Global Society’s Failed Attempts to Pop the Core’s Western Bubble

Despite its efforts to break the mold, Global Society remains a stark reminder of Sosc’s obsession with the West.

By Tejas Narayan

For all the different options that the College offers to fulfill the Social Sciences Core requirement, the most popular courses tend to follow a similar blueprint: read a book about a particular element of Western social, political, or psychological theory; reflect on the idea it presents; compare it to the work of other influential thinkers; and move on. Depending on the class, the subject matter of these texts or the narrative that they form together can differ considerably, but nearly all of them center on perspectives from Europe and the United States. In fact, apart from Religion: Cosmos, Conscience, and Community, the sole Sosc sequence supposedly subverting this shortsighted standard is Global Society. And while the very existence of the Religion sequence already plays into the stereotype that the non-white world is worth examining primarily for its relationship with mysticism and spirituality, Global had the opportunity to apply the traditional Sosc formula to a much wider array of schools of thought. As a consequence of its confused and disjointed identity, however, the sequence ultimately falls short of truly giving voice to the rest of the world. By trying to be an exploration of more diverse perspectives on social theory and historical events, a study of empirical population behavior, and a contemporary research project in the span of a year, Global fails to give any of these aspects the rigorous treatment that the Sosc requirement aims to facilitate.

Regardless of any social agenda, Global’s starkly distinct quarters barely give each subtopic room to breathe. Since the theory-based first quarter is expected to provide a representative sampling of the entire world, it’s locked into a cycle of distilling a book to a few representative excerpts, discussing them for a few days, and moving on to the next. Whereas other Sosc classes can dedicate up to a month to understanding the subtler implications of a single text, Global’s model only allows for a SparkNotes summary at best. Because of these time constraints, each source is expected to represent the ideology of an entire region of the world single-handedly, which makes roughly as much sense as deciding that a week of reading Marx constitutes a sufficient portrayal of European social thought. Meanwhile, the second quarter’s focus on population statistics requires most of the winter to be dedicated to the technicalities of data analysis rather than the actual trends being examined. Finally, as the spring quarter relies on research skills with which students have little to no experience, the first few weeks amount to a crash course meant to bridge that gap in knowledge. The quarter’s early readings are mostly technical briefings on research practices, and what remains of the shortened time leaves little leeway for major hurdles in the research project. In an ideal world, this would be addressed by having previously established a strong foundation of research experience, but winter quarter’s focus on specific numerical analysis as opposed to more widely applicable practices prevents this from being the case.

This lack of cohesion between Global’s quarterly courses is a recurring problem that hurts the sequence as a complete experience. As much as readings define the first quarter, the slate of worldviews that students examine becomes irrelevant by the winter. Furthermore, because the statistical tools provided by the second quarter center specifically on examining populations, they have no guarantee of proving useful for the third quarter’s relatively unconstrained research project. My project, for instance, examined the political and economic factors surrounding European and Central Asian energy policy; the Lexis diagrams, population pyramids, and life tables that defined the second quarter unsurprisingly didn’t have much to contribute to my final paper. The three-quarter scope of Sosc offers the chance to achieve a deeper understanding of the core material by constantly building on prior knowledge, but Global’s failure to properly capitalize on this opportunity severely limits the sequence’s ability to leave a lasting impression on its students.

A Sosc class focused on practical research certainly isn’t a bad thing. Rather, the larger problem with Global lies in its marketing. The course descriptions allude to a marriage of theory and empirical observation that helps students understand social phenomena through a broader framework. In actuality, these elements are rigidly separated from quarter to quarter and are never given room to interact. Global only lives up to its name in the first quarter, when it tries to touch on a new text—each offering insight into a different cultural background—every week. But by the second quarter, the course abandons this attempt to listen to a scope of voices beyond Europe and the U.S. The wider world is relegated to being an object of study to be observed and analyzed according to a rulebook predominantly written from the perspectives of white men. After establishing Warren Thompson’s demographic transition theory and Thomas Malthus’s fears of overpopulation, any treatment of the rest of the world is solely within the context of applying these Western models rather than presenting a more comprehensive scope of beliefs. The third quarter, however, is perhaps the most offensively miscommunicated; it’s not at all obvious from its description that Global III is essentially a loosely guided research project. While studying “the effects of…large social patterns on individual persons” appears to imply a curriculum that actively explores this relationship, the actual course format doesn’t address it at all. Instead, students are left to depend on the chance that their research leads them to the stated course themes for themselves. It’s simply not true that Global’s third quarter invites examination of “state repression, civil resistance, religious transformations, [and] technological and economic changes,” for each student only learns about a single topic through their own independent study. Without intimate prior knowledge of the sequence, students are initially drawn to Global because of its promise to explore what a more diverse group of thinkers has to say about the world. For me, at least, discovering the course’s actual objectives came as a nasty shock.

