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Unit information: Rationality and Absurdity in 2020/21

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Unit name Rationality and Absurdity
Unit code SOCIM0033
Credit points 20
Level of study M/7
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 2 (weeks 13 - 24)
Unit director Dr. Downer
Open unit status Not open




School/department School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies
Faculty Faculty of Social Sciences and Law


The notion of rationality is often viewed as the defining characteristic of modernity: implicated in everything from advances in science, technology and medicine, to the rise of bureaucratic accountability and neoliberal economics. For all its triumphs, however, the notion of rationality is less straightforward than we sometimes imagine, and the world we are creating in its image is not without its doubters and discontents. It is increasingly evident that ‘rational’ can mean different things to different people, for instance, and insofar as vaccines and the internet were born of rationality, then so too were atomic weapons and global warming. The goal of this unit is to explore the ‘dark side’ of rationality: its limitations, costs and perverse consequences. Drawing on a range of critical literatures and an eclectic set of case studies, the unit will illustrate how rational means can sometimes have irrational ends, and how well-meaning goals can have hidden social costs.


  • To outline key theoretical and methodological debates around rationality, objectivity, agency, and alienation.
  • To facilitate a critical engagement with the range of contemporary scientific, economic and political developments.
  • To enable an analytical approach to various aspects of scientific, economic, and political life and, through it, stimulate a critical awareness of their social repercussions.

Intended learning outcomes

On successful completion of the unit, students will be able to:

1. Think critically about of the role of rationality and objectivity, and how they shape modernity;

2. Identify key analytic concerns pertaining to the role of rationality in the contemporary society

3. Critically engage with contemporary debates and issues related to scientific, economic and political rationality.

4. Take theoretical ideas outlined in the unit and apply them in student-led explorations, especially empirical explorations of various scientific, economic and political issues.

Teaching details

The unit will be taught through blended learning methods, including a mix of synchronous and asynchronous teaching activities

Assessment Details

Formative assessment (0%) - 1500 word essay.

Summative assessment (100%) - 3,500 word essay.

All assessments cover all ILOs

Reading and References

  • Barnes, B,. Bloor, D. and J. Henry. 1996. Scientific Knowledge. London: Athlone.
  • Graber, D. 2018. The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy. London: Melville House. London.
  • Latour, B. 1993. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Merton, R. K. 1940. “Bureaucratic Structure and Personality” in Social Forces 18: 560-68
  • Power, M. 1997. The Audit Society: Rituals of Verification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.