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Course Descriptions

Program in Political and Social Thought

248-A Cabell Hall
University of Virginia
P.O. Box 400786
Charlottesville, VA 22904-0786
(434) 982-2235

Overview Now approaching its twenty-fifth year, this well-regarded interdisciplinary program was launched by a small group of University faculty from several departments committed to the idea of broad social inquiry. It offers qualified students the opportunity to pursue the study of society, and the study of politics–conceived both in its broadest and narrowest senses–without being limited by the boundaries, or the methodological preoccupations, of the relevant disciplines. With the advice of associated faculty, independent and capable students can fashion a program of study that reflects their intellectual interests and goals. Some students construct a program that emphasizes thought and significant thinkers (e.g., John Locke, Karl Marx, Max Weber, John Dewey, Hannah Arendt) or concepts (justice, property, welfare, human rights). Others place greater emphasis on concrete studies–in the past (nineteenth-century Christian missionaries in Africa; labor unions in the 1930’s auto industry), or in the present (the impact of welfare reform; the impact of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission). Some students are more theoretically oriented, others more practically inclined; all share a deep curiosity about the content and implications of social and political thought. A key strength of the program is that, within reasonable limits, it can be custom-tailored to the student’s interest. Another is its interdisciplinary character, established during the intensive year-long core seminar offered in the third year. The student can study politics and society wherever they are best examined for his or her purpose.

Among the departments and programs that have played a considerable role in this program are history, politics, sociology, anthropology, studies in women and gender, religious studies, philosophy; and more recently, economics, bioethics, and English.

The program is an outstanding major for a variety of future activities–in many cases better than a major in a single department. Students graduating from this program often pursue further study in graduate and professional schools, gaining admission to the nation’s top programs. Members of recent classes, for example, have been accepted to law schools at Harvard, Yale, N.Y.U. and Virginia; and to Ph.D. programs at the same and similar institutions. Other students have gone on to careers in publishing, investment banking, labor organizing, and positions in NGOs and advocacy groups like Amnesty International. In short, PST majors find themselves well-prepared for careers in a wide variety of fields.

Because of the intensive nature of this two-year program, study abroad during the school year cannot ordinarily be allowed.

Faculty Michael Joseph Smith, the program director, is a Thomas C. Sorenson Professor of Political and Social Thought, and an associate professor of politics. Other faculty associated with the program and its faculty committee include Ellen Contini-Morava and George Mentore of anthropology; James Childress, William Wilson, and Charles Mathewes of religious studies; John Arras and John Simmons of philosophy; George Klosko of politics; Erik Middlefort and Alan Megill of history; Murray Milner and Sharon Hayes of sociology; Ann Lane of history and studies in women and gender; and Rita Felski and Raymond Nelson of English. The program’s high reputation often attracts other faculty from throughout the University to act as thesis advisors.

Students The program attracts able, creative, diverse, and independent students with strong interests, both theoretical and practical, in politics and society. Each spring about 16-18 rising third-year students are selected for the program from a substantial applicant pool. Students are chosen on the basis of strong grades, a writing sample, a faculty recommendation, and a short essay explaining the student’s interest in the field. PST majors share an intensive, full-year core seminar in their third year in which they write short essays virtually every week. In the fourth year, students focus on their individual thesis projects, while sharing a weekly thesis seminar and workshop during the fall term. In this way, they come to know each other and their teachers.

Requirements for Major The major has four basic components:

  1. PST Seminars (8 credits)
  2. Foundation Courses (6 credits)
  3. Area Studies (18 credits)
  4. Thesis (6 credits)

PST Seminars 8 credits, open to majors only, consisting of PST 485, 487, and 498.