As easy as it would be to blame these problems on poor teaching, the truth is that Global is taught by incredibly talented instructors who do a phenomenal job with their curriculum. But no matter how capable a professor is of bringing each reading to life or supporting their students through the turbulent waters of research, the structural limitations of the sequence itself undermine the experience professors are ultimately able to provide. In order to realize the nuggets of potential that it offers over the course of the year, Global needs to settle on an identity to which it can devote itself for all three quarters. The current first quarter, for instance, could easily be an entire sequence on its own; its multifaceted search to explain what holds societies together and how they behave would flourish if given more time for more rigorous analysis of its readings. On the other hand, a research-focused sequence about explaining contemporary facts amid the noise of the messy real world, as sampled in quarters two and three, would boast a novel approach to understanding the way the world works.

This change, however, would come with a catch—shifting Global’s priorities away from centering marginalized perspectives leaves the Sosc requirement as a whole with a strong bias toward European viewpoints. Of course, this is only an issue if one assumes that UChicago has an inherent responsibility to provide equal representation to cultures outside the one in which it’s situated. On a strictly pedagogical level, offering students the chance to engage with unexplored and underrepresented schools of thought clearly upholds the philosophy of open discourse to which the University claims to adhere. Immersed as we are in a society built on the writings of Western thinkers, continuing to confine ourselves to those same ideologies only serves to imprison us in a bubble of the familiar. On a personal note, though, it feels distasteful to appeal to the Chicago principles just to claim that Asian, African, Latin American, and Indigenous voices around the world deserve a seat at the table. Arguing that all institutions of higher learning—not just UChicago—are responsible for reaching beyond their own cultural context could take up a whole essay of its own, but once we accept that much, it follows that the post-Enlightenment European canon shouldn’t be the final authority on the social sciences.

While Global is a particularly damaging symptom of this bias, it’s far from the only opportunity for improvement. Splitting the course into two separate sequences that focus on worldwide theory and research respectively seems like an obvious solution, but casually introducing more courses comes with a slew of logistical challenges for the department leadership and faculty. When the administration does have the capacity to launch new Sosc courses, however, it should do so with questions of inclusivity in mind. Sadly, the newest addition to the roster—Democracy: Equality, Liberty, and the Dilemmas of Self-Government—has failed to uphold this duty; its obvious focus on Western history and principles makes it an irresponsible course to introduce in light of the existing lack of diversity.

In any case, the obstacles and charges that come with adding new sequences don’t stand in the way of restructuring our existing Sosc offerings to incorporate a broader pool of readings. Europe didn’t invent power, identity, or resistance, as far as I know—nor have I heard of self, culture, or society being unique to the American way. Why, then, are the readings for these courses trapped within this arbitrary geographical boundary? Despite the importance of instilling an understanding of the world that incorporates a variety of perspectives on it, the Social Sciences Division’s attempt to do this through Global comes across as weak and half-hearted. If anything, this kind of lackluster effort appears at first glance to be a response to Sosc’s struggle with diversity, making it that much harder to push for any lasting, significant change. As long as UChicago doesn’t expand its Sosc offerings beyond their current Eurocentric bias—whether by restructuring Global or by introducing a new Core sequence entirely—its perfunctory approach does its claims of ideological diversity a disservice.

Tejas Narayan is a third-year in the College.