomenon and study in which ways it influenced local and global economy. Let’s for example, take slavery in America – it alone offers dozens of possible takes and approaches. What were the economic reasons for slavery? In what ways did the influx of African slaves impact American economy? How did the resulting Atlantic triangular trade influence the global economy? What lead to the abolition of slavery – purely altruistic motives or was it based on changing economic situation? What were the economic results of abolition of slavery? It is just a tip of just one iceberg, showing that virtually anything in history is at least partially caused by economic reasons or has long-lasting economic implications.
Another approach worth mentioning is a study of the history of a particular phenomenon throughout the entirety of its existence. For example, child labor in industrial era – you may study the economic reasons for its emergence, in what forms it existed, when and why it was prohibited.
For those who like to analyze and draw conclusions there is always the parallel approach – study an event or phenomenon in economic history and draw parallels with something that happens in the world now. For example, if you don’t shy away from controversial topics, you may compare modern war on drugs with Prohibition and its results. Both of them set the goal of eliminating or at least curtailing some kind of activity, and both seem to show little to no intended effect, instead creating fertile ground for criminal organizations – perhaps some conclusions are in order?
The fact that economic history is grounded in the past opens up an enormous venue for research, experimentation and creativity (however weird the word ‘creativity’ may sound in the same sentence with ‘economic history’). Just try to avoid the most commonplace and trite topics that spring to mind, and you will find what you need.