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Empires: power, resistance, legacies

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Empires have had a remarkable impact on world history over the last five centuries. This module explores empires thematically, looking at their origins, rule, the experiences of imperialists and their subjects, forces of resistance, and imperial decay and legacies. The British empire is covered in detail along with its European counterparts and Asian empires: Ottoman, Mughal, and China. You'll use module textbooks and online teaching material and sources – including personal journals, oral histories, court records, film and photographs – to explore the perspectives of a wide range of people: from rulers and resisters to ordinary subjects.

What you will study

This module covers three main themes in the history of empires, namely power, resistance, and legacies from the fifteenth century to the present day. In doing this, it helps you to access the voices, perspectives, agency and documents of contrasting groups of subjects and imperialists, so you can understand them on their own terms.

Block 1: What are empires?
This block gives you the frameworks and tools needed to compare and contrast different peoples, places and empires across the centuries. The main themes are outlined, and it shows you the overarching chronology and shape of empires through looking at mapping. You'll also begin to learn about the key concepts, tools and historiography.

Block 2: How do empires begin?
You’ll look at contrasting examples of how empires and imperial systems of power begin. You'll also consider ‘the conquest after the conquest’: that is, how imperial power is consolidated. Examples range from British and European maritime expansion to the land empires of the Mughals and Ottomans. In doing this, you'll also look at the role played by African kingdoms in the formation of the ‘Atlantic World’ and at the nature and fate of the ‘Aztec’ empire.

Block 3: How do empires work?
In this block, you'll probe deeper into the ‘sinews of power’ that sustain empire: coercive, economic, cultural and bureaucratic. Three units will each take a distinctive theme, while the fourth brings these and more together in looking at how one empire, the Qing Chinese, operated from its origins to its ending.

Block 4: How are empires experienced?
The focus of this block is on groups and individuals. How did individuals – from imperialist ‘explorers’ and missionaries to First Peoples and the enslaved – experience empire? What methods do we have for recovering the voices of different classes, genders and ethnicities, including the nonliterate? In asking these questions, our exploration of the legacies of empire will be taken further, asking about the impact of empire on different groups and how the experience of empire is inscribed on particular locations.

Block 5: How do empires decline, end and persist?
Earlier blocks will have introduced you to examples of different types of resistance to empire. You'll now be shown how such resistance, combined with metropolitan and international factors, corroded imperial power. This involves looking at the rise of colonial nationalism, for instance, in India and Africa, the impact of global wars, and changing attitudes to power and freedom. A final unit takes this up to present day, by looking at the question of how, how far and in what ways we can talk of the metropolis (the imperial centre, notably in the UK) ‘decolonising’ itself.

Entry requirements

This is an OU level 3 module. OU level 3 modules build on the skills and subject knowledge acquired from studies at OU levels 1 and 2.

Although no particular modules are required before studying this one, we advise that having taken at least one arts and humanities module at OU levels 1 or 2 would be advantageous.

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please speak to an adviser.

Preparatory work

We recommend reading one or more overviews of empire, such as:

  • John Darwin, After Tamerlane (London: Allen Lane, 2007), a very readable and broad-ranging overview of global empire.
  • Krishan Kumar, Empires: A Historical and Political Sociology (Cambridge: Polity, 2021), for a shorter and more sociological approach.
  • Philippa Levine, The British Empire: Sunrise to Sunset (London: Routledge, 2019 or later edition) is good if you want to start with the British empire only and get a mixture of chronology and themes.
  • Ashley Jackson, The British Empire: A Very Short Introduction. is ideal if you don’t have time for a more global or comprehensive work.

Once you have access to the module you'll be able to be watch a 40-minute video lecture by Andrew Thompson on approaches to studying empire.

What's included

The module is presented through a blend of printed and online material. You will be provided with two module textbooks and have access to a module website, which includes:

  • a week-by-week study planner
  • module materials and study guide
  • audio and video content
  • assignment details and submission section
  • online tutorial rooms and forums
  • interactive activities.

Computing requirements

You’ll need broadband internet access and a desktop or laptop computer with an up-to-date version of Windows (10 or 11) or macOS Ventura or higher.

Any additional software will be provided or is generally freely available.

To join in spoken conversations in tutorials, we recommend a wired headset (headphones/earphones with a built-in microphone).

Our module websites comply with web standards, and any modern browser is suitable for most activities.

Our OU Study mobile app will operate on all current, supported versions of Android and iOS. It’s not available on Kindle.

It’s also possible to access some module materials on a mobile phone, tablet device or Chromebook. However, as you may be asked to install additional software or use certain applications, you’ll also require a desktop or laptop, as described above.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

Throughout your module studies, you’ll get help and support from your assigned module tutor. They’ll help you by:

  • marking your assignments (TMAs) and providing detailed feedback for you to improve.
  • guiding you to additional learning resources.
  • providing individual guidance, whether that’s for general study skills or specific module content.
  • facilitating online discussions between your fellow students in the dedicated module and tutor group forums.

Module tutors also run online tutorials throughout the module. Where possible, recordings of online tutorials will be made available to students. While these tutorials won’t be compulsory for you to complete the module, you’re strongly encouraged to take part.


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box.

If you have a disability

The OU strives to make all aspects of study accessible to everyone and this Accessibility Statement outlines what studying A328 involves. You should use this information to inform your study preparations and any discussions with us about how we can meet your needs.

Future availability

Empires: power, resistance, legacies starts once a year – in October. This page describes the module that will start in October 2024. We expect it to start for the last time in October 2034.

Course work includes:

5 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
End-of-module assessment