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    Political Theory

    School of History, Philosophy and Digital Humanities, Faculty of Arts and Humanities

    Department of Politics and International Relations, Faculty of Social Sciences

    Deepen your understanding of social and political issues on this course, which is jointly run by the departments of philosophy and politics.
    Postgraduate philosophy students sitting around coffee table

    Course description

    This course gives you the opportunity to choose from a wide range of modules across the departments of philosophy and politics. Modules cover topics such as freedom, democracy, global justice, environmental change, human rights and international political theory.

    You'll explore contemporary political philosophy and its historical underpinnings, and learn how to use political theories to reflect on current social issues. You'll delve into the theoretical debates that shape current political discourse and develop your understanding of the cultural, historical and philosophical contexts surrounding those debates.


    A selection of modules is available each year - some examples are below. There may be changes before you start your course. From May of the year of entry, formal programme regulations will be available in our Programme Regulations Finder.

    Core modules:

    Political Philosophy Research Seminar

    Students on this module will attend a two-hour seminar every week (except reading week). The objectives of the module are to: (i) read and discuss certain key texts in political philosophy; and (ii) have each student develop a writing project, on which they will be evaluated. The selection of texts will reflect the expertise of the staff involved. The seminars will be discussion orientated and students will on occasion be expected to deliver informal presentations. Students are entitled to advisory tutorials with the staff members involved, depending on which topic they want to focus on in their writing assignment.

    30 credits

    Contact department for more information.

    60 credits

    Please note, these modules change on a yearly basis.

    Optional modules in Philosophy include the following:

    Philosophical Foundations

    This module will introduce students to key ideas and arguments in philosophy, across a wide range of debates such as moral and political philosophy, logic, metaphysics, and epistemology, philosophy of science, philosophy of mind and philosophy of language. Students keen to consolidate their foundational understandings in Philosophy are strongly advised to take this module.

    30 credits
    The Memory and The Self

    Our memories of our personal past (i.e. our episodic memories) play animportant role in our lives. They help us perform mundane tasks like finding our keys, butthey arguably also form the foundation of our sense of self and personal identity. They let usknow who we are by recording what we've done and experienced. In this module we will tryto better understand what episodic memory is and to what extent it grounds our understandingof the self. This module will introduce students to the cognitive science of memory and tocore issues in the philosophical foundations of cognitive science.In the first part of the module, we will look at methodological issues that arise when weattempt to describe the mind's structure within philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience. Inthe second part of the module, we will look towards the cognitive sciences to betterunderstand what sort of thing episodic memory is. In the final part of the module, we willconsider the relationship between episodic memory and our sense of the self.This is an interdisciplinary module. Understanding how the mind is structured is a complexproject. In order to make progress we need to appeal to both empirical and philosophicalwork (and work that blurs this distinction). We'll read scientific and philosophical papers;however, no prior knowledge of cognitive science (or neuroscience) will be presumed.

    30 credits
    Reference and Truth

    This module is an introductory course in the Philosophy of Language. The overall focus of the course will be on the notion of meaning. The first part of the course will attempt to shed light on the notion of meaning by investigating different accounts of the meanings of some types of linguistic expressions, in particular names (for instance 'Nelson Mandela') and definite descriptions (for instance 'the inventor of the zip', 'the first minister of Scotland'). We will then look at an influential approach to understanding what it is for words to have meaning and for people to mean things by their words, one due to Paul Grice. And we will examine the role and understanding of conventions and how someone can say something and yet communicate something very different from its conventional meaning. We will also explore the phenomena of 'implicature' where people can communicate more (or something different from) what they literally say.

    30 credits
    Cognitive Studies Seminar

    Cognitive science is a research field in which philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, computer science, and anthropology come together to discover how the mind works. This module aims to:
    1. Introduce students to major theoretical issues in cognitive science.
    2. Help students to see how empirical evidence drawn from different disciplines is relevant to key issues in cognitive science.
    3. Equip students with an understanding of the philosophical importance of cognitive science.

