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Human, Social, and Political Sciences - HSPS Tripos

Carousel - Part 1 Papers

In the first year, you will choose three papers from any of the following:


POL1: The Modern State and its Alternatives

This paper seeks to understand the practical and imaginative foundations of modern politics and the reaction and resistance to them. It is structured around set texts. These texts are not there to be analysed as texts per se but to be considered for the arguments they contain. We have chosen these texts for this paper not because they represent a canon but because they engage with some of the fundamental questions of modern politics. 

The paper begins with the modern state. The modern state is a historically contingent political phenomenon but it has become the predominant basis on which political authority and power are constructed across the world today. Where there is no modern state, there tends to be civil war or occupation by other states. Where modern states are ineffective, politics is unstable and sometimes violent, and governments struggle to manage the economy. But the modern state also is a site of violence and an instrument of power that has been used at times to inflict vast suffering on those subject to its coercive capacity at home and imperial reach abroad.   The question of how the exercise of power by the modern state over its subjects can be legitimated is a perpetual one in modern politics, and the answers to it have been deeply politically contested.

The first modern states were monarchies. From the late 18th century onwards, there was in Europe and the United States a move towards what we now call representative democracy. Representative democracies have been more historically precarious than modern states and there remain alternatives to this form of government. The idea that the modern state under conditions of modern commerce leads necessarily to representative democracy has been disproved by historical experience of, especially that outside Europe and North America. As an idea representative democracy appears to offer equality, liberty and self-rule. But representative democracy also frequently disappoints in practice as it rarely does realise these values and the goods it promises frequently clash with each other. The second part of the paper looks at the contingent historical origins in the United States and the political implications of representative democracy as it spread as a form of government. It seeks to unpack the paradoxes of representative democracy as a form of government that rhetorically invokes the ‘rule of the people’ and the pursuit of the common good and yet gives power to those who are elected to office by seeking votes, and to consider its relationship to the conditions of material prosperity and the distribution of wealth.

The final part of the paper examines the coherence and persuasiveness of a number of political critiques of the modern state and representative democracy as well as the mortality of democratic politics and government. It considers the critique made by Marx of the democratic modern state as the product of capitalism, Gandhi’s rejection of the violence and alienated sovereignty of modern politics in search of a return to a soul-based civilisation, and Arendt’s desire to return politics to its place as a meaningful sphere of free human action. Since everything in politics is mortal, it concludes by contemplating the question of how democracy itself may end.


POL2: International Conflict, Order, and Justice

International Conflict, Order and Justice will delve into politics beyond the state. We seek to understand contemporary global politics as the product of intersecting forms of power, each with a distinct history and, perhaps, requiring a distinct analytical approach. The dominant traditions in the study of international relations have emphasized relations among states; however, as new global political realities have emerged, so have new theoretical approaches entered the debate to understand these new realities and to re-interpret dominant histories of international order. Some new approaches focus on actors beyond the state – international organizations, social movements, multinational corporations, or terrorist groups. Others argue that alternative logics – such as race, gender, or supposed civilizational divides – determine international politics and should not be ignored by focusing too exclusively on inter-state interaction. Others still have argued that giving priority to the Westphalian state obscures the very different visage that international politics may have from the standpoint of the non-Western world. Thus, a global international relations requires attention to other forms and histories of international order, as well as a robust history of the state and how we understand it. This paper explores international politics while leaving open the questions of what issues matter, whose experiences should be the basis for theory, and what methodological tools we can use in this pursuit.


SAN1: Social Anthropology: The Comparative Perspective

Social Anthropology addresses the really big question – what does it mean to be human? – by taking as its subject matter the full range of human social and cultural diversity. What does this diversity tell us about the fundamental bases and possibilities of human social and political life, and how contemporary global changes manifest themselves in people’s lives across the world? In this paper you will learn how such taken-for-granted categories as gender, ethnicity, sexuality, economy, politics, and the state are subject to radical cultural variation, and how everyday matters such as food, clothing, work, and trade may be bound up with religious and other symbolic meanings that vary between societies. You will also learn about the main kinds of social theory developed by anthropologists in response to the challenge of understanding this diversity, and about the distinctive forms of ethnographic field research anthropologists use in order to gain first-hand knowledge of the societies they study. To this end we look closely at two very different core ethnographic texts: a study of a girls’ initiation ceremony from central Africa, and an account of conversion to Christianity in highland Papua New Guinea.


SOC1: Introduction to Sociology: Modern Societies I

The course introduces students to the discipline of sociology in two parts.

In the Michaelmas term students are thoroughly acquainted with core sociological concepts and concerns (e.g. class, bureaucracy, social solidarity). We do this through a critical engagement with the ideas of four central figures in the history of modern sociological thought: Karl Marx, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim and W.E.B. Du Bois. Towards the end of Michaelmas and throughout Lent, we build on the foundations laid by the classical theorists and develop a systematic analysis of key institutions and aspects of modern societies including: the modern state and the rise of nationalism; citizenship and the welfare state; the media and public life; class and inequality; race and ethnicity; and gender and the family.

Read the Sociology Guidebook for students by students


and a fourth paper chosen from the above, or from:


A1: World Archaeology

This course provides a general introduction to archaeology.  Using case studies from across the globe, students are introduced to key thresholds in the human past, including:  the origins of the human species, the emergence of culture, the domestication of plants and animals, and the development of social inequalities and leadership.  Further themes include the analysis of archaic states and early empires, in addition to the impact of writing systems and the appearance of cities.   Students will learn methods and techniques (how archaeologists recover information and artefacts) as well as theory (used to explain how and why change occurs in human societies).   Students will gain an understanding of the diverse approaches used to think about the past, from ecological and evolutionary models, to current social theories and the post-colonial critique.  The place of archaeological heritage in the modern world is also discussed.  This paper is taught through a combination of lectures and practical sessions that give students opportunities to study artefacts from the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.


A3: Introduction to the Cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia

This paper provides a broad survey of the archaeology and history of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia and introduces students to key themes and approaches in the study of these two regions. The paper provides outline histories of the regions and introduces the geography, archaeology, society, literature, art, belief systems and mortuary practices of these areas. The integration of archaeological, textual and artistic evidence as complementary sources for interpreting historical cultures is stressed throughout.  There will be two lectures per week, one on ancient Egypt and one on Mesopotamia, plus four seminars in which the two regions are compared.


B1: Humans in Biological Perspective

This paper provides a broad introduction to biological anthropology and covers major subject areas such as primate biology and behaviour, human evolution, adaptation to different environments and life history theory. Through studying this course, students will gain a strong foundation in the field of biological anthropology and an understanding of how different approaches can be used to address specific questions about human origins and diversity. The paper begins with an introduction to non-human primates, highlighting the importance of the comparative approach for understanding evolutionary processes. We then go on to discuss human evolution, diversity and adaptation, including introductory lectures on human genetics and health, adaptation to environmental conditions, behavioural ecology and the balance of genes and environment in shaping human life.


PBS1: Introduction to Psychology

This course aims to introduce a variety of theoretical and methodological approaches to the study of psychology. Through studying this course, students will develop their understanding of how the different approaches address specific topics within psychology. Topics are selected such that students without prior training in psychology will not be disadvantaged. After a brief introduction to the history of psychology, and its various sub-disciplines, a series of five broad topics will be explored. Each topic will be covered over three weeks, with research and ideas from different theoretical viewpoints being discussed and compared.