ISF Courses

ISF 10: Enduring Questions and Great Books in the Western Tradition [4 units] 

(meets L&S Philosophy and Values breadth requirement)

Description: This course is a broad survey of major canonical works (“Great Books”) emphasizing the Premodern traditions of Western Civilization since the Greeks. These texts offer responses to central questions that, across the disciplinary divides, continue to inform contemporary work in the social sciences and the humanities.  Indeed, the “disciplines” or departments as we know them on campus are of relatively recent invention, compared to the millennia of treatises, poetry, plays, literature, sacred writings, histories and philosophical inquiries that sought answers to the questions later asked by the disciplines themselves in the humanities and social sciences.  

This course is not a history of the disciplines, nor is it an attempt to find precursive texts for each discipline  — we do not seek to construct disciplinary canons or genealogies.  Instead, it is an account of the enduring questions of western civilization that later found homes in the disciplines, but whose origins lie in a “pre-disciplinary” world.  While we choose the framework of the disciplines to present these texts, and to ask recurring questions that can today be found in separate disciplines, we seek to problematize the history of disciplinary knowledge.  In this course, we investigate how contemporary concerns about modern social problems have a deep, but also an interdisciplinary, history.

ISF 50: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Artificial Intelligence [3 units]

Description: It’s hard not to open a newspaper or magazine today and see claims being made for artificial intelligence. Advocates argue that software programs will now be able to even perform creative jobs (as opposed to just routine ones) and that this is both a matter of celebration and concern. Critics argue that these claims are hyperbolic, while others argue that they are too close to reality and an indication of how much autonomy we have ceded to machines. In this course, we will pick apart all of these claims. We will ask: how have different human societies conceived of “intelligence,” natural or artificial, and how has this varied with place and time? How have different technical experts been influenced by the time, place, constraints, and patronage they operated under? How does contemporary AI intersect with regimes of calculation, capitalism, standardization, gender, and speech? The class will be interdisciplinary in method as well as subject: we will study technical and popular material, philosophy and empirical work, engineering and social science literature, as well as science fiction.

ISF 60: Technology and Values [3 units]

Description: If science and technology are value-laden activities, then where exactly do the values lie?  In this class, we will pick apart the black-box of science and technology and look for values not just in terms of bad actors, corruption, or “implications,” but in the processes that constitute modern technoscience itself.  These processes include: the ways in which researchers construct problems, solutions, facts, and artifacts; the norms, standards, stories, and patronage relations that underlie science and technology; and finally, how the future is imagined and realized.  Readings will include academic and journalistic texts as well as science fiction.

ISF 61: Moral Reasoning and Human Action: The Quest for Judgment [3 units]

Description: This is an interdisciplinary survey course that seeks to understand how we define justice, evil, and individual responsibility in modern society. In particular we are going to probe carefully how humans reflect on and practice the process of moral reasoning. We will focus on human behavior in extreme situations: war, life and death conflicts, genocide and mass killing, as well as competing conceptions of human freedom. The course has a distinctive dual purpose. On the one hand we want to encourage the learning of critical thinking skills. This includes the ability to systematically evaluate information and competing moral claims. Also, it is intended as an exposure to the interdisciplinary approach. That is, how can different perspectives illuminate the same issue? With this in mind the course draws on important work from philosophy and ethics, social psychology, jurisprudential analysis, historical-political accounts, and personal memoirs.

ISF 62: Representations of Self-Deception in the Modern World [3 units]

Description: In this course, we will utilize works in the humanities and the social sciences in order to explore a number of dimensions of self-deception in the modern world. The focus will be upon the willingness to falsify both personal life as well as one’s position in the public sphere. The course will begin with an examination of the psychological dimension, emphasizing the importance of the nature of unconscious experience. In this context, we will examine how self-awareness is shaped by personal relationships, especially family arrangements. In addition, we will look at the manner in which people often engage in acts of self-deception with regard to the political realm.