    30 credits
    Guided Reading

    This module is intended to enable students to develop a research project of their own, in a flexible manner. Each student on the module will be assigned a supervisor, with whom they will meet for one hour every two weeks. They will also be encouraged to attend those reading groups run in the department (of which there are typically about 10 per semester) which fit with their project. The objectives of the module are (i) to identify a suitable research topic, in consultation with the supervisor (ii) to develop this project through supervisions and drafts (iii) to complete the project.

    30 credits
    Advanced Political Philosophy

    This module aims will investigate a broad range of topics and issues in political philosophy and explore these questions in some detail. It will include both historical and foundational matters and recent state of the art research.

    30 credits
    Topics in Social Philosophy

    This module will introduce students to some contemporary issues in social philosophy

    30 credits
    Feminist and Queer Studies in Religion, Global Perspectives

    This module applies feminism, queer studies and trans philosophy in analysis of genders and sexualities in religious traditions and cultures around the world. We will examine deities and goddesses, gendered language in religions, cisheteropatriarchy, and LGBTQIA life in e.g. Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, as well as in Chinese, and Japanese cultures. We will discuss genders, rituals, spirituality, sexual practices, procreation, abstinence, and asexuality, reading a range of feminist, queer and trans philosophical works, and texts ranging from the Kama Sutra to Confucius and the Vatican documents, Scriptures, and empirical research. Assignments allow students in Philosophy, Humanities, and Social Sciences develop their expertise using their preferred methods and topics, on religions of their choice.

    30 credits
    Philosophy of the Arts

    This module introduces students to a broad range of issues in the philosophy of art. The first half asks 'What is art?'. It examines three approaches: expression theories, institutional accounts, and the cluster account. This is followed by two critiques focusing on the lack of women in the canon and problems surrounding 'primitive' art. The evolutionary approach to art is discussed, and two borderline cases: craft and pornography. The second half examines four issues: cultural appropriation of art, pictorial representation, aesthetic experience and the everyday, and the supposed link between artistic creativity and madness.

    30 credits
    Free Will & Religion

    This module focuses on philosophical questions about the relationship between free will and religion. Historically, theistic religions have been dogged by questions concerning the nature of human agency, for instance on account of the traditional conception of God as omniscient and hence as having full foreknowledge. The module will examine philosophical conceptions of the relationship between religious states of affairs and positions regarding the status of human action, by considering relevant historical developments within theology and philosophy.

    30 credits
    Living Well, living badly

    This module will introduce students to a range of topics within the philosophy of well-being, understanding the branch of ethics concerned with what is good for us or what makes our lives go well. It will cover conceptual, theoretical, historical and applied topics relating to well-being

    30 credits
    Moral Theory and Moral Psychology

    This course examines the relationship of moral theory and moral psychology. We discuss the relationship of science and ethics, examine the nature of self-interest, altruism, sympathy, the will, and moral intuitions, explore psychological arguments for and against familiar moral theories including utilitarianism, virtue ethics, deontology and relativism, and confront the proposal that understanding the origins of moral thought 'debunks' the authority of ethics. In doing so, we will engage with readings from historical philosophers, including Hobbes, Butler, Hume, Smith, Kant, Mill, Nietzsche and Moore, as well as contemporary authors in philosophy and empirical psychology.

    30 credits
    Philosophy of Law

    Law is a pervasive feature of modern societies and governs most aspects of our lives. This module is about some of the philosophical questions raised by life under a legal system. The first part of the module investigates the nature of law. Is law simply a method of social control? For example, the group calling itself Islamic State issued commands over a defined territory and backed up these commands with deadly force. Was that a legal system? Or is law necessarily concerned with justice? Do legal systems contain only rules or do they also contain underlying principles? Is 'international law' really law?
    The second part of the module investigates the relationship between law and individual rights. What kinds of laws should we have? Do we have the moral right to break the law through acts of civil disobedience? What is the justification of punishment? Is there any justification for capital punishment? Are we right to legally differentiate between intended crimes (like murder) and unintended crimes (like manslaughter), or does this involve the unjustified punishment of 'thought crime'? Are we right to legally differentiate between murder and attempted murder, despite the fact that both crimes involve the same intent to kill?

