History and Politics Reading Lists

For those admitted to read History and Politics, this page asks you about your choice of courses for the first term and tells you about the Preliminary examinations which you will take at the end of your first year.

The examinations consist of four papers:

1. A paper on the History of the British Isles

With a choice between six periods: c.3001100; 10001330; 13301550; 15001700; 16881848; or 18301951. There are further details about these on the History Faculty website.

2. A political theory paper 

Here you have a choice between two papers: Introduction to the Theory of Politics or Theories of the State (Aristotle, Hobbes, Rousseau, Marx).

Introduction to the Theory of Politics

This is a general introduction to political theory, including both historical texts and contemporary theories. The paper introduces you to some of the main concepts which inform theoretical and empirical discussion of democracy, such as, liberty and power, and to some of the core normative issues which arise in democratic politics, such as the desirability of democracy itself. It also provides an introduction to the work of some of the major political thinkers who have considered these questions, such as Rousseau, Locke, Mill and Marx. 

For introductory reading, you might look at the following (all widely available in cheap editions and can also be found online):

  • Jonathan Wolff, An Introduction to Political Philosophy (3rd ed, 2015)
  • Adam Swift Political Philosophy: A Beginners’ Guide for Students and Politicians (3rd ed, 2013

The focus of these books is different (Wolff spends more time on historical texts, Swift on contemporary theories), so both could fruitfully be read together. In terms of historical texts, you might look at:

  • Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto 
  • John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract
  • John Locke, Second Treatise of Government

Theories of the State (Aristotle, Hobbes, Rousseau, Marx)

This is an introduction to central texts in the history of political thought. Details on the content of the course are available on the Faculty’s Optional Subjects page.

It would be useful if you could acquire and read the following texts prior to your arrival in Oxford:

  • Aristotle, The Politics
  • Hobbes, Leviathan (the specified chapters are the Introduction, chapters 1130, and ‘A Review and Conclusion’)
  • Rousseau, The Social Contract
  • Marx, The Communist Manifesto, The Critique of the Gotha Programme, The Eighteenth Brumaire, and the preface to the Critique of the Political Economy.

3. Introduction to the Practice of Politics

This paper introduces you to a range of topics within political science: the way government is classified across democratic regimes, and to debates about the merits and drawbacks of each type; the nature of political institutions under regimes that are only partially democratic, or not democratic at all; the character of key government institutions in advanced democracies; and the question of what determines the shape and operation of political parties and the party system, with reference not only to stable attitudes and structured partisan competition, but also more deeply divided and contested politics, and sources of populism and radicalism. It will be useful to read some of the following books before you arrive:

  • S. Hazareesingh, Political Traditions in Modern France
  • A. Stevens, The Government and Politics of France
  • A. King (ed.), The New American Political System (2nd edition)
  • M. Foley, American Political Ideas
  • D. Kavanagh, British Politics: Continuity and Change
  • A. Marr, The History of Modern Britain

4. A historical methodology paper

Here, you have a wide range of choices. These include papers entitled Approaches to History, Historiography: Tacitus to Weber, and Quantification in History, as well as a number of language options. Please see some details of reading for each of these papers. Further information can also be found on the History Faculty’s website. However, note that as a student in History and Politics, you are allowed to replace this paper with one of the Optional Subjects in History Prelims. There are currently twenty of these, ranging from early medieval history to the twentieth century. They are taught in the third term and the choice of papers available each year is only decided at a later stage. You may well decide to take one of these and to make your choice once you have arrived in Oxford. Further information on these (and other papers) can also be found on the History Faculty’s website.

The choices you need to make at this stage concern papers 1 and 4. Please email me (at frederick.​smith@​balliol.​ox.​ac.​uk) your choices for papers 1 and 4 as soon as possible, and by Thursday 27 July at the latest. We look forward to hearing from you, and to seeing all of you who take up your places here in October.

Frederick Smith, July 2023