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Knowledge & Beliefs in World History - HIS00085C

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  • Department: History
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Jon Howlett
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: C
  • Academic year of delivery: 2021-22

Module summary

This course introduces first year History students to important themes in intellectual and cultural history, and challenges them to think critically about the power of knowledge and belief in different cultures over time. It encourages students to explore how ideas have developed and travelled across different social and cultural contexts. It places strong emphasis not only on the ways ideas and beliefs have been formed and propagated by elites, but also on how the hierarchies of power that ideas help to create have been subverted and questioned by a wide range of historically marginalised groups. This is done with a focus on race and gender, and from a global perspective. Students are encouraged to make comparisons that will enable them to deconstruct the simplistic binaries of ‘science’ vs ‘religion’ and ‘modern’ vs ‘traditional’ forms of knowledge, to explore more fully how knowledge exchange occurred between different societies, and to consider the challenges of trying to uncover the full complexity of individual beliefs.

The course material comprises four interrelated groups of lectures and seminars, each of which explores a theme through the medieval, early-modern and modern periods. The first focuses on how societies and cultures have been shaped by human engagement with the natural world, with a focus on the histories of science, geography and time. We then consider how people in different places and times have understood human existence, often defined against a set of ideas about exoticised ‘others’. Religions and cosmologies, which have always been a major vehicle through which people across different cultures have defined themselves and others, are the theme for block three. We conclude with a series of lectures and seminars on popular culture, dissent and radicalism, to think about the ways ‘official’ forms of knowledge and belief have been questioned by a wide range of historical actors.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Autumn Term 2021-22

Module aims

The aims of this module are:

  • To help students understand important ideas in intellectual and cultural history over the past 1500 years

  • To encourage students to explore intellectual and cultural history from the perspective of a wide range of historical actors across time and place

  • To familiarize students with the ways in which historians understand intellectual and cultural developments in past societies

  • To introduce students to many of the different areas of study available to them in Stages 2 and 3.

Module learning outcomes

Students who complete this module successfully will have:

  • Acquired a broad knowledge of, and some of the scholarship relating to, political history in Western and non-Western societies;

  • Demonstrated an ability to analyse critically, and make connections between, focussed studies from across time and place;

  • Practiced core skills necessary to a history degree, notably note-taking, critical analysis, and the ability to form arguments orally and in written work, through effective contributions to seminar activities, oral presentation, essay-writing, and group work

  • Demonstrated understanding of, and the ability to construct arguments about, intellectual and cultural changes and continuities.

Module content

Teaching Programme:

Teaching will be in 2 x 1 hour lectures each week, taught over 8 weeks. 1 x 1 hour discussion seminar in Weeks 1, 2, 4, and 6 and 8 and 1 x 2 hour discussion seminar with formative work session in Weeks 3, 5, 7, and 9. Each week students will do reading and preparation in order to be able to contribute to discussion and complete the formative skills tasks.

The provisional outline for the module is as follows:

Briefing session

Block 1: Understanding the Natural World


1. The Pre-Global Globe

2. New Worlds, Ancient Texts

3. Empire, Time, and Scientific Knowledge

4. Mastering Nature: the Anthropocene as History


1. The ‘Scientific Book’

2. What Time is It?

Block 2: Human Being

5. Translation and Knowledge

6. The Fall of Natural Man: the origins of comparative ethnology

7. Relative Humanity

8. Making ‘New Men’ through Revolution


3. How to Measure Cultural Difference

4. How the Steel Was Tempered: socialist ‘New Men’

Block 3: Religions and Cosmologies

9. Travel and Mission

10. Translating Christianity in an age of Reformations

11. Controversies of Faith, Crises of Power

12. The Rise of Secularism


5. Ethnographies

6. Radical Politics and Religion

Block 4: Popular Cultures, Dissent and Radicalism

13. Popular Movements and Knowledge

14. The Limits of Social Discipline

15. Contesting the Future across Imperial Space

16. Decolonisation and Knowledge: Remaking the World


7. Vernacular Language and Revolt

8. How to Unthink an Empire


Task Length % of module mark
Essay 1500 words
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

Formative work:

Students will complete four formative assessment tasks during the autumn term, comprised of exercises on note taking; referencing; making an argument and structuring essays. 

Students will work in groups to complete these tasks in tutor-led sessions, for which they will be expected to carry out preliminary reading and preparation.

Students have the option of submitting one formative essay (max 1,500 words) for each Introduction to World History module they take. These essays can be submitted in weeks 5, 6 or 7, at the student’s discretion. It is not recommended that students submit more than one essay in any single week. All students are encouraged to submit at least one essay.

Summative work:

Students will choose one of the four essay questions and submit a 1,500-word assessed essay in Week 1 of Spring Term. It is worth 100% of the course mark.



Task Length % of module mark
Essay 1500 words
N/A 100

Module feedback

Students will receive verbal feedback during the formative work classes and a short written statement from their tutor within 20 working days of the class. For more information, see the Statement on Feedback.

For the summative assessment task, students will receive their provisional mark and written feedback within 20 working days of the submission deadline. For more information, see the Statement on Assessment.

Indicative reading

For term time reading, please refer to the module VLE site. Before the course starts, you might like to look at the following items of preliminary reading:

Daston, Lorraine, Against Nature Cambridge MAss., The MIT Press, 2019.

Whatmore, Richard. What Is Intellectual History? Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016.

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.