    30 credits
    Pain, Pleasure, and Emotions

    In this module, we will discuss the nature of affective states like pleasures, pains, and emotions. We will focus on three problems: (1) The constitution problem: What all and only affective states have in common? E.g., what makes pains and joys, but not visual experiences, affective states? (2) The distinction problem: What makes each type of affective state the particular type it is? E.g., what makes an orgasm a sensory pleasure and fear an emotion? (3)The problem of affective phenomenology: Some affective states feel good, others feel bad. In virtue of what affective states have this distinctive phenomenal character?

    30 credits

    This module introduces students to Phenomenology - a philosophical tradition in continental European philosophy, which is closely related to Existentialism. Phenomenology seeks to understand the human condition. Its starting-point is everyday experience, where this includes both mundane and less ordinary forms of experience such as those typically associated with conditions such as schizophrenia. Whilst Phenomenology encompasses a diverse range of thinkers and ideas, there tends to be a focus on consciousness as embodied, situated in a particular physical, social, and cultural environment, essentially related to other people, and existing in time. (This is in contrast to the disembodied, universal, and isolated notion of the subject that comes largely from the Cartesian tradition.) There is a corresponding emphasis on the world we inhabit as a distinctively human environment that depends in certain ways on us for its character and existence. Some of the central topics addressed by Phenomenology include: embodiment; ageing and death; the lived experience of oppression; human freedom; our relations with and knowledge of, other people; the experience of time; and the nature of the world. In this module, we will discuss a selection of these and related topics, examining them through the work of key figures in the Phenomenological Movement, such as Edmund Husserl, Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Frantz Fanon, and Edith Stein.

    30 credits
    Moral and Other Values Research Seminar

    This module will have a two-hour seminar every week except writing week. The objectives of the module are (i) to read and discuss certain key short philosophical texts in ethics and aesthetics; and (ii) to have each student develop a writing project, on which he or she will be evalulated for the course. The selection of texts will reflect the expertise of the staff involved, and interests of the students enrolled. The meetings are discussion orientated and students will be expected to give informal presentations on occasion. Students are entitled to advisory tutorials with the staff members involved, depending on which text they want to focus on in their writing assignment.

    30 credits
    Philosophical Problems I

    The detailed content of this course will vary from year to year depending upon the member of staff teaching it. For details contact the Department of Philosophy.

    30 credits
    PhD Proposal

    To provide both general and subject-specific research training for those intending to pursue research in philosophy or political theory. There is a short course dealing with topics such as study and writing skills, choosing and planning a research project; conducting a literature search, delivering a seminar presentation and chairing a discussion. Students also meet with their research supervisor to plan and produce a detailed PhD proposal and annotated bibliography (6,000 to 8,000 words), outlining their proposed project and locating it in relation to established positions in the discipline.

    30 credits

    Politics optional modules:

    Contemporary Global Security

    This module examines responses at state, regional and international level to key security challenges. It focuses primarily on the post-Cold War setting, the types of security challenges that have developed and the responses to them at state, regional and international level. It analyses the role played by international organisations and develops case analyses of key international security crises that represent or reflect important dimensions of contemporary global security. These could include, for example, the crisis in ex-Yugoslavia, the Rwandan crisis, the first and second Gulf wars and the conflict in Afghanistan. Attention will also be directed to the role and development of key international security organisations, particularly the United Nations.

    30 credits
    Chinese Governance and Politics

    This module focuses on the latest political developments in the People’s Republic of China. It starts by putting contemporary Chinese politics into historical context and introducing students to key institutions in the PRC, including the Chinese Communist Party and the state. It then focuses on important current academic debates related to Chinese politics, including the resilience of China’s authoritarian political system and the implications of Xi Jinping's rise to power. This course also examines key governance challenges in China, including those related to pollution, social stability, and the economy.

