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MSc History of Science, Technology and Medicine

Year of entry: 2020

Course unit details:
Risk: Science, Society and Culture

Unit code HSTM60672
Credit rating 15
Unit level FHEQ level 7 – master's degree or fourth year of an integrated master's degree
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Offered by Centre for History of Science, Technology & Medicine (L5)
Available as a free choice unit? No


This course considers how ideas, understandings, and practices around risk have become essential to modern science, technology and medicine, and thus human life. It begins by considering how mathematical and statistical thinking were employed in economics, and how quantified understandings of risk have been deployed by experts to explain, guide and interpret human fates in the natural and social world. Drawing on history and sociology of STM and science and technology studies, we begin in the late eighteenth century and continue up to the present day.


This unit aims to 
• introduce students to the history of ideas about, understandings of, and practices regarding risk, especially as they have been conditioned by science, technology and medicine.
• develop understanding of how and why past experts have assessed risks and how everyday people have conceptualised risk and scientific thinking about it in their own lives
• encourage students to consider both expert conceptions of risk and lay experiences of risk in broader historical, sociological and anthropological contexts
• promote appreciation of how science, technology and medicine have interacted to produce risk thinking as a feature of modern life
• develop students’ skills in analysing and discussing primary and secondary literature relating to the history of risk in science, technology and medicine
• enhance students’ research and essay-writing skills, and provide suitable grounding for dissertation research into history of science, technology and medicine; science and health communication; history; sociology; and health sciences.

Teaching and learning methods

The unit will be taught in six two-hour seminar sessions. Each session will focus on, typically, three required texts (usually articles or article-length book extracts) which address the weekly theme from different perspectives. Most texts will be secondary sources from the scholarly HSTM/STS literature, but coverage may include primary literature, popular writing and video material where appropriate. All texts will be made available online in advance, and accompanied in the unit handbook by guide questions to focus the students’ investigation and act as prompts for seminar discussion. 
In advance of each class, a student will be nominated to introduce each text briefly to the group before general discussion begins: this will be done on a rotating basis to ensure all students contribute. Seminar attendance is not assessed, but full participation is required for all students. 
The class lecturer will as far as possible take a background moderating role to allow direct discussion between the students, intervening to deal with digressions or misunderstandings or to suggest further ideas. If the discussion is not flowing freely, the lecturer will take a more active role, prompting responses based on the precirculated guide questions.
Students will develop their essays in the light of the seminar discussion and with guidance from the relevant class lecturers, with one-to-one discussion meetings available for planning. 

Knowledge and understanding

Describe and analyse the history of risk thinking, and its relationship with science, medicine, and technology, from the late eighteenth century to today and in a variety of local and global contexts

Intellectual skills

  • Critically examine the sources and consequences of risk discourse
  • Understand how interdisciplinary perspectives can inform knowledge about large-scale cultural shifts
  • Construct and defend an argument according to the norms of scholarly historical and/or sociological research

Practical skills

  • Contribute to group discussion
  • Read, summarise and critically examine source texts, and present findings orally in a group setting
  • Conduct independent research on primary and secondary historical sources
  • Clearly present an argument in essay form using appropriate source documentation

Transferable skills and personal qualities

  • Critically and comparatively appraise source texts
  • Give an oral presentation examining a source text, and respond to questions or comments from others
  • Contribute to group discussion
  • Engage scientific, technical and lay audiences in discussions about origins, manifestations, and implications of risk thinking in science and culture

Assessment methods

Method Weight
Written assignment (inc essay) 100%

Feedback methods

Lecturers will offer feedback on drafts, at a level consistent with being able to offer an equal degree of support to all students in the group. Essays will be submitted, and feedback delivered, electronically, typically via Turnitin GradeMark. Following the return of feedback, assessors will also be available for one-to-one discussion meetings with students.

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Seminars 12
Independent study hours
Independent study 138

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Elizabeth Toon Unit coordinator

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