The Institute on the Formation of Knowledge offers a variety of courses cross-listed with a broad range of departments at the University of Chicago, including History, the Committee on Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science, Comparative Race and Ethnic Studies, Psychology, Sociology, Anthropology, and Comparative Human Development.

Our goal is to prepare students for interdisciplinary PhD study in social science, and for leadership positions at research institutions, government agencies, non-profits, and the private sector. 

During the 2021-22 academic year, our faculty and instructors will offer the following courses: 

Autumn Quarter 2021

Explorations of Mars (Jordan Bimm)

KNOW 36070 HIST 35200, ENST 26070, HIPS 26070

  • Mars is more than a physical object located millions of miles from Earth. Through centuries of knowledge-making people have made the “Red Planet” into a place that looms large in cultural and scientific imagination. Mars is now the primary target for human exploration and colonization in the Solar System. How did this happen? What does this mean? What do we know about Mars, and what’s at stake when we make knowledge about it? Combining perspectives from the social sciences and humanities, this course investigates how knowledge about Mars is created and communicated in not only science and technology fields but across public culture. A major focus will be learning how Mars has been embedded within diverse social and political projects here on Earth. Through reading-inspired group discussions and instructor-led experiential research projects, the course will move from the earliest visual observations of Mars to recent robotic missions on the planet’s surface. In doing so, this seminar will critically grapple with evolving human efforts to make Mars usable. 


Technologies of Race Making (Iris Clever)

KNOW 32012 / 22012 CRES 32012, SOCI 30325, HIPS 22012/CHSS 32012, ANTH 33336

  • This course considers the intersections between technology, science, and race. It explores how technologies have been developed and used to assign racial meaning to people's identities and bodies and how this has impacted economic, political, and social power structures. We will read studies relating to historical and present-day technologies and discuss topics such as racial science, phrenology, biometry, surveillance and policing, artificial intelligence and automation, and data production and reuse. A major theme that runs through the course is the practice of race-making, how biological race is enacted and made relevant in specific technological practices. Which assumptions and expectations about human variation are built into the technologies? What are the effects of its use in practice? How does race making configure into more durable forms, such as standards, databanks, and protocols?


Christianity and Slavery in America, 1619-1865 (Curtis Evans)

HCHR 42901, HIST 47102, RAME 42901, KNOW 42901

  • This seminar will examine the relationship between Christian thought and the practice of slavery as they evolved historically, especially in the context of European enslavement of peoples of African descent in the colonies of British North America and in the antebellum South. Emphasis will be placed on the ways in which Christianity functioned as an ideological justification of the institution of slavery and an amelioration of practices deemed abusive within slave societies. The following questions will be addressed in some form: Why did some Christians oppose slavery at a specific time and in a particular historical context? In other words, why did slavery become a moral problem for an influential though minority segment of the United States by the early 19th century? What was the process by which and why did white evangelical Christians, especially in the South, become the most prominent defenders of slavery as it was increasingly confined to the South? What were some of the consequences of debates about slavery in regard to efforts to engage broader social reform? What role did race play in the historical development of slavery? How did people of African descent shape and practice Christianity in British North America and the Southern States of the United States? Although our focus is on what became the United States of America, we also linger on discussions about the broader international dimensions of slavery and slavery's importance in the development of the Americas.


Classical Theories of Religion (Christian Wedemeyer)

AASR 32900, HREL 32900, KNOW 35005

  • This course will survey the development of theoretical perspectives on religion and religions in the 19th and 20th centuries and the institutional and historical contexts within which they developed. Thinkers to be studied include Kant, Hume, Schleiermacher, Feuerbach, Marx, Muller, Tiele, Tylor, Robertson Smith, Frazer, Durkheim, Weber, Freud, James, Otto, van der Leeuw, Wach, and Eliade. ​


The History of Capitalism in India (Elizabeth Chatterjee)

HIST 26805/36805, SALC 36805, KNOW 36805

  • This discussion-based, seminar-style course explores the trajectory of capitalism in India from the late colonial period to the present. How should we understand colonial India’s place in the global history of capitalism? What was the relationship between postcolonial economic planning and changing class politics in the decades after independence in 1947? Finally, has India begun to converge upon a global paradigm of neoliberalism since the 1980s? As part of this course, we will read classic texts of Indian political economy, analyzing how both the theory and practice of capitalism in the region challenge Western-centered histories.