    30 credits
    Human Rights

    The module offers a critical engagement with the key debates in the theory and practice of human rights. The first section of the module examines the very idea of human rights, asking how human rights ought to be defined, and whether they can or ought to be morally justified. It also looks at some important challenges to the idea of human rights: namely that they are ethnocentric, superficial, and have become instruments of power. The second section explores some specific controversies in human rights practice: including such issues as how they are best protected, whether they can tackle such global problems as poverty and environmental degradation, and whether their violation can provide a justification for military intervention.

    30 credits
    Global Health and Global Politics

    Situated within contemporary approaches to International Relations and International Political Economy, this module will introduce students to the global politics of health, addressing health as both a global issue, and also as a quintessentially political one. The module will: chart the recent rise of health as an issue of 'high politics'; examine the relationship between individual and population health and the global political economy; explore the ways in which and institutions by which health is governed at the global level; analyse some of the key contemporary issues and challenges in contemporary global health governance.

    30 credits
    Policy-Making in the Real World

    Policy making is an increasingly complex process, involving a range of 'wicked problems' and a growing set of options for addressing them. Given the multiple risks and crises they must deal with, how can policy makers come up with effective policy, learn from mistakes and deal with unexpected events? What tools can they employ to do so and how can we evaluate their success or failure? This unit will provide a theoretically informed, but practice-focused approach to these questions. Students will gain a range of practical skills through innovative group projects and visiting speakers from the policy world.

    30 credits
    Development and the State

    This module will explore and critically assess the political economy of development. It does so by focusing on the interplay between processes of economic transformation and the political strategies pursued by states in the name of national development. The module is interdisciplinary, drawing on development studies, the political economy of growth and transformation, and comparative capitalisms. Part one reviews the most salient theoretical themes in approaches to capitalist development. This will put students in a position to understand more specific theorisations of capitalist development as a state strategy in a world characterised by uneven and combined capitalist development. Part two focuses more specifically on the state. This section will bring the more generic issues reviewed in Part One into a focused 'developmental' framing. Part three will open up to more ambitious evaluative work in which normative questions are asked and the prospects for capitalist development are contested.

    30 credits
    Global Politics of Climate Change

    This module explores the politics of global anthropogenic climate change, one of the central challenges - if not the single greatest challenge - of our age. By combining theoretical, case study and normative analysis, you will consider the nature and causes of climate change; global, national and local attempts to limit and mitigate it; its current and projected future impacts; and the possibilities of climate change adaptation. Topics discussed will range from the UN climate regime to Extinction Rebellion, from the origins of our global fossil fuel economy to the politics of renewables, and from 'climate refugees' to the political economy of carbon offsetting.

    30 credits
    Political Economy of Global Environmental change

    The aim of this course is to introduce students to the major debates in the political economy of the environment. It will examine central debates around climate change, the Anthropocene, the commons, the green economy, biodiversity loss, population, sustainability and environment induced conflict. These debates will be examined by analysing the different approaches to tackling global environmental change. Therefore, the course will explore the debates about the political economy of global environmental change at various scales including international, regional, national and local scales, and as well as managing the commons and how individuals might engage in forms of environmental self regulation/self- limiting behaviours. The course will also make use of specific case studies to illuminate the wider conceptual debates.

    30 credits
    Democratic Governance in the 21st Century: Problems, Innovations and Solutions

    Political systems around the world strive to be democratic, but what is meant by democracy and how this can be achieved? This module considers the nature of the democratic crisis faced by countries around the world and maps the latest innovations designed to address this challenge. Students will study tensions between new and old democratic arenas and consider the indicators of a thriving democracy. The module is grounded in the tradition of engaged scholarship and uses real world examples and solution focused analysis. Students will develop keen professional and research skills by studying the theory and practice of democratic innovation.