ISF 100A: Introduction to Social Theory and Cultural Analysis [4 units]

Description: This course, required of all ISF Majors but open to all students, provides an introduction to the works of foundational social theorists of the nineteenth century, including Karl Marx and Max Weber.  Writing in what might be called the “pre disciplinary” period of the modern social sciences, their works cross  the boundaries of anthropology, economics, history, political science, sociology, and are today claimed by these and other disciplines as essential texts.  We will read intensively and critically from their respective works, situating their intellectual contributions in the history of social transformations wrought by industrialization and urbanization, political revolution, and the development of modern consumer society in  nineteenth-century Europe.  But we will also make efforts to evaluate their intellectual contributions in light of recent scholarship about contemporary social issues, exploring ways in which scholars across the social sciences and humanities continue to interpret their respective contributions. The class meets twice a week in lecture and once in section and has no prerequisites. 

ISF 100B: Interdisciplinary Theories of the Self and Identity [4 units]

This course will explore how people come to develop and value the self as well their specific social identities. The course will draw on anthropology, sociology, neurobiology and philosophy to grapple with that which is most intimate yet often most opaque to us: our own selves. Yet we shall also explore the cultural limits of our unstable understanding of our individuated selves as well as the dialectic of self and other in the formation of identity. 

ISF 100C: Language and Identity [4 units]

Description: This course examines the role of language in the construction of social identities, and how language is tied to various forms of symbolic power at the national and international levels. As the saying goes, “A language is a dialect with an army and navy” – but how so? Questions about language have been central to national culture and identity, and the languages we speak often prove, upon close examination, not to be the tongues of ancestors but invented traditions of political significance. People have also encoded resistance into non-official and ambiguous languages even as the state has attempted to devalue them as inferior forms of expression. Drawing on case studies from Southeast Asia, Europe, Canada, and the U.S., we will pay special attention to topics such as the legitimization of a national language, the political use of language in nation-building processes, the endangerment of indigenous languages, and processes of linguistic subordination and domination.  This course will be interdisciplinary in its attempt to understand language in terms of history, politics, anthropology and sociology. We will not only study how language has been envisioned in planning documents and official language policy, but also analyze how speakers enact, project, and contest their culturally specific subject positions according to their embodied linguistic capital. 

ISF 100D: Introduction to Technology, Society, and Culture [4 units]

Description: This course surveys the technological revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries, it then focuses on the development of the computer and the Internet. The final part examines the impact of the Internet on social movements.

ISF 100E: The Globalization of Rights, Values, and Laws in the 21st Century [4 units]

Description: This interdisciplinary course is an introduction to the complex interplay of transnational values, international rights and legal institutions that increasingly govern social, cultural and geopolitical interactions in our contemporary world. Theoretical and methodological tools from the social sciences, jurisprudence, and philosophy will be applied im the analyses of these interplays. A study of rights and norms presupposes not only an understanding of the empirical evolution of rights traditions (including constitutional traditions) in a variety of global regions, but also an understanding of the theories of rights and laws that support such traditions as they are embedded in them (just war theories, peace theories, etc.) The study of rights and norms also requires an exploration of the transformations of crucial international norms and rights due to the formation of supranational institutions and organizations in the 20th century (UN, UNESCO, GO’s, etc.). The course will provide the students with an opportunity to place emerging transnational rights institutions into a historical and geopolitical framework.

ISF 100F: Theorizing Modern Capitalism: Controversies and Interpretations [4 units]

Description: The focus of this course will be on the various ways the nature and trajectory of modern capitalism has been interpreted. Our stress will be on post-Marxist works of analysis. The initial focal point will be on the work of Max Weber and Joseph Schumpeter, as well as important current debates in economic history and social theory generated by their work. Both Weber and Schumpeter display a strong fascination and elaboration with the work of Marx. The way they analyze Marx is very revealing about the way contemporary analysts seek to understand the capitalist system. We will also consider a number of current efforts that look at the systemic nature of capitalism. In particular, we are interested in how economic historians now see the the development of capitalism. We also want to examine the Weberian tradition in terms of the role of culture in shaping economic behavior. Debates about the nature of globalization will also be considered as well as analysis of the changing nature of work.

ISF 100G: Introduction to Science, Society, and Ethics [4 units]

This interdisciplinary course will explore whether it has proven possible and desirable to understand society through value-free and 11 Positivistic scientific methods as predominantly developed in the transatlantic worlds of the 19th centuries. 
We shall explore questions that may be applied to the realms of public health and human biology, or to the social sciences generally, including anthropology, sociology, economics, and political science.

