HST6603: Modernity and Power: Individuals and the State in the Modern World

30 credits (Semester: Autumn)

Module Leader 2018-19: Professor Benjamin Ziemann (convenor) and Dr James Yeoman | 2019-20: Professor Mary Vincent (convenor) and Dr Simon Stevens

Module Summary

This core module introduces you to the challenges of studying modern history at an advanced level. It explores the distinctiveness of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as a period, the study of which raises particular questions about perspective and interpretation, about the relationship between academic history and public understandings of the recent past, and about the selection and treatment of sources across a wide range of media. Classes will focus on some of the key themes and developments in recent historiography, including an engagement with the use of interdisciplinary approaches, particularly in the study of contemporary history.

Module aims

This module aims to introduce you to key themes in the historiography of the modern period, covering the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with an emphasis on British and European history, but including topics addressing issues in world history. Topics include war and revolution, social and cultural developments, ideologies, global influences on economic hardship and the consequences of the Nazi expansion, together with both the radical options pursued in Europe and Asia during the Second World War, postwar reconstruction, the development of welfarism, the social radicalism of the 1960s, and the breakdown of the postwar consensus after 1970. The module aims to give you a more profound understanding of the history of the twentieth century, introducing you to different modes of historical writing and so providing you with a context from which to engage in independent research.

To this end, the module also aims to give you an understanding of the methodological issues raised by the advanced study of modern history, including the period designated as ‘contemporary history’. The module will examine the ways in which historians explore their material and write about the past, working from examples of historical writing and the approach taken by individual historians or historiographical schools. Such an approach will enable you to explore historians’ use of concepts and categories and how individual approaches and sources (including film and photography) shape the subject matter of history and the ways in which historians write. The module will therefore inform your understanding in your choice of a research topic and enhance your ability to recognise any methodological problems inherent in your chosen area of specialism.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the module, you will be able to demonstrate an ability to:

  1. Understand the characteristics of ‘modernity’, interrogating the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as a distinct period of history, and identifying the forces and experiences that have shaped our understanding of it;
  2. Conceptualise an understanding of contemporary history, and so be able to evaluate critically scholarly writing on the very recent past;
  3. Demonstrate an awareness of the contribution made by other academic disciplines to our understanding of modern history;
  4. Explore the historiographical context for practice-based research, and identify and locate suitable sources for independent historical research on a chosen subject;
  5. Distinguish between and critically evaluate different schools of interpretation and historical debate on modern history, with an ability to demonstrate this both orally and in writing;
  6. Elaborate and defend an intellectual position to other members of the seminar group, précising complex arguments and methodological debates succinctly and accurately;
  7. Engage in group discussions of interpretative issues;
  8. Present their conclusions in a fluent written form, demonstrating a mastery of bibliographical materials (including electronic resources) referencing their sources appropriately.


Learning hours
Seminar hours Tutorial hours Independent Learning
20 3 277

The principal mode of contact will be ten two-hour seminar classes. Within this standard format, students will be offered

  • A series of content-specific seminars, looking at a range of historical topics, issues, and problems that take you through a particular historical period, providing both an introduction to the advanced study of the period and the historical and historiographical context from which to undertake practice-based research.
  • A series of methodological seminars examining different approaches to the research and writing of modern history. Some seminars will look at specific problems, such as how archives store and structure knowledge, others will focus on a particular methodological debate, such as oral history or ‘cinematic’ knowledge. You will therefore have a forum in which to explore problems and methods in the advanced study of modern history.

You will be set preparatory reading in advance for all seminars. You will be expected to share your knowledge of historiographical developments, debate controversial topics and listen and respond to the views of others in a structured environment. You will, in addition, have individual tutorials in which to identify topics for written papers, develop your reading around these topics, and discuss the structure and content of your written work.



Assessment methods
Assessment Type % of final mark Length
Coursework Formative n/a 2000 words
Coursework Summative 100% 6000 words

You will complete one written paper of 6,000 words. The work should engage with one or more of the concepts or themes of the module through a case-study/case-studies. It should demonstrate an advanced understanding of and critical engagement with current historiography, and advanced skills in the use of sources.

There will be a formative assessment in which you are invited to submit up to 2,000 words of a draft / plan / piece of exploratory writing in advance of the final essay.


Selected reading

For your own preparation, and as an introduction into some of the themes of the module, you can read standard textbooks on Modern European and US history. In addition, we recommend to engage with any of the readings below, which are relevant for a number of topics in the module:

  • Margot Canaday, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton, NJ, 2009).
  • Mitchell Dean, Governmentality: Power and Rule in Modern Society (London: Sage, 1999)
  • Daniel Pick, Faces of Degeneration: A European Disorder, C.1848-c.1918 (Cambridge: CUP, 1993).
  • Kerstin Brückweh/Dirk Schumann/Richard Wetzell/Benjamin Ziemann (eds.), Engineering Society. The Role of the Human and Social Sciences in Modern Societies, 1880-1980 (Basingstoke: Palgrave 2012)
  • James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition have Failed (New Haven, 1998)
  • Bonnie Smith, The Gender of History: Men, Women and Historical Practice (Cambridge, MA, 1998)
  • Maier, Charles S., 'Consigning the Twentieth Century to History. Alternative Narratives for the Modern Era', American Historical Review 105 (2000), pp. 807-831
  • Michael Geyer and Sheila Fitzpatrick (eds.), Beyond Totalitarianism. Stalinism and Nazism Compared (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).



*The content of our courses is reviewed annually to make sure it's up-to-date and relevant. Individual modules are occasionally updated or withdrawn. This is in response to discoveries through our world-leading research; funding changes; professional accreditation requirements; student or employer feedback; outcomes of reviews; and variations in staff or student numbers. In the event of any change we'll consult and inform students in good time and take reasonable steps to minimise disruption.