Science, Power and Politics in Twentieth Century Britain - HI5022

Location Term Level Credits (ECTS) Current Convenor 2017-18 2018-19
(version 2)
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6 30 (15) PROF CL Sleigh







This module covers the period approximately 1900-79 and follows the fortunes of H. G. Wells’ ‘open conspiracy’ – his scheme by which scientists would rule the world. The aim is to understand what scientists (and their friends and critics) thought was the social role of science during this period, and how they sought to make sure that science played that role. We aim to find out why scientists thought a scientific approach to life and society was desirable; how they sought to impose it; and to what extent, or in what ways, they were successful in their aims. Along the way we will see how scientists engaged with particular political ideologies, and with the government. Examples covered include the ‘poverty vs. ignorance’ nutrition debate during the great depression, the development of nuclear power and consumer technology at the Festival of Britain. We will see the pivotal role played by WWII in terms of facilitating scientists’ ambitions to govern, and the rise of psychology as arguably the most influential science in terms of governance. The module makes particular use of fictional and documentary film sources as a means to understand the place of science in public culture.


This module appears in:

Contact hours

5 hours per week (1hr lecture, 2hr seminar, 2hr film screening)

Method of assessment

This module is assessed by coursework only. The coursework mark is typically made up by two 3,000 word essays, weekly in-class tests, and a public presentation.

Preliminary reading

• Jon Agar, Science in the 20th Century and Beyond (Polity, Cambridge, 2012)
• Mary Jo Nye, Michael Polanyi and His Generation: Origins of the Social Construction of Science (Chicago, 2011)
• Patrick Joseph McGrath, Scientists, Business, and the State, 1890-1960 (UNC Press, 2002)
• Philip Gummett, Scientists in Whitehall (Manchester University Press, 1980)
• Tom Wilkie, British science and politics since 1945 (Blackwell, Oxford, 1991),
• David Edgerton, Warfare State: Britain, 1920-1970 (Cambridge University Press, 2006)
• Tim Boon, Films of Fact: A History of Science in Documentary Films and Television (Wallflower, 2008).
• Marwick, British Society since 1945 (Penguin Books Ltd, London, 3rd Edition, 1996.
• Andrew Marr, A History of Modern Britain (Macmillan 2007)
• Richard Overy, The Morbid Age: Britain between the wars (Allen Lane, 2009)

See the library reading list for this module (Canterbury)

See the library reading list for this module (Medway)

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