The History and Politics Tripos is a joint Honours degree which offers subjects from Cambridge’s History and Politics and International Relations courses, together with bespoke papers which allow students to explore the space between the two disciplines.
The aim of studying History and Politics is to further your understanding and knowledge of the world around you and to learn to present your arguments with clarity, insight and discrimination. Historians and social scientists have to mine a large body of material efficiently; to evaluate its significance and utility in answering important questions about societies, institutions, cultures and individuals; and to order their thoughts on these matters succinctly and clearly.
First-year (Part IA) History and Politics students take four papers which provide a core foundation of knowledge for more specialized courses in the second year (Part IB) and the third year (Part II). Three of the first year papers (Evidence and Argument, POL1, and POL2) are taken by all students, and more details of these papers are given below (though please note that this information is subject to change). The fourth paper is chosen from a wide range of Outline papers offered by the History Faculty, which are defined by chronology and/or geography (usually, a continent or hemisphere over an historical epoch): for example, early medieval Europe, early modern Britain, modern Europe, the South since 1750, or North America since 1800. Students generally have six supervisions for each of the two Politics papers and up to twelve supervisions for the History Outline paper, spread across Michaelmas and Lent Terms. The Evidence and Argument paper is taught through lectures and classes, and is assessed through a long essay which students submit in Easter Term.
Some offer-holders have asked us to suggest some pointers for preliminary reading, so we have included a short list of possible background readings for the three compulsory papers. We do not expect students to work through this list in any systematic way, but we hope that these readings will whet your appetite for studying History and Politics in Cambridge.
Evidence and Argument
Evidence and Argument is our bridge paper for first-year History and Politics students which is designed to provide an introduction to key concepts, approaches, and methods from across the two disciplines.
Both the History Faculty and the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge are unusually broad and eclectic in their interests and approaches. In History, interests range from the traditional realm of ‘high’ politics to social and cultural history, the history of political thought, and the use of quantitative data to reconstruct economic and demographic changes which stretch across decades or even centuries. Some Politics lecturers see themselves as ‘political scientists’, developing theories and models which seek to explain processes of political change, whilst others eschew social science and focus on understanding the meanings and intentions of political actors. Why do these disciplinary choices matter? How do they shape the kinds of evidence we use and the arguments we construct?
Suggestions for background reading
- Richard Evans, In Defence of History (1997; paperback edition, 2001)
- John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (2004)
- David Cannadine (ed.), What is History Now? (2002)
- Ulinka Rublack (ed.), A Concise Companion to History (2012)
- Stefan Berger et al. (eds.), Writing History: Theory and Practice (2003; second edition, 2010; third edition, 2020)
- Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, Democracy for Realists (2016)
- Bernard Crick, In Defence of Politics (1962 and subsequent editions)
- Russell Dalton, Citizen Politics: Public Opinion and Political Parties in Advanced Industrial Democracies (1996 and subsequent editions)
- Iain McLean, Public Choice: An Introduction (1987)
POL1: The Modern State and its Alternatives
This paper is one of the two first-year Politics papers taken by students in History and Politics and Human, Social and Political Sciences (HSPS). It seeks to understand the practical and imaginative foundations of modern politics and the reaction and resistance to them. POL1 is structured around set texts, which are not there to be analysed as texts per se but to be considered for the arguments they contain.
The paper begins with the modern state – the predominant basis on which political authority and power are constructed across the world today to try to avoid disorder. 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 in history to inflict suffering on those subject to its coercive capacity at home and imperial reach abroad.
Within modern states, representative democracy has become the predominant form of government in the world. As an idea it excites because it appears to offer equality, liberty and self-rule, but it 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 origins of representative democracy. Focussing largely, although not exclusively, on the American experience of democracy, it seeks to unpack the paradoxes of representative democracy as a form of government that rhetorically invokes the ‘rule of the people’, the apparent historical success of representative democracy, and 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. It considers the critique made by Marx of the democratic modern state as the capitalist state, Gandhi’s rejection of the violence and alienated sovereignty of modern politics in search of a return to a soul-based civilisation, and Hannah Arendt’s distinctive approach to politics and power. It concludes by reflecting on whether ‘the end of democracy’ is nigh.
Suggestions for background reading
- David Runciman, Politics (2014)
- John Dunn, Western Political Theory in the Face of the Future (1979 and subsequent editions)
- Alan Ryan, On Politics (2012)
POL2: International Conflict, Order and Justice
POL2 is Cambridge’s first-year international relations paper which, like POL1, is taken by students in History and Politics and HSPS. It is designed to introduce students to politics beyond the state. The dominant traditions in the study of international relations in the West since World War II have emphasized the power of and relations among states – their conflicts and efforts at coordination. But as new global realities have emerged in recent decades, new theoretical approaches have emerged which seek to re-interpret conventional histories of international order.
Some critics of mainstream international relations argue that scholars need to pay more attention to actors beyond the state – such as international organizations, social movements, multinational corporations, or terrorist groups – in order to understand international politics. Others have argued that the traditional focus on interaction between states has obscured the ways in which alternative logics – such as race, gender, or supposed civilizational divides – shape the world we live in. This paper seeks to explore international politics in the broadest sense – allowing students to make up their own mind on what issues matter, whose experiences should be the basis for theory, and what methodological tools we can use in this pursuit.
Suggestions for background reading
- Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963)
- Michael Ignatieff, Empire Lite: Nation-Building in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan (2003)
- Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim (2004)
- Vijay Prashad, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (2008)
- Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016)