Matthew Noellert

Major Research Themes

1. Global transformation of rural society.
I am interested in the mid-twentieth century global transformation of human society from family farms to industrial organizations, one of the most profound and rapid shifts in recorded human history. I study from a comparative perspective both how this transformation shaped social behavior/organization and how the preexisting organization of agrarian societies shaped this transformation.

2. China’s rural revolution.
My understanding of the above global transformation grows out of my research on China’s rural revolution, which spanned most of the twentieth century. My first book, Power over Property: The Political Economy of Communist Land Reform in China (University of Michigan Press, 2020), examines the patterns and practices of an egalitarian reallocation of property and power in over 500 village communities in a single county. The main finding of this book, based on the analysis of an original database of tens of thousands of events of property confiscation, violence, and redistribution (the CRRD-LR), is that the most important problem in rural China in the first half of the twentieth century was not economic inequality, but the breakdown of the political hierarchy.

3. Assortative mating, kinship relations, occupational mobility, status hierarchies, the distributions of property and income, etc. in twentieth century rural China.
Beginning in 2014, I joined the Shanxi University Research Center for Chinese Social History as a postdoctoral fellow to collaborate on the construction of a new database of social class registration forms recorded during the Socialist Education Campaign in the mid-1960s (the CRRD-SQ). These forms contain detailed individual and household-level social-demographic, economic, and political histories describing much of the transformation of rural society over the first half of the twentieth century. Together with collaborators we have used these data to explore new understandings of twentieth century rural China.

4. Quantitative history methods.
As a member of the Lee-Campbell Research Group, my research uses large quantities of individual-level, historical demographic and economic data to reconstruct social processes from the bottom up. This bottom-up, inductive approach makes it possible to build new understandings and knowledge that can move beyond existing social theories based on top-down, deductive interpretations of the past.


In all of my teaching I emphasize data-driven and comparative approaches to understanding the past. This means exposing students to primary historical data and helping them think critically about what we can and cannot know about past peoples and places. History is also fundamentally comparative because any person who thinks about the past does so from the perspective of the present. I encourage students to make such comparisons explicit and then use comparisons across both time and space to develop deeper understandings of basic social and economic issues.

Courses at Hitotsubashi
Introduction to Economic History: The goal of this undergraduate lecture course is to learn how to see our present world as just one of many social possibilities. From a historical perspective, the modern world of capitalism and democracy as we know it is short-lived and currently undergoing fundamental change. By learning about past and non-European societies (e.g. China), students will gain a more open-minded perspective on the future.

Economic History B: The goal of this undergraduate course is to understand the social and economic development of modern China from the perspective of rural society, which until recently was home to over 4/5 of the population. Course themes explore not just how modern development changed rural society, but how rural society shaped this development.

Special Issues in Economic History: The goal of this undergraduate course is to learn how to construct and analyze original databases of historical microdata. Students with no experience in history, microdata, and/or data analysis are welcome to learn how these methods and tools can provide new perspectives on their research interests.

Asian Economic History: The goal of this graduate course is to transcend the European-based social theories that have defined the past two centuries of human history and begin to build better and more inclusive social theory for the twenty-first century. Class readings and discussions focus on integrating revisionist global histories of the modern world with empirical local case studies of modern China.

Comparative Economic History II: In this team-taught undergraduate/graduate course students gain hands-on experience in academic research and learn two basic tasks of a professional historian: evaluating previous scholarship and discovering and analyzing primary archival sources. By focusing on a single theme, students are encouraged to integrate existing knowledge with new historical facts.

Undergraduate Seminar: In this two-year Asian Economic History seminar students learn how to ask an important question and then spend one year trying to answer it. If they are lucky, after one year they feel satisfied with their answer. Otherwise, they may end up becoming a professional researcher. In the first year, the goal is to produce a research proposal that presents a question, a plan for answering it, and an explanation of why answering it is important. In the second year, the goal is to present an answer to the question in the form of an article-length research paper. The emphasis throughout is on using extant historical data/evidence to both motivate and answer research questions.

Graduate Seminar: The goal of this seminar is to produce a substantive research paper or dissertation based on primary sources. To this end, students learn how to develop their own independent research projects; identify, engage, and analyze historical data; and create new knowledge and effectively communicate it in writing. The seminar fosters collaborative and comparative research through regular progress reports and open discussion.

Personal Website
https://www.shss.ust.hk/lee-campbell-group/people-overview/matthew-noellert/ (Chinese)