    30 credits
    Feminist and Decolonizing Approaches to International Relations: Bodies, Coloniality, Knowledge

    This module problematizes core IR concepts and themes through an alternative 'geopolitics of knowledge' that comprises postcolonial, decolonial, feminist and queer, Marxist and post-Marxist approaches to IR theory. The first part provides an understanding of key moments, processes, actors and practices in the emergence of the modern system of sovereign states. The second part interrogates key concepts and themes in IR, including violence, the body, capitalism, globalization, sovereignty and anarchy, hierarchy and hegemony/empire, and indigeneity. In place of the 'West versus the Rest', the module will examine the imperial dimension of these themes while revealing the mutually constitutive relations between metropoles/colonies in the formation of modernity both materially and ideationally.

    30 credits
    Wellbeing in Politics and Policy

    There has been a dramatic rise in political interest in wellbeing over the past decade. Politicians and policy-makers in a range of contexts - national and international - have moved towards embracing wellbeing as a more comprehensive, inclusive and appropriate goal of public policy than the traditionally narrow focus on indicators of economic prosperity. This has led to the development of wellbeing frameworks that embrace indicators of subjective wellbeing (e.g., happiness), environmental and social concerns alongside economic indicators. For some these developments have the potential to transform aspects of politics and policy in the long term. This module explores conceptual, empirical and policy-related aspects of wellbeing. It examines competing definitions, understandings and measurements of wellbeing and related concepts such as quality of life and happiness. It aims to give students a clear understanding of how and why wellbeing has risen up political agendas, the significance of developments in policy to date and the potential for wellbeing as a political idea and guide to policy.

    30 credits
    Terrorism and Political Violence

    This module produces a critical take on security and violence, combining Sociological and International Relations approaches, and applying them to cases ranging from the 'macro-level' (war, including guerrilla warfare/insurgency; genocide and most especially terrorism) through to 'micro-level' sites usually considered 'private' or 'intimate' ('domestic' violence, white supremacist bombing of historical Black churches, etc).

    30 credits
    Capitalism and Crisis

    This module explores the relationship between capitalism and crisis through the prism of the causes of and fallout from the 2008 crash. Part 1 introduces and unpacks the core concepts of the module - capitalism, crisis - and presents a brief historical overview of pre-2008 economic crises in order to provide some necessary context and comparison points. Part 2 surveys competing explanations of the 2008 crisis, by starting narrow (i.e. regulation of banking) and then broadening out (i.e. evolution of capitalism). Part 3 examines the fallout from the 2008 crisis, including the extent to which the crisis was truly global and the variety of political responses to the crash.

    30 credits
    Wellbeing in Politics and Policy

    There has been a dramatic rise in political interest in wellbeing over the past decade. Politicians and policy-makers in a range of contexts - national and international - have moved towards embracing wellbeing as a more comprehensive, inclusive and appropriate goal of public policy than the traditionally narrow focus on indicators of economic prosperity. This has led to the development of wellbeing frameworks that embrace indicators of subjective wellbeing (e.g., happiness), environmental and social concerns alongside economic indicators. For some these developments have the potential to transform aspects of politics and policy in the long term. This module explores conceptual, empirical and policy-related aspects of wellbeing. It examines competing definitions, understandings and measurements of wellbeing and related concepts such as quality of life and happiness. It aims to give students a clear understanding of how and why wellbeing has risen up political agendas, the significance of developments in policy to date and the potential for wellbeing as a political idea and guide to policy.

    30 credits

    Freedom is one of the most important political values, if not the most important one of all. This module investigates the political value of freedom via an engagement with the literature in contemporary political theory. To do so it focuses on: competing theories of freedom (negative, positive, republican); the relationship between freedom and other values (autonomy, equality, security); and a number of applied issues (the harm principle, freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of movement). The approach is theoretical and philosophical with the overall aim being to equip students to analyse and evaluate political arguments which invoke the value of freedom.

    30 credits

    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.

    Open days

    An open day gives you the best opportunity to hear first-hand from our current students and staff about our courses.

