Standing Against Racism

Dear Students,

Many of us have been hurt, frustrated, angry, overwhelmed and much more in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, which has made visible once again the structures and intersections of white supremacy, economic inequality, gender, and death in the U.S. Over the last week, important calls for justice and affirmations of anti-racist principles, articulated by Black Lives Matter and other social movements, have pointed to how we might challenge these hierarchies in our institutional, political, and personal lives. We have also seen how inequalities are reproduced, often despite our individual intentions and wishes.

As we confront the layering of health, social, racial, and economic inequalities that have characterized this summer, I have been talking with other HSOC faculty about we can use our scholarly tools to empower our communities. How can we make sense, for instance, of the competing medical narratives that are being offered about the death of George Floyd? How can we understand the relationship between the COVID19 crisis - and the exaggeration of social inequalities that it has precipitated - and the ongoing protests?

We feel strongly that this is not only a time for reflection but also for action on a variety of fronts. We’ll be organizing an open coffee hour soon to hear from any of you who wish to share your thoughts and ideas for action, or even your anger or grief with us. Some of you are already taking action through volunteer work, activism, or intellectual work. Many might also have questions, need space to reflect or to draw support from others, or to process strong and sometimes complex emotions. Together, we hope to learn how we, as faculty, can support HSOC students and the broader communities of which we are a part.

We hope that by creating a space for collective and open discussion, we can reflect more deeply on how to incorporate the lessons of these events into our program. In the meanwhile, please know that we are thinking of you, and please don’t hesitate to reach out to any one of us if you need support or a listening ear.

In solidarity and community, 

Projit Bihari Mukharji, HSOC Director, for the faculty



STSC and HSOC in the World of 2020


We are currently facing a moment of great historic significance (trust us, we’re historians, we know historic significance when we see it) -- from the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic recession to the emergence of one of the largest social movements in American history, in response to ongoing structural racism. And at Penn, we will be teaching and learning in ways we have never tried before. You may be wondering how we got here. You may also be wondering what comes next, and how you can be a part of it. 

STSC and HSOC courses offer concepts and tools for making critical and historically informed analyses of the tragedies we are grappling with today. Our courses explore the cultural history of science, technology, and medicine - why do they look the way they do? What factors have shaped the development of scientific, technological, and medical knowledge? Who has this knowledge served? Who has this knowledge harmed? Our courses explore the history of epidemics, humanitarianism and global health, race science, data-driven technologies, environmental movements, and other topics. They offer broad and diverse perspectives from which to engage the structural problems we face locally, nationally, and globally. If you are looking for courses that explain how we got here, where we are, and give you tools to imagine where you want to go next, consider joining us this year.




HSOC150: American Health Policy. This course places the success or failure of specific pieces of U.S. health care legislation into social and political context. Students investigate how late 19th- and 20th-century U.S. health care policies both reflected and shaped social relations based on race, class, gender, disability, and age. Specific themes include: U.S. health policy and structural racism; U.S. health policy, class formation, & mass media; U.S. health policy, gender, labor, & marriage norms; U.S. health policy & definitions of disability.


HSOC 260: The Social Determinants of Health. This course draws from medical anthropology. social epidemiology, and history to examine evidence and theories about the ways in which income inequality, racism, citizenship laws, and other social and structural factors shape individual and population health in the U.S. Course themes include: individual vs population level analyses; labor, class, and health; institutions, governments, and “biopower”; immigration, citizenship and health; residential segregation, place, and health; racial and ethnic inequality and health; “embodiment” and illness as protest; gender, sexuality, and constructions of “normal” and “abnormal” bodies; and biomedical framing and “risk.”


HSOC 248: Health, Politics, and Social Movements. What is the relationship between health and social movements for race, gender, or political justice? How do political, economic, and social struggles intersect with, impede, or give rise to new demands for health, changing medical practice, or intensified or ameliorated experiences of disease? Recently, such questions have animated news headlines and popular media as responses to COVID have occurred simultaneously with popular protest, social mobilizations, and heated debates regarding race, police violence, and social policy. Moreover, convergences of popular protest, health crises, and health action can be observed in historical accounts and in widely disparate geographical examples. This course asks what such instances have to offer our understandings of health politics today. It explores this through two questions: how have questions of health and medicine been taken up or influenced by political and social movements in diverse historical and geographical spaces? And, how have scholars thought about the relationship between social and political mobilizations and health access and practice? Drawing from examples from around the globe, the course will ask students to master conceptual tools and core questions used to analyze the relationship between health, political mobilizations, and social movements. Course materials will include scholarly readings, news media accounts, films, and popular and fictional writing. 


