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Unit information: Ideas and Society in 2018/19

Please note: It is possible that the information shown for future academic years may change due to developments in the relevant academic field. Optional unit availability varies depending on both staffing and student choice.

Unit name Ideas and Society
Unit code AFAC20002
Credit points 20
Level of study I/5
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 1 (weeks 1 - 12)
Unit director Dr. Burch-Brown
Open unit status Not open




School/department Arts Faculty Office
Faculty Faculty of Arts


This unit takes a single philosophical idea that has been influential in the history of human society, and considers its philosophical basis, its historical importance, the way in which it changed over the course of history, and the ways in which it spread and means by which it was suppressed. The unit explores the arguments that have surrounded the idea, both in favour of it and against it, as well as arguments that serve to clarify or amend the idea. It investigates, through case studies, some of the effects that this idea has had on society at various points in its history. Some possible topics include environmentalism, human rights, scientific method and the rise of modern science, equality, or reason and its discontents. Weekly lectures could explore the history and conceptual foundation of the idea, while seminars could ensure that concepts were understood while exploring a selection of case studies.

The unit aims:

  • To introduce students to elements of philosophical analysis of concepts
  • To impart an awareness of the history of ideas
  • To enhance students’ awareness of the historical contingency and philosophical underpinnings of ideas that shape the society they live in
  • To encourage critical reflection on such ideas and their social impact
  • To improve skills of verbal and written presentation

Intended learning outcomes

By the end of the unit, students should:

  1. Understand and be able to critically assess the philosophical arguments for and against the various positions surrounding the idea in question.
  2. Be able to compare how the idea emerged in different ways and different forms at different times and places in history.
  3. Be able to compare how different media have played a role in the spread of the idea and its suppression.
  4. Have gained experience in verbal and written presentation
  5. An ability to construct coherent, relevant and persuasive arguments on different aspects of the subject, showing critical thought and displaying full understanding of academic conventions

Teaching details

Two 1-hour lectures per week; one 1-hour seminar per week (on readings done in advance).

Assessment Details

1. Class presentation and formative essay. Each student will make a presentation on a case study pertinent to the idea examined in the unit, and submit a 1,500-word formative essay for feedback. Students will be encouraged to relate one of their pieces of assessment to live issues in contemporary society.

2. Summative essay (100%). An essay (3,000 words) on a topic related to the module, from a designated list.

[Both assessments will assess ILOs 1-5.]

Reading and References

The list will change according to the theme chosen. For human rights, the list might include:

Jones, P., 1994, Rights, New York: St. Martin's Press

Edmundson, W., 2004, An Introduction to Rights, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Campbell, T., 2006, Rights: A Critical Introduction, London: Routledge

Morsink, J. 2000, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting, and Intent, University of Pennsylvannia Press

Nickel, J. 2007, Making Sense of Human Rights, Wiley