The Cambridge HSPS Course
Duy Le, Human, Social, and Political Science, University of Cambridge
Tell us about yourself
I’m Duy, 2nd year HSPS student at Cambridge. I did my A-levels in Singapore.
What is HSPS – Human, Social and Political Sciences?
The HSPS course is designed to be broad in your first year so that you can try out subjects you might not have taken before. It becomes more focused in your second and third year.
In your first year, you take 4 papers, choosing from: Politics, International Relations, Social Anthropology, Biological Anthropology and Sociology. You can replace 1 paper with an Archeology or Psychological and Behavioural Sciences paper.
In your second year, you choose to specialise in 1 of the 3 tracks: Politics and International Relations, Social Anthropology, or Sociology. You also have the option of doing a joint track Politics and Sociology, Politics and Social Anthropology, or Social Anthropology and Sociology. There is an optional statistics paper you can take in your 2nd or 3rd year if you want to develop some quantitative skills.
I applied to HSPS, not having done any of the subjects before (I did Maths, Chemistry, Biology, and History for my A-level). I intended to specialise in Politics, but now I am doing Social Anthropology. One of the strengths of HSPS is that it allows you to try different disciplines at university level before deciding to commit to any one of them.
What is the content of your course?
In my first year, I took Politics, International Relations, Sociology and Social Anthropology. You don’t need any prerequisite knowledge. In fact, I did not take any of these subjects before. All of the papers are designed with the assumption that you have no prior knowledge. All 1st year papers, thus, contain an eclectic mix of many subfields within them. Social Anthropology, for instance, has anthropological theory, anthropology of kinship, of religion, of economics, and of politics. The purpose is not for you to go in depth, although you have considerable room to choose to do so if one particular area interests you, but to sample the breadth of the discipline. Below, I give a bit more detail on each paper, but you can go to the HSPS website for a more detailed paper guide.
Political philosophy (Hobbes, Weber, Marx, Hayek, etc) – you will find little discussion of contemporary political issues, and a lot of the things discussed do not seem relevant today immediately. Don’t let that put you off. It is a critical foundation that more contemporary theorists keep coming back to. I found this part of the paper quite challenging, but also gratifying when you manage to understand the philosopher in his own term. (Yes, his. Most people covered are dead, white men)
Democracy: a combination of classic work (Tocqueville) and more contemporary stuff. Does democracy work? Does democracy bring about better material wealth? Does democracy bring about more equality/inequality? And more questions like these. If you abhor the philosophical, you will find this interesting for its immediate relevance.
This covers theories of international relations, causes of war, the workings of international institutions, international economy, etc. For international relations, it is a mixture of both theories (most of which were formulated not long ago – 1940s onwards, unlike politics), and contemporary issues (environment, nuclear proliferation, war, etc).
Marx (capitalism, industrialisation, class struggle, communism)
Weber (rationality, bureaucracy, religion and modernity)
Durkheim (positivist methodology of social sciences, using statistics in sociology, division of labour in society, social solidarity).
Contemporary sociological topics: class, gender, ethnicity, race, nationalism, welfare states
The subject matter overlaps quite significantly with sociology, split broadly into:
Identity and differences (kinship, ethnicity, nationality, gender, class, race)
Economic anthropology (gift exchange, how money works, capitalist economy and pre-capitalist economy)
Political anthropology (nationalism, state, conflicts)
Anthropological theories include structural-functionalism, structuralism, interpretivism, and practice theories.
Here’s a whole other article about Social Anthropology.
How are you taught and what is the workload like?
Most papers are taught through lectures and supervisions. Usually you have about 2 hours of lecture every week for each paper, so about 8 hours a week in your first year.
You will also have about 2 supervisions a week (so 2 2000-word essays a week) on average, although this varies week to week, and possibly with colleges as well. There are weeks with no supervision, and there are weeks with three. There are usually 2-4 students in a supervision in your 1st year, and 2 from your 2nd year onwards.
The majority of your time will be spent on self-study. There are a lot of readings to cover. I spent on average 6 hours a day in the library in my 1st year.
How did you prepare for your application?
You do not need to have any prior knowledge of any of the subjects. I did not know the difference between social anthropology and sociology at the time I applied.
I was really interested in politics and contemporary issues, and read a lot of Economists. I also found my A-level History knowledge particularly helpful. My interview and essay thus focused on contemporary issues and not the philosophical or theoretical aspects of social sciences. Focus your preparation on what interests you by reading and thinking a lot about it.
You certainly don’t have to prepare for all the subjects HSPS covers. Read whatever interests you really. You can take a look at the paper guides to see what the suggested readings for first year students are, but don’t feel restricted to this list.
The assessment is not a test of your knowledge, but your ability to think, and construct an argument (even from a point of ignorance). It is to see how you respond to cues, help, challenges, and probes from the interviewers so that they know whether the supervision system is suitable for you. You can’t possibly predict the topics you will be asked, and you can’t cover all of them, so focus on a few that interests you and try to apply them flexibly to answer different questions.
Mock interview helps. Ask your mentor to give you one.