HSOC 430: Disease and Society. The course explores the major approaches to understanding the relationship between disease and society.  We touch down on specific disease-society relationships,  such as the history of epidemic disease, vaccine controversies, the experience of cancer, HIV/AIDS, globalization, health inequalities, the opioid epidemic, and the centrality of risk in contemporary health ideas and practices. Special attention will be given to examining our experience with the current COVID-19 epidemic through comparison with past developments.




HSOC/STSC 219: Race, Science, and Globalization. This course examines how the practice of sorting humans into distinct races is connected to the rise of modern science and to the economic globalization sparked by Columbus’ arrival in the Americas in 1492. By examining the trajectory of race in science from the Iberian conquest of the Americas until the present, we will examine the ways in which colonial logics and structures persist into the present and the ways they’ve been disrupted by various revolutionary, anti-colonial, and anti-racist movements. Along the way, we will observe how cultural ideas about race have been woven into the conceptual fabric of modern scientific disciplines such as anthropology, biology, psychology, and sociology and how these disciplines have sought to redeem themselves from their racist pasts. 


STSC 289: Technologies of Self and Society. As European empires expanded in the late eighteenth century, “social science” began to emerge in the lexicons of Western societies. Since these early beginnings in European imperialism, the social sciences have sought to represent, alter, and govern human existence while struggling to define “society” as something separate from “nature”. This class examines how questions concerning the proper management of self and society are central to the ambitions and dilemmas of modern social sciences. We begin by tracing the origins of social science in late-eighteenth century thought and their professionalization in the nineteenth century. Continuing through to the twentieth century, we will observe how core social science disciplines like sociology, anthropology, and psychology attempted - in the name of anti-racism - to carve out distinct niches in opposition to biology and genetics. The course also examines the dramatic growth of the social sciences during the cold war period thanks to military funds. Our examination of cold war social science will focus on how social scientists began carving up the world into different “area” of study and how they became increasingly oriented towards re-making individual psyches and societies in the “third world” to fit the image of an industrialized “West”. The course will conclude by examining calls from indigenous scholars and scholars in the global South to decolonize social science. 


HSOC 452: Race and Medicine in America. Race has been, and remains, a central issue to the delivery and experience of healthcare in America. This course will explore a variety of issues and case studies to examine how the patient-doctor relationship has been negotiated, defined, and contested upon the basis of race. Although this is taught as a Capstone course, no prior research experience is required or expected. This course is designed to further develop students’ research, analytical and writing skills in a collaborative atmosphere.




STSC 003: Technology and Society. Technology plays an increasing role in our understandings of ourselves, our communities, and our societies, in how we think about politics and war, science and religion, work and play. Humans have made and used technologies, though, for thousands if not millions of years. In this course, we will use this history as a resource to understand how technologies affect social relations, and conversely how the culture of a society shapes the technologies it produces. Do different technologies produce or result from different economic systems like feudalism, capitalism, and communism? Can specific technologies promote democratic or authoritarian politics? Do they suggest or enforce different patterns of race, class, or gender relations? Among the technologies we’ll consider will be large objects like cathedrals, bridges, and airplanes; small ones like guns, clocks, and birth control pills, and networks like the electrical grid, the highway system, and the internet. 


STSC168: Environment and Society. An examination of the social, cultural, and historical roots of today’s environmental challenges. Topics include science, colonialism, and environmental change; slavery and industrialization; race, gender, and urban reform; environmental health and health disparities; movements for environmental justice, including anti-racist environmentalism and indigenous land rights activism. 


STSC 160: The Information Age. Certain new technologies are greeted with claims that, for good or ill, they must transform our society. The two most recent: the computer and the Internet. But the series of social, economic, and technological development that underlie what is often called the Information Revolution include much more than just the computer. In this course, we explore the history of information technology and its role in contemporary society. We will explore both the technologies themselves -- calculating machines, punched card tabulators, telegraph and telephone networks, differential analyzers, digital computers, and many others -- and their larger social, economic, and political contexts. The crucial and contested character of information circulation and data collection that emerge from these histories have never been clearer than in this moment.