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POL1049 : Power and Inequality

  • Offered for Year: 2021/22
  • Module Leader(s): Professor Derek Bell
  • Owning School: Geography, Politics & Sociology
  • Teaching Location: Newcastle City Campus
Semester 2 Credit Value: 20
ECTS Credits: 10.0


In this module, we aim:
• to challenge our assumptions about power and inequality;
• to encourage critical thinking about inequalities at the local, national and global scales;
• to introduce different approaches to the study of power and inequality in Politics and International Relations;
• to think about how to choose appropriate approaches for studying specific political issues and how to explain the reasons for our choices;
• to develop key research skills, including: reading analytically; synthesising ideas and evidence; participating effectively in respectful critical discussion; giving and receiving constructive feedback; teamworking; and managing, recording and evaluating your own learning;
• to facilitate successful learning in stage 2 and 3 modules in Politics and International Relations by developing foundational knowledge and skills;
• to foster a “growth mindset” approach to learning.

Outline Of Syllabus

Topics to be covered could include:

We outline the module and explain the novel elements of the teaching format and assessment. We present examples that will be used throughout the module. These are likely to include examples of inequalities related to gender, race, disability, social class, nationality and sexuality (among others).

Describing and measuring inequalities
We introduce different ways of thinking about inequalities, including the distinction between inequality of opportunity and inequality of outcome, as well as different types of inequalities (e.g., economic, social, political, education, health, etc.). We introduce the legal concept of ‘protected characteristics’ and the discussion of inequalities between groups. We look at qualitative descriptions of inequality and the use of quantitative data to measure inequalities.

Explaining inequalities 1: Agents and power
We examine how the existence of inequalities has been explained in politics and international relations. We begin with explanations that emphasise the role of agents exercising power over their own or others’ lives. We introduce the one- and two-dimensional views of power and consider examples of how they feature in explanations of inequalities at local, national and global scales. We examine how people, including members of elites or other advantaged groups, use power to maintain inequalities that are to their advantage.

Explaining inequalities 2: Structures, institutions and power
We move on to approaches that emphasise the role of structures or institutions, such as democratic political institutions or capitalist economic institutions, in creating and maintaining inequalities. We introduce Lukes’ three-dimensional view of power. We use a variety of institutionalist and structuralist theories to illustrate the diversity of approaches used to explain inequalities across the discipline of politics and international relations. We compare structural and institutional approaches with agency-based approaches. We also consider how explanations of inequalities can refer both to structures and agents.

Explaining inequalities 3: Ideas, language and power
Finally, we consider approaches that emphasise the role of ideas and language in creating and maintaining inequalities. We introduce Foucault’s work on power. We provide examples of discourse-, and language-based explanations of inequalities. We also discuss unconscious bias. We consider how explanations of inequalities might refer to agents, structures and ideas.

Evaluating inequalities
So far, we have considered what inequalities exist and how they might be explained. We end the module by considering which inequalities are unjust. We introduce a normative political philosophy approach to thinking about inequalities. We consider how theories of justice can be used to justify or critique inequalities and the actions, institutions and ideas that create or maintain them.

Teaching Methods

Teaching Activities
Category Activity Number Length Student Hours Comment
Guided Independent StudyAssessment preparation and completion112:0022:00Weekly independent reflective learning log task.
Structured Guided LearningLecture materials440:3022:00Pre-recorded lecture materials
Structured Guided LearningStructured research and reading activities111:0011:00Individual prep for study group activities before/between workshop and student-led group activity.
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesWorkshops111:0011:00Small group workshops (up to 25 students) to work on weekly study group activities. PiP.
Guided Independent StudyStudent-led group activity111:0011:00Students meet weekly in study groups to complete study group activities started in workshops.
Guided Independent StudyIndependent study1112:00112:00N/A
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesModule talk111:0011:00Q&A; feedback on weekly study group activities and reflective learning log tasks. PiP.
Teaching Rationale And Relationship

The lecture materials will introduce students to key approaches to the study of power and inequality as well as demonstrating key skills (e.g., analysing texts and arguments, providing feedback to peers). The structured research and reading activities will help students to develop their understanding of key approaches to the study of power and inequality as well as practicing key academic skills, including reading analytically and synthesising ideas and evidence from multiple sources. Students will be supported to work in their study groups on study group activities in the scheduled PiP workshops. The scheduled module talk will answer student queries and provide generic feedback on weekly activites. The student-led group activities will enable students to practice key skills and develop their understanding of power and inequality through collaborative learning.

Independent study will enable students to further develop their knowledge and skills and to demonstrate that they have achieved the intended knowledge and skills outcomes. Students will use the time for assessment preparation and completion to write up the short pieces for their research portfolio.

Assessment Methods

The format of resits will be determined by the Board of Examiners

Other Assessment
Description Semester When Set Percentage Comment
Research paper2M1003500 words.
Assessment Rationale And Relationship

Students are required to submit a reserach portfolio, which should be 3500 words in length. The portfolio should include specific pieces of writing (ideally) completed at intervals during the module. Each research portfolio piece will require students to demonstrate knowledge of specific inequalities as well as key research skills, including analysis and synthesis.

Reading Lists