Social Studies

It's Just Like Grade School!

When you try to explain your concentration to outsiders, be prepared to face these these scenarios:

Scenario 1:

“So what’s your major?”

“Social Studies.”

“But you’re in college now, aren’t you?”

Scenario 2:

“Well now, what are you majoring in?”

“Um, Social Studies.”

“What’d you say? Sociology…?”

Scenario 3:

“So what are you studying?”

“Soc…um, Government.”

“Oh, how nice.”

For those who can never decide anything and want to take everything, take Social Studies. For those who don’t know what they want to do with their life or academic career at Harvard and for those who think a discipline is too constricting, dive into the interdisciplinary muddle that is the Social Studies concentration.

Rumor has it among some tutorial leaders and students that a bunch of left-wing profs in the 60s invented this concentration, which was then banished to the Quad so as to distance its leftist undertones from the school. (If you’re going to be in a River house, major in Gov. Just do it. You’ll resent the trek to the Quad just to get your study cards signed.) Now that radicalism (at least in America) has fallen out of fashion, it seems that Social Studies has been searching for its soul ever since. A committee review this year found that Social Studies needs a major overhaul—more senior faculty, modernization of the concentration tracks system, more contemporary readings—but that hasn’t happened yet, and it may never at this pace. Social Studies is on a plateau right now, maybe even heading towards a downward slope. It has become a complacent concentration—waiting for good students who flock to it. A supposed complaint from Gov is that Social Studies takes the good students away. But sooner or later, its stalled reforms will catch up with it.

Moreover, don’t take Social Studies if you want the school’s attention or spotlight. Despite being the fifth largest concentration, it still suffers from a lack of faculty and funding (maybe that’s why it’s still banished to the Quad). You’ll never meet the famous profs who supposedly belong to the committee that steers Social Studies—the Michael Sandel’s and company. Actually you probably won’t know they’re on the steering committee or that there is even a steering committee. For all practical purposes, Anya Bernstein (the Dean of Undergraduate Studies) is the face of Social Studies. If you’re lucky, you’ll come across Professors Michael Hiscox, Steven Levitsky, and Peter Gordon, who’ll all single-handedly make Social Studies worth your time and sweat. Did we mention that Social Studies cannot have its own tenured faculty since it is not a department but a committee? If you have any hopes that Social Studies will ever become a real department, let them go now.

But if you’ve decided that Social Studies is the way to go, you’ll soon realize that it has an application. Don’t sweat it, but don’t apply just for the sake of applying either. It’s meant to weed out only a few, and those initially rejected can usually talk their way in. Oh yeah, writing skills might help.

It’s often a crapshoot whether you’ll get to be in the vicinity of a senior or junior faculty member or a lecturer or post-doc. Like profs, post-docs act as sophomore and junior tutorial leaders and can be either exceedingly good or exceedingly bad. Let the risk-averse take note. It’s often arbitrary whether you’ll get a good or bad draw (either the sophomore tutorial with a fantabulous tutorial leader or the junior tutorial you badly want to take), but the good can be very good and the bad can yield horrendous results. You can get an adviser who’s a professor, or someone who actually spends most of the semester in another state doing research. You may also get no advising worth speaking of, which, as compared to Ec or other large concentrations, may not be that different (though Soc Studies doesn’t have Ec’s excuse of being an enormous department). And you won’t get nice receptions in hotels like the History of Science peeps.

For all its philosophical ideals (unifying knowledge rather than splitting it into different narrow disciplines), Social Studies could better be known as “you can take any Gov, History, Ec, Soc, or Anthro course.” But that does not mean there aren’t a lot of requirements, which can be exceedingly annoying for people who don’t like theory or Cores. In most cases, you still have to take the Core areas you’re exempt from. Exempt from Social Analysis? Oops, you still have to take Ec10. Exempt from QR? Actually, Stats is a concentration requirement. But those who are truly meant for Social Studies will essentially be taking all the classes they want, none they don’t want, and fulfill all the requirements without knowing it.

Despite its rep, Social Studies 10’s workload isn’t that bad. You can still b.s. your way through tutorial without doing all the reading. But a word of warning: you’ll come across people in the concentration who are very intense. They actually do all the reading, but most people get an A- or B+ anyways. Junior tutorials are supposed to prepare you for the thesis, but really, you’ll get no advising on your thesis unless you’re especially lucky or live in the Quad and visit Anya Bernstein often.

Come second semester of junior year, you may be hard-pressed to find a thesis adviser. Generally you need to venture to other departments and compete with the students who are actually in them to fish for thesis advisers. (The lucky few will get a tutorial leader whose specialized field is right up their alley.) Students choose to focus their thesis on theory or field research abroad (developing countries seem popular). Either way, your research topic still needs to be of high theoretical, not just personal, interest (read: challenge, revise, engage, prove existing theories or devise your own).

Most importantly, if you don’t like theory—and you don’t like the look of that weird platypus mascot—don’t take Social Studies.