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Department of Geography


A comparative study of subsistence crises

This research stresses the importance of comparative historical analysis, arguing that there is much to learn by assessing famines across space and time. The emergence of political and economic liberalism in Western Europe, for instance, shaped the context through which governments thought about the problem of urban food shortages, the policing of the grain trade, and how best to respond to hazards – both ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ – affecting the people’s food supply. Beyond Europe, in colonial economies, however, these same ideas often hardened into dogmatic prescriptions about how to optimally govern colonized peoples during times of acute crisis. Rather than ban the exportation of foodstuffs – a traditional anti-famine measure – colonial authorities insisted on unrestricted trade as a surer way to defend society against scarcity and a better means to safeguard indigenous productivity. At the same time, the notion that famines might promote, and even accelerate, desirable socioeconomic transformations (in what were widely considered to be ‘backward societies’) began to gain traction in elite and official circles.

Theoretically, then, this project explores the complex interactions – the toing and froing – between ideology and conduct. How do belief systems shape responses to human distress and are there more imaginative, humane and socially just ways to think about the problem of food provisioning?


  • Nally, D.. Hunger and Famine, in The SAGE Handbook of Historical Geography: Volume I, Sage 2020 pp 404-421.
  • Nally, D., 2016. Imagine all the people: Rockefeller philanthropy, Malthusian thinking and the ‘peasant problem’ in Asia, in Mayhew, R. (ed.) New Perspectives on Malthus: 250th Anniversary Essays, Cambridge University Press. doi:10.17863/CAM.16753.
  • Nally, D. ‘The Colonial Dimensions of the Great Irish Famine.’ John Crowley, William J. Smyth and Mike Murphy (Eds). An Atlas of the Great Irish Famine. Cork: Cork University Press, 2012 pp 64-74.
  • Nally, D. Human Encumbrances: Political Violence and the Great Irish Famine. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011.
  • Nally, D. ‘The Biopolitics of Food Provisioning.’ Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 36 (1) 2011 pp 37-53, doi:10.1111/j.1475-5661.2010.00413.x.

Human Encumbrances: Political Violence and the Great Irish Famine