History and Politics

The History and Politics Tripos is a joint Honours degree which offers subjects from Cambridge’s existing 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 at university 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, clearly, yet with sensitivity.

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; please note that this information is based on the 2017-18 paper guides and is subject to change.

The fourth paper is chosen from a range of modern history papers which, in 2017-18, included British Political History, 1688-1886 (History Paper 5), British Political History, 1880-present (History Paper 6), European History, 1715-1890 (History Paper 17), and European History, 1890-present (History Paper 18). Further information about these papers, including background readings, can be found on the History Faculty website. It is possible that further options will be added for 2018-19.

Some offer-holders have asked us to suggest some pointers for preliminary reading, so we have also 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 a bridge paper for History and Politics students which is designed to provide an introduction to key concepts, approaches, and methods from across the two disciplines. It is taught through eight classes spread across Michaelmas Term and Lent Term, together with 32 lectures, and is convened by Dr Peter Sloman.

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?

Evidence and Argument explores these questions through a series of case studies, based on original sources and ongoing research projects. It is currently examined through a coursework essay of 3,000-4,000 words and a 1.5-hour written exam.

Suggestions for background reading

General and introductory

Classic works

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 is currently taught by Professor Helen Thompson and Professor David Runciman, and 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, through the experience of the United States. It seeks largely, although not exclusively, through the American experience of democracy 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 and the nature of disagreement in politics. 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 Nietzsche’s assault on the moral civilisation that had produced democratic ideas and the subjugation of the individual reach for greatness. It concludes by contemplating the nature of political disagreement itself in relation to human nature and the problems of modern politics.

POL1 is taught through six supervisions and 32 lectures spread across Michaelmas Term and Lent Term, and is examined through a 3-hour written exam.

Suggestions for background reading

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 currently convened by Dr Adam Branch and Dr Ayşe Zarakol, and 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. The paper was revised and the title changed in 2016 to incorporate these new approaches.

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 the 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.

POL2 is taught through six supervisions and 28 lectures spread across Michaelmas Term and Lent Term, and is examined through a 3-hour written exam.

Suggestions for background reading