ISF 100H: Introduction to Media and International Relations [4 units]

How have international actors used media to construct public opinion about salient issues, such as war, terrorism and intervention, international trade and finance, and global warming and resource depletion? The purpose of this course is to introduce students to key concepts, methods, and theories in the analysis of media effects, particularly in the areas of public opinion formation and international relations.

ISF 100I: Consumer Society and Culture [4 units]

Following Weber, Veblen, and Bourdieu, social scientists often emphasize consumers’ motivations to establish or display their status. In many ways, consumption defines our lives – our identities as consumers are even more important, some would argue, than our identities as workers or producers. But what are the implications of a society in which “you are what you consume?” In this class, we will address: Under what conditions does a “consumer society” develop?  What does global commodity chain tell us about colonialization, global inequality, and environmental injustice? How can we shape the life cycle of basic commodities—from raw materials to iPhones, from creation to destruction–in a socially sustainable way? This course will be interdisciplinary in its attempt to understand consumer society and culture in terms of political economy, geography, history, anthropology and sociology. It is divided into six major segments: “Consumption and Inequality,” “Consumption, Meaning and Identity,” “Global Commodity Chain,” “Consumption in Contemporary China,” “Critiques of Consumer Society,” and “Environment, Sustainability, and Social Justice”. The goal of this course is to provide students with a broad overview of debates and theories about consumption, and to provide them with an opportunity to explore a consumption-related topic themselves.

ISF 100J: The Social Life of Computing [4 units]

The time we live in is often called the “information age” or the age of computing. Some analysts have likened it to a third Industrial Revolution: the first one happened in the 18th century in England and involved the use of water and steam power in the manufacture of textiles; the second happened in the 19th century United States and involved the rise of the railways, electricity grids and the managerial corporation; the third Revolution is ostensibly happening through the increasing development and use of computer networks. In this class, we will look at computing as a “social” phenomenon: to see it not just as a technology that transforms but to see it as a technology that has evolved, and is being put to use, in very particular ways, by particular groups of people. We will be doing this by employing a variety of methods, primarily historical and ethnographic, oriented around a study of practices. We will pay attention to technical details but ground these technical details in social organization (a term whose meaning should become clearer and clearer as the class progresses). We will study the social organization of computing around different kinds of hardware, software, ideologies, and ideas.

ISF 100K: Health and Development [4 units]

Development is often defined as a process of economic growth. Only recently there has been a growing disagreement about this definition and scholars argue that development should be understood as a process of improving human conditions. Health is an important indicator of human development. It is still not conclusive whether economic growth automatically translates into better population health and whether healthy population is a precondition of economic growth because there are other factors that affect both health and development. This course will focus on this debate and examine social, political, demographic and epidemiologic determinants of health in relation to levels of economic development.

ISF 189: Introduction to Interdisciplinary Research Methods

This class is an introduction to research methods, leading students through different units built around specific learning goals and practical exercises.  The course is designed to teach a range of research skills, including (but not limited to) the ability to formulate research questions and to engage in scholarly conversations and arguments; the identification, evaluation, mobilization, and interpretation of sources; methods and instruments of field research (interviews, questionnaires, and sampling) and statistical thinking; and the construction of viable arguments and explanation in the human sciences.   At the same time, the course is designed to help students identify their own thesis topic, bibliography, and methodological orientation in preparation for ISF 190.

Note: ISF 189 is a required ISF course for all students who submitted applications to the major after June 1, 2014. For these applicants, ISF 189  will need to be completed before a student begins ISF 190, the Senior Thesis Seminar.

ISF 190: Senior Thesis

The ISF Senior Thesis requirement is the capstone experience and final product of the ISF Major.   The thesis is a sustained, original, and critical examination of a central interdisciplinary research question, developed under the guidance of the ISF 190 instructor.  The thesis represents a mature synthesis of research skills, critical thinking, and competent writing. As the final product of a student’s work in the major, the thesis is not the place to explore a new set of disciplines or research problems for the first time, but should develop methods of inquiry and bridge the several disciplines that students have developed in their Course of Study.