Winter Quarter 2022

Formation of Knowledge MAPSS Core: Ways of Knowing (Katherine Buse and Isabel Gabel)*

*"Ways of Knowing" is a required seminar for all students wishing to undertake the Formation of Knowledge MAPSS track 

KNOW 36056, HIST 35103

  • This seminar introduces students to the practices and principles that guide the nascent field of inquiry into the formation of knowledge. “Ways of Knowing” examines how claims to knowledge are shaped by disciplinary, social, historical, and political contexts, as well as local cultural factors both explicit and unspoken. How do we know what we know? How have cultures and scholars contested, reconfigured, and defamiliarized accepted claims to knowledge? Building on social science perspectives and methods, this course will explore the formation of knowledge through key historical, sociological, and anthropological case studies. Furthermore, the course will take an expansive approach to knowledge formation by considering the interface of theory, practice, and social action. "Ways of Knowing" is a required seminar for all students wishing to undertake the Formation of Knowledge MAPSS track and also counts towards the MAPSS graduate methods requirement.


Knowing Animals (Bradley Bolman)

KNOW 36071, HIST 35102

  • “What is an animal, and are we them?” In “Knowing Animals,” we will approach this deceptively simple question from multiple angles, exploring the diverse ways that humans come to know and differentiate themselves from other animals and the implications of that labor. How can we understand and write about the lived experience of a bat, an octopus, or a hawk? Who decides which species are essential to experimental science, and which are simply edible? Why do we buy canine pharmaceuticals or construct tiger preserves in Oklahoma? The course will explore how hunting, eating, petkeeping, labor, experimentation, and cohabitation with animals contribute to the formation of knowledge. We will draw on scholarship in history, cultural anthropology, philosophy, and critical theory, as well as novels and films in order to do so. The course is meant to serve in part as an introduction to the topics and methods of animal history and animal studies, so we will read foundational texts as well as recent scholarship on the intersections of animality, capital, disability, gender, and race. Students will leave with core competencies in the field as well as—hopefully—a deeper sense of what it means to be human. 


The Scientist in the Nineteenth-Centure Imagination

KNOW 36088

  • The nineteenth century saw both the professionalization of science and the specialization of its practitioners. In this age of “human empire” produced by industrialization, new technologies offered humanity unprecedented dominion over the natural world, and the “scientist,” a term coined in 1834, marked the advent of the idea of a vocation dedicated to that mastery. Moreover, by the end of the century, the natural philosophers and polymaths of earlier ages had given way to chemists, physicists, biologists, and statisticians, whose scope of study was necessarily both deeper and narrower. These developments produced a new social and political positioning for the scientist – an expert, an authority, a wielder of power. This class explores how nineteenth-century fiction writers, from Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe to Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle, engaged with these emerging and transforming conceptualizations of the scientist figure. We will pair our literary explorations with non-fiction readings texts by thinkers and scientists such as Humphry Davy, Karl Pearson, Claude Bernard, William Whewell, and Max Weber (“Science as Vocation”) about what the scientist should be and science should do. Additionally, we’ll consider how this literary genealogy influences both our fictional portrayal of science to this day as well as our perceptions of it – from our contemporary distrust of expertise to our fear of the scientist playing god. This course fulfills the elective requirement for a new MAPSS concentration on the Formation of Knowledge


Scientific and Humanistic Contributions to Knowledge Formation (Dario Maestripieri)

CHDV47015, KNOW 47015

  • In this course, we will explore whether the sciences and the humanities can make complementary contributions to the formation of knowledge, thus leading to the integration and unification of human  knowledge. In the first part of the course we will take a historical approach to the issue; we will discuss how art and science were considered complementary for much of the 18th and 19th century (for example, in the views and work of Wolfgang Goethe), how they became separate (‘the two cultures’) in the  middle of the 20th century with the compartmentalization of academic disciplines, and how some attempts have recently been made at a reunification under the concept of ‘consilience’. In the second part of the course, we will focus on conceptual issues such as the cognitive value of literature, the role of ideas in knowledge formation in science and literature, the role of creativity in scientific and literary production, and how scientific and philosophical ideas have been incorporated into literary fiction in the genre known as ‘the novel of ideas’. As an example of the latter, we will read the novel ‘One, No One,  and 100,000’ (1926) by Luigi Pirandello and discuss how this author elaborated and articulated a view  of the human persona (including issues of identity and personality) from French philosophers and  psychologists such as Henri Bergson and Alfred Binet. 