Foundation Courses Each student must complete at least six credits from the following list of courses, or equivalents approved by the director, dealing with political and social thought or its historical foundations:

ANTH 301

Theory and History of Anthropology


ECON 412

Evolution of Economic Thought


HIEU 378

Origins of Modern Thought


HIEU 379

Intellectual History of Modern Europe


HIEU 380

Origins of Contemporary Thought


PHIL 356

Classics in Political Philosophy


PHIL 357

Political Philosophy


PLPT 301

Ancient Political Theory


PLPT 302

Modern Political Theory


PLPT 303

Contemporary Political Theory


PLPT 305

American Political Theory


RELC 233

History of Christian Political and Social Thought I


RELC 234

History of Christian Political and Social Thought II



Introduction to Social Thought



Classical Sociological Theory


Area Studies Each student is required to define three different area studies. An area is defined as a particular intellectual theme or subfield of interest to be investigated in the course of the student’s studies. These areas can be derived from within, between, or outside traditional disciplines. Some examples of area studies might include ancient (or modern, or contemporary) political thought; 18th-19th century intellectual history; applied ethics; human rights; church-state relations; feminist theory; issues in third-world development; the modern welfare state; or African-American movements in the post-war era.

For each area, the student must complete two relevant courses at the 300 level or above. The total of six courses necessary to fulfill the area requirements must be drawn from at least three different disciplines, programs, or departments. In brief: 3 areas; 2 courses per area; 3 disciplines.

Taken together, the three areas of study should be well thought-out and intellectually coherent, and form the general basis of study for the fourth-year thesis. The three areas of study define the interdisciplinary character of the student’s program and must meet a rigorous standard of coherence. In consultation with their advisors and the program director, students are expected to articulate the rationale of their choices in a brief written statement due by the end of the third year.

Fourth-Year Thesis Six credits consisting of PST 497Y.

Admission Interested students currently in their fourth semester in the College of Arts and Sciences are invited to apply for admission into this interdisciplinary program. As a distinguished major, the program admits only eighteen new students a year. A 3.000 cumulative GPA is generally required for admission. The program assumes the students will be in Charlottesville their third and fourth years. It is highly desirable (but not mandatory) that students applying for the PST program should take at least one of the courses listed under the foundations of political and social thought by the end of their second year.

Students interested in becoming PST majors should submit:

  1. a completed PST application form;
  2. a letter of recommendation by a faculty member;
  3. a 300-500 word essay. This essay should address the following two questions: (1) Why are you interested in becoming a PST major? (2) At this (tentative) point, what three area studies would you select in constructing your PST curriculum? This answer does not obligate students to a particular course of studies if they are accepted into the program;
  4. a writing sample. Students may submit a previously completed term paper or essay (preferably with the instructor’s comments on it) or a piece of creative writing.

The above materials should be brought to the PST office in 248-A Cabell Hall by March 1. Candidates should hear from the committee by the end of March.

The director of the PST program holds a meeting for the prospective majors in early February to answer any questions about admission procedures and program requirements. Students may also obtain this information from the PST website or by calling the PST office at (434) 982-2235.

Additional Information For more information write to Michael J. Smith, Program Director, 248-A Cabell Hall, P.O. Box 400786, Charlottesville, VA 22904-4786, (434) 982-2235; mjs9t@virginia.edu; www.virginia.edu/pst.

Course Descriptions


PST 485 - (3) (Y)
Core Seminar in Political and Social Thought I
Prerequisite: PST major.
Study of great political and social thinkers and movements studied from a variety of disciplinary and genre viewpoints. Readings include classic texts, plays, novels, literature, current works of advocacy. Led by the program director, with occasional guest faculty; weekly response essays required.

PST 487 - (3) (Y)
Core Seminar in Political and Social Thought II
Prerequisite: PST major.
Continuation of PST 485, with greater emphasis on contemporary works.

PST 497Y - (6) (Y)
Thesis in Political and Social Thought
Prerequisite: PST major.
Prepared with the advice of two faculty members, the fourth-year PST thesis is a substantial, independent, year-long project built upon the student’s prior study in the program.

PST 498Y - (2) (Y)
Workshop in Thesis Research
Prerequisite: PST major.
Taken in the fourth year, this workshop offers discussion with PST faculty on their current research and continuing presentation of students’ developing projects.

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