    You may also be able to pre-book a department visit as part of a campus tour.Open days and campus tours


    • 1 year full-time
    • 2 years part-time


    You’ll learn through lectures, seminars and tutorials. 

    Your career

    Our MA is designed to prepare you for a PhD in political theory or a related area.

    It will also build your knowledge and skills for a career outside academia, or help you to think more deeply about the political questions you confront in your work or social life.


    School of History, Philosophy and Digital Humanities

    In the School of History, Philosophy and Digital Humanities, we interrogate some of the most significant and pressing aspects of human life, offering new perspectives and tackling globally significant issues.

    As a postgraduate Philosophy student you’ll be taught by philosophers who engage in cutting-edge research across a wide range of philosophical disciplines including epistemology, ethics, social, political and environmental philosophy, metaphysics and philosophy of the mind among others.

    The diversity of our research expertise allows us to offer programmes which are truly interdisciplinary and flexible and create a thriving research community where students and staff come together to discuss topics, explore new ideas and expand their knowledge in a supportive environment.

    We’ll also provide you with opportunities to use your philosophical knowledge to engage with real world problems and make a difference in the community through projects like our award-winning Philosophy in the City programme, which enables students to teach philosophy in the local community to audiences of all ages.

    Our Centre for Engaged Philosophy pursues research into questions of fundamental political and social importance, from criminal justice and social inclusion to climate ethics, all topics that are covered in our teaching. Their events are open to all students and there are opportunities to get involved in event planning and delivery.   


    Our students get to make the most of the University's facilities across campus. Explore some of the teaching, library and social spaces you'll be able to visit as an arts and humanities student.

    Student profiles

    MA Student, Zhen Fan

    This year has been a very tough and challenging year for everyone, but all teachers, staff, and students of the Department of Philosophy are still working hard to create an excellent learning atmosphere. As an international student, I feel the friendliness and professionalism of the University of Sheffield. Every faculty member has very profound knowledge and provides perfect service. During the year of studying I gained the knowledge I wanted to learn, especially about global justice, which provided great help for my future research. In general, I have enjoyed a year in Sheffield very much. If I have the opportunity, I will definitely return to enjoy the sunshine, food, and beauty of Sheffield

    Fan Zhen
    MA student 2021

    Studying the Political Theory MA at Sheffield has been a fantastic experience. The freedom to choose what modules I want to study from a wide breadth of options has enabled me to pursue my personal academic interests. It has been rewarding to be taught by leading academics alongside engaging content! The staff at all levels of the department have always been so lovely and helpful. Plus, Sheffield itself is a wonderful and friendly place to live! If you're looking to be intellectually challenged and exposed to exciting ideas in a highly supportive community of people - then Political Theory at Sheffield is for you

    Daniel Jones
    MA student 2021

    Entry requirements

    Minimum 2:1 undergraduate honours degree in philosophy, politics or a related subject.

    We will also consider your application if you have a degree in an unrelated subject, especially if you can demonstrate other experience relevant to the programme.

    We also consider a wide range of international qualifications:

    Entry requirements for international students

    Overall IELTS score of 6.5 with a minimum of 6.0 in each component, or equivalent.

    Pathway programme for international students

    If you're an international student who does not meet the entry requirements for this course, you have the opportunity to apply for a pre-masters programme in Business, Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Sheffield International College. This course is designed to develop your English language and academic skills. Upon successful completion, you can progress to degree level study at the University of Sheffield.

    If you have any questions about entry requirements, please contact the department.

    Fees and funding

    If you qualify, you may be able to get financial support through the University's studentships and fee waivers.


    You can apply now using our Postgraduate Online Application Form. It's a quick and easy process.

    Apply now

    Any supervisors and research areas listed are indicative and may change before the start of the course.

    Our student protection plan

    Recognition of professional qualifications: from 1 January 2021, in order to have any UK professional qualifications recognised for work in an EU country across a number of regulated and other professions you need to apply to the host country for recognition. Read information from the UK government and the EU Regulated Professions Database.