Britain in the Age of Steam, 1783–1914 (F. Albritton Jonsson)

HIST 31404/21404, KNOW 31410

  • In the Victorian era, Britain rose to global dominance by pioneering a new fossil-fuel economy. This course explores the profound impact of coal and steam on every aspect of Victorian society, from politics and religion to industrial capitalism and the pursuit of empire. Such historical investigation also serves a second purpose by helping us see our own fossil-fuel economy with fresh eyes through direct comparison with Victorian energy use. Assignments include short essays based on energy "field work" and explorations in past and present material culture.


Sociology of urban planning: cities, territories, environments (Neil Brenner)


  • This course provides a high-intensity introduction to the sociology of urban planning under modern capitalism.  Building upon an interdisciplinary literature drawn from urban sociology, planning theory and history as well as urban social science and environmental studies, we explore the emergence, development and continual transformation of urban planning in relation to changing configurations of capitalist urbanization, modern state power, sociopolitical insurgency and environmental crisis.  Following an initial exploration of divergent conceptualizations of “planning,” the “city” and “urbanization,” we investigate (a) the changing sites and targets of planning intervention; (b) the evolution of political and institutional struggles regarding the instruments, goals and constituencies of planning; (c) the contradictory connections between planning and diverse configurations of inequality, power and domination in modern society (including class, race, gender and sexuality); and (d) the question of whether and how planning strategies might help produce alternative (more socially just and environmentally sane) forms of urbanization.


Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Morality

PSYCH 33165/23165, KNOW 33165

  • Morality is essential for societal functioning and central to human flourishing.  People across all cultures seem to have the same sense about morality.  They simply know what morality is, often without being able to concretely define what exactly it means to label something as a moral kind.  But when one tries to more precisely and scientifically define what morality is, things become less clear and more complex.  As we’ll see in the class, the field of morality is incredibly dynamic, and characterized more by competing theories and perspectives than by scientific consensus.  Some research has worked deductively, starting with a theoretical definition (like the moral foundation theory) to generate hypotheses.  Other research has taken a more inductive approach, starting with lay people’s perception of morality.   The past decades have seen an explosion of theoretical empirical research in the study of morality.  Amongst the most exciting and novel findings and theories, evolutionary biologists and anthropologists have shown that morality has evolved to facilitate cooperation and social interactions.  Developmental psychologists came up with ingenious paradigms, demonstrating that some elements underpinning morality are in place much earlier than we thought in preverbal infants.  Social psychologists and behavioral economists examine the relative roles of emotion and reasoning, as well as how social situations affect moral or amoral behavior. Social neuroscientists are mapping brain mechanisms implicated in moral decision-making.  The lesson from all this new knowledge is clear: human moral cognition and behavior cannot be separated from biology, its development, culture and social context.


Spring Quarter 2022

KNOW 36077

The Crisis of Expertise (Tal Arbel)

  • In recent years, there has been intensive talk about an unfolding “crisis of expertise” in liberal-democratic societies. Along with attacks on the credibility of scientific knowledge, technical experts are seen as detached elites whose impartiality is questionable and whose motivations can no longer be trusted. As British MP Michael Gove stated just before the Brexit referendum: “the people of this country have had enough of experts.” The COVID-19 pandemic poses a particularly difficult challenge to the authority of scientists, doctors and other experts, and has raised tough questions about the place of expertise in our lives. What are the consequences of deferring to experts in political decision-making and policy design? Does this leave room for other priorities? For different views of health and wellbeing? Who has the right to assess risks and calculate costs? This course examines the historical roots of our expert culture and deals with the causes and processes that led to the loss of public trust in professional advice as it manifests itself in phenomena such as resistance to vaccines, climate change denial, and dismissive treatment of economists and other fiscal experts. 

During the 2020–21 academic year, our faculty offered the following courses:

Autumn 2020

Winter 2021

Spring 2021

A selection of previous courses offered at The Institute on the Formation of Knowledge include:

Return to MAPSS Concentration on the Formation of